The two foes of human happiness are pain and boredom. —Arthur Schopenhauer
While in health care, I (Rich) had the opportunity to hire two men for supervisory positions. One had 15 years of experience leading at a major medical center. The other had 5 years of experience at a local hospital. Within a year it became apparent that the person with 5 years really had 5 years of experience while the person with the 15 years really had only 1 year repeated 15 times. Marriage is like this: those who experience the least amount of happiness are often those who have merely repeated the moments.
The Monotony Malady
Alex and Cassandra express the feelings of many of the couples we’ve counseled through the years.
“We get up, go to work, come home, watch TV or hang with family or friends and then start it all over again. Our marriage feels more like a routine than a relationship. How do we get back what we had?”
Sometimes marriage feels more like a routine than a relationship.
Some couples self-diagnose and try to reduce the boredom by changing parts of their routines. They might volunteer or pick up a new hobby or study something new. This works for a time, and Rich and I have suggested this to many couples – but never without addressing the deeper issue. We’ve learned through the years that the problem is not what’s in the routine, it’s what isn’t.
The Culture of Convenience
Like so many couples, Alex and Cassandra have traded the on-going commitments that make a relationship engaging for the comforts championed by a culture of convenience. Ironically, it’s often the life of ease that creates the most need for work. Boredom produces a disconnect in our relationships – especially our marriages. When we trade away the most important aspects of life for the comforts marketed by our culture, we buy into a world system that doesn’t fit who we are in Christ.
What we hope ever to do with ease, we must learn first to do with diligence. —Samuel Johnson
Transforming the Tedium
When we campout in the couch of convenience, the relational rut of repetition gets deeper and deeper until we look at all the fun that is happening in the human terrain and realize we’re not enjoying it because we can’t get out of where we are. Boredom can slowly metastasize its way through a marriage. As pastors, Marty and I are tired of hearing that “irreconcilable differences” led to another divorce. That’s rarely the case. The raw statistics and focus group data reveal that when most people change partners, their back stories simply end up bleeding across the pages into the new relationship, resulting in the same boredom later on. It’s not the irreconcilable differences; it’s the mitosis of the mundane that makes us believe a new partner would “fix everything.” When we allow the damaging cells of redundancy to multiply, we decrease the potential for a healthy relationship.
God desires to produce growth, to change us in ways that matter deeply to us and to His purposes for us. One of the relationships He uses is marriage.
In Song of Songs 7:13, the perceptive bride says, “At our door is every delicacy both new and old, that I have stored up for you, my beloved.” Wives and husbands who “store up” relational delicacies for each other, find the brokenness of the fall, reduced, repaired, and redeemed. We suggest the following:
#1 Store up new ideas – Rich and I (Marty) recommend making a mental note of the clothing items, sporting goods or electronics our spouses pick up more than once. We also recommend watching what our spouses read or which commercials keep their attention. These strategies can help us “store up” new things we can use to surprise our partners and break free from the boredom.
#2 Reintroduce old favorites – Going back through cards, letters and pictures can jog our memories and provide opportunities for us to reignite deep-rooted feelings.
#3 Introduce a new perspective – As the final chapter of the Song of Songs shows us, our marriages are stronger and happier when we view every aspect of who we are (our “vineyards”) as a gift.1 This requires spending time praying through and adopting a redemptive perspective for marriage.2
#4 Commit to crucial conversations – The authors of Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High, explain that we make a choice to either retreat to silence, fight, or effectively communicate. When we choose the later, we enter a new stage of growth and transform the tedium.
#5 Focus on personal change – It is easier for most of us to create a list of needed changes for our spouse than it is to list the changes we need to make in our own behavior. I (Rich) spent the first 10 years of my marriage trying to make LouAnna more like me. When it dawned on me that God wanted me to spend my energy on making myself more like Jesus, it changed our relationship and began to bring the excitement that comes from personal growth back into our marriage.
Work spares us from three evils: boredom, vice, and need. —Voltaire
#6 Start a new hobby together – Alex and Cassandra had spent their marriage eating out and preparing meals in a microwave, until the evening a good friend called and asked if they wanted to join a cooking club. They joined, found a group of new friends, and discovered that they enjoyed cooking together. Being together in the kitchen also created opportunities to talk about all kinds of subjects, including God. The friendship returned, and as they described it laughing, “We experienced a renewed interest in intimacy – the kind we felt when we first fell in love.”
#7 Identify what success looks like – Years ago I had a winning basketball coach express disappointment with his coaching performance. He had twice been selected “coach of the year.” Confused a bit by his inability to acknowledge his own success, I asked,
“What would a winning coach look like?”
He couldn’t answer the question. I explained to him, that until he could visualize what successful coaching looked like, he would never be satisfied. Happiness in our marriages is similar. Until we realistically identify what success looks like, we will never be free to experience the delights God designed.
#8 Celebrate your growth – Although it is usually unwise to attempt to measure growth on a daily or even weekly basis, many spiritual development experts suggest answering the question, how have we grown over the last quarter/year? This concept is supported by Peter who wrote,
For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. —2 Peter 1:8
Properly applied, the phrase “in increasing measure” can help us celebrate the growth we see in each other. Some of the ideas we share with our friends and counselees include:
• Plan a picnic where you write on a paper napkin three character traits (like “kindness”) that you have appreciated recently in your spouse. Share one at a time and talk about why it means so much to you and what recent activities communicated it (i.e. “when you vacuumed the car for me”).
• Place a sticky note in a strategic location (inside the medicine cabinet, on the car mirror) that says, “I’ve appreciated how kind you’ve been to me this week.”
• Surprise your spouse at work for lunch or at the end of the shift (in person or over facetime). All you need is a smile.
• Purchase a related gift/card that communicates something like, “because your kindness has made my world a better place, I wanted you to have this ________________________ [stuffed animal/fishing lure/card, etc.]”
Boredom changes how we view each other. We blame the marriage rather than our lack of effort in promoting “things both new and old.” When we practice the wisdom God placed in His Word, we find the kinds of answers that work: answers that make our marriages magical once more.
1Song of Songs 8:6 and 14. One of God’s desires for marriage is that we “store up” for each other “new and old” romantic gifts so we can experience a love that is “as strong as death.”
2See Redeeming Relationships. Lima, Ohio: CSS Publishing, 2007.