Break Out of Your Relationship Ruts
A Conflict Rut
How to recognize it: You argue about the same things all the time and find yourself avoiding entire subjects because they trigger fights.
How to bust out of it: Take a vacation from the conflict at hand. "Tell your partner that the way you fight isn't working and you both need to take time off from talking about the issue," says psychologist Howard Markman. Put it aside for a few days and force yourselves as a couple to do things that you both love. (It's hard, but try.) Meanwhile, think about what's really bothering you: If you fight about chores or tardiness, consider whether a desire for respect or control is at the crux of it. After the break, set a time to talk about the issue, but don't try to resolve it. Take turns talking and listening to each other's points of view to understand what's at the root of the problem for each of you. "About 70 percent of small conflicts―about money, household tasks, in-laws―don't need to be resolved," says Markman. "Both people just want to be heard, and they need to stop fighting destructively for that to happen."
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A Daily-Grind Rut
How to recognize it: Day-to-day duties have you both acting like drones, and your relationship is droning along, too. You're so drained by all the demands on you, you can't think about the future.
How to bust out of it: Even if it seems as if there's no end in sight to work and chores and errands, it may help to swap fantasies. Share your daydreams about what life will be like when you no longer have that debt hanging over your heads, when the kids are more independent, or when you've passed through a mini challenge, like moving. Ask yourselves where you will travel when life gets easier (Texas? Tahiti?) or what hobbies you have let slide that you want to take up again. "Seeing that light at the end of the tunnel offers hope to you as individuals and to your relationship," says psychologist Dorothy Cantor. Comparing your wish lists for the next months or years "also provides a reminder that you won't be dealing with this grind forever and reaffirms that you want to get through this together, which strengthens your bond."
A Sexual Rut
How to recognize it: Sex has become just another chore to check off your to-do list. Even when you do get around to it, the sizzle has clearly begun to fizzle.
How to bust out of it: Participating in adventurous, thrilling activities outside the bedroom (a trip to an amusement park, motorcycle riding, surfing lessons) with your other half can spice things up. Research conducted at Stony Brook University, in Stony Brook, New York, found that engaging in novel, arousing activities with a partner can reignite that giddy early sensation of being in love. If you both find sailing or water-skiing exciting, for example, "that rushlike feeling can carry over into bed, because adrenaline doesn't know where to land," explains psychologist Lonnie Barbach. "You can even restimulate those feelings by talking about the experience." Not a daredevil? It may sound clichéd, but breaking out of a sexual rut can be as simple as having sex in a different room, giving each other a massage, or listening to music that puts you in an amorous mood.
A Communication Rut
How to recognize it: One sign is that you're talking too much. Really. When you spend years talking to someone using the same language and inflections, they may tune out easily. In response, you talk even more to try to get your point across.
How to bust out of it: Surprise! Don't talk so much. Do things together instead. Go for a bike ride; hit that new restaurant; cuddle on the couch. You don't have to announce that you feel as if you're in a rut. Just say, "We should start going for bike rides after dinner again. I love doing that with you, and we haven't done it in weeks." By doing things you both enjoy, you'll enhance the connection between you, which can improve communication. "When couples feel connected, men want to talk more and women need to talk less," says marriage therapist Steven Stosny. "So they meet somewhere in the middle." One thing you can do to make him feel more at ease when you do talk: Reach out and touch him, says neuropsychiatrist Louann Brizendine. Being touched brings on a surge of oxytocin, the calming and social-bonding hormone.
A Financial Rut
How to recognize it: You're a saver; he's a spender―or vice versa. So you never seem to meet your financial aspirations.
How to bust out of it: Set financial goals together by putting your cards on the table, literally. Separately, jot down your top three to five financial goals on index cards. Then go through the pile together and take turns explaining why each item matters to you. Don't interrupt each other, no matter how much you disagree. After you've gone through every point, says financial planner Mary Claire Allvine, "identify your top three to five goals as a couple. Rank them in order of priority, then put the others aside." The next step is to devise a plan so that after you pay your bills each month, you designate money to meet your goals in order of their priority. Together, decide what trade-offs you're willing to make―fewer dinners out, for example―for that to happen. "Once you make your goals explicit and start saving or paying off debt, the dollars start to fall in line where they should," says Allvine.
A Romantic Rut
How to recognize it: Date night? What's that? That thing you replaced with "Your turn to bathe the kids" night or "I'm working late again" night.
How to bust out of it: You know how to schedule, so don't forget to make an appointment with your partner. Pick nights or weekends you both agree on, and take turns planning outings. Simply tell the other person what clothes to have ready. (And have fun with it. Going skiing? Have him throw in his swimsuit and goggles to keep him on his toes.) It doesn't have to be a grand plan: Start a book club―with just the two of you as members. Or have a romantic candlelit dinner with pizza, beer, and ice cream instead of fancy food. What shouldn't you do? Hound him about how unromantic he is. It will probably backfire. If you're feeling underromanced, set an example by doing the things for him that you wish he would do for you, like buying him flowers, advises psychologist Steve Brody: "If you wish he would kiss you passionately when he walks in the door, go up and plant one on him―he'll respond!"
The Can't-Close-the-Deal Rut
You're ready to take your relationship to the next level―to move in together, get married, or have a baby―but your partner won't make that commitment. You love each other, but should you just end it? Psychologist Howard Markman, who runs relationship workshops (loveyourrelationship.com), offers four steps to help you decide.
1. Ask yourself if your relationship is healthy. Do you handle conflict well? Do you have fun together? Is your relationship sensually or sexually satisfying? Are you both faithful and dedicated to it? "If all those components are in place, you're ready to move forward," Markman says. If not, try counseling or a relationship class.
2. Make your views clear. If your partnership checks out OK, talk about what you'd like to see happen next. Then ask your partner to do the same. Hear each other out, then try to talk through any underlying issues. For instance, maybe he's not ready to have a baby because he wants to gain more financial stability first.
3. If you don't reach a resolution in step 2, agree to disagree. But make a plan to revisit the conversation later. The person who is holding the relationship back might end up with more power, which can be a destabilizing force, Markman says. That's why it's best to try to talk through what the underlying issues are in step 2.
4. Decide when time is up. If your relationship is healthy, it's fair to give it another three to six months. At that point, express again how you're feeling and what you want. The relationship could automatically move forward (break open the Champagne!); you might develop a plan of action for how to take the next step (which at least calls for a toast); or one person may make it clear that his feet are firmly planted (cork it). In that case, only you can decide whether it's best to stick with the person or part ways. If you do the latter, says Markman, "end it as cleanly, openly, and honestly as you can and move forward with your life."