This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 16 table of contents.

Exploring the Depths

One study followed 200 college-age couples over a two-year period (Hill, Rubin, & Peplau, 1976). All the couples were dating steadily and said they were in love at the beginning of the study. After two years, 45% were no longer together. The leading cause of break-ups, according to both males and females, was becoming bored with the relationship. This was cited as a factor by 77% of those who broke up.

What factor was cited by 77% of people who broke up? How can couples avoid becoming bored with each other?

Many students know from personal experience that romantic interest can turn into boredom. Some students ask a penetrating question. How do you avoid getting bored? Isn't it inevitable? Here the research data is actually encouraging. Boredom is not an inevitable outcome of a long relationship. For example, Lauer and Lauer (1985) found that many of their 300 happily married couples were more interested in their spouses after a 15-year period. They interacted in complex ways. They felt that they shared humor, philosophy, life goals, and stimulating ideas. Perhaps this is the secret. One avoids boredom by cultivating complexity and depth in a relationship. This is the factor called intimacy by Sternberg.

The hedgehog theory of Edward L. Walker, discussed in Chapter 9 (Motivation), is relevant here. Walker pointed out that people prefer stimuli of moderate complexity, neither chaotic nor simple, but moderately challenging. This applies to relationships as well. A chaotic, unpredictable relationship is aversive. So is a boring, predictable, unstimulating relationship. Fortunately, humans are inherently deep. By opening up to each other and exploring these depths, a couple can continually add complexity to their conversations and other interactions. This maintains interest and enthusiasm in the relationship, particularly if there are other good things (such as love, sex, or children) happening as well.

This does not mean that happily married couples spend all their free time in rapt fascination of each other's conversation. However, they communicate well about the things that matter most, enjoy each other's company, share basic values, and tolerate each other's oddities.

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