The Psych Central Report

Get Out of the Relationship Routine

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.
July/August 2005

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Sometimes it’s hard to see the forest through the trees when you’re in a relationship. Once a relationship has been established and you’re past the ‘falling in love’ stage, most people move fairly quickly into the routine stage. It doesn’t matter if you’re 20 or 40, the patterns are easy to spot—you spend a lot of time over each other’s place, after a year or so of doing that (and getting tired of lugging clothes and laundry back and forth), one of you comes up with the brilliant of idea, “Hey, let’s move in together!”

It seems sensible to most people who consider the idea, especially if the relationship has been going smoothly. Before you know it, one year turns to four, and you’ve spent a good part of your life with someone without ever really considering many core issues, such as compatibility, personality match, temperament, family background, sense of humor, income (or income potential), life goals, etc.

Certainly some of that may have come up (and gone away) in the initial phase of the relationship. But did you and your significant other ever really spend much time in the past month or even the past year talking about something of large significance to you? I’m not talking about preferred brand of laundry detergent here, I’m talking about what makes you tick, whether the relationship is truly meeting your (and your significant others’ needs), and what the future holds for the two of you.

Surprisingly, few couples actually talk about the most important things in their relationship once they’re together.

Routines make the world go around

All humans expend an exceptional part of their day in a routine. Whether it be school, university, a job, staying at home, whatever. Routines are powerful forces that most people take a lot of comfort in (even when they don’t realize it). They serve many purposes, including helping us compartmentalize our day so that we can separate Serious Student from Fun Loving Party Guy. They also reduce our stress levels, because we know what’s coming for the day—wake up, eat breakfast, shower, get dressed, go to class or work, come home, decompress, find dinner, hang with friends, watch some TV, go to sleep and do it all over again tomorrow. That familiarity brings many people happiness and comfort.

But routines also allow many of us to get lazy. Lazy in our thinking, lazy in our relationships, and lazy in the expectations we set for ourselves. Routines lead to expectations—expecting that the way things were yesterday is the way things will be today and the way things will be tomorrow. There’s nothing inherently wrong or bad with expectations, only that others don’t always know what yours are (and most people are pretty bad at verbalizing them).

Routines and expectations cannot be avoided because they are a core part of what makes most people tick. Most people need a certain amount of routine in their lives (although the exact amount may vary), and most people will have expectations of others in their lives (especially those they are close to).

Kicking the routine in your relationship

So if you’re resigned to being human this month, how do you kick the routine out of your relationship and find a way to be more genuine and real with your significant other?

First, accept that most routines serve an important purpose and your goal is not to do away with them just for the sake of change. Rather, take a few moments to examine and recognize the routines within your life. Sit down with a piece of paper and pencil, and write out your daily weekday and weekend routines. Note specifically how much time you spend on things like watching TV or doing other non-interactive activities. Why? One of the largest complaints people have when asked to make changes in their life is that they “don’t have the time.” Truth is, most people have plenty of time. They just choose to spend it engaged in other activities.

Second, write down the most significant things that are important to your life now, and what you think are important to you in the future. Sometimes we lose sight of the things that are truly important to us. Sure, it would be nice to own a BMW someday, but in the grand scheme of things, is really what you’re living your life for? Or is it something less material and more difficult to define?? Someone who understands you, listens to you, supports you no matter what? Search your heart and soul for those answers, and I think you’ll find some will easily enough.

Third, look at your list of weekday and weekend routines and notice where and how your significant other is involved in activities with you. Eating a meal together is fine, and so is a “date night” once a week devoted only to each other. But are there other times in your life that you’ve set aside for this person you think you’re spending so much time with? “Living with someone” really isn’t spending time with that person.

Fourth, re-arrange your routine to include your significant other more often. Maybe it’s taking another meal with them, or scheduling some downtime before you go to sleep to connect with one another and share the day’s trials and tribulations. It can be whatever you want it to be, though. Even just silently being in one another’s company is enough for some couples, but it may not be enough for you. If that’s the case, you’re going to have to figure out a way of communicating that need to your significant other.

Last, take the time this week to find a way to share with your significant other some of those things that are most important to you in your life right now, and what you want out of life in the future. This may be the hardest thing to do, but it’s also the most important. Sometimes we lose sight of the bigger picture of a relationship—to live and grow together—because we’re bogged down in living out the details.

Details are fine for daily living, but we also must remind ourselves to move beyond the details. To live life is not to live as a static, unchanging rock. Rather it is to grow, not only in age, but in our hearts and our souls. If we’ve chosen to share our lives with another, we have to make the effort to include that person in our growth, so they are sharing the journey with us (and are not there merely along for the ride). Relationships at their best are true partnerships, where both individuals are fostering not only their own growth, but their partner’s as well.

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 27 Jun 2005
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No matter how far you have gone on the wrong road, turn back.
-- Turkish proverb