Break out of your relationship ruts

Nato WeltonNato WeltonDo the same problems crop up over and over? Try these expert solutions.

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."

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."

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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.

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