If you've been in a long term relationship, chances are that you've been here before – feeling like roommates, ships passing in the night, business partners, etc etc. It's one of the most common dynamics that we experience in longer relationships, and understandably so – when you've been together for so long, and in many cases have children together, it becomes much more difficult to keep your sights set on your relationship satisfaction and connectedness. So let's explore the roommate phase, what it is and what you can do about it.
Why is this important to talk about?
This might seem obvious, but in many cases a relationship that gets in the roommate phase will take a toll on both the relationship and each person individually, and they won't be able to get out of it by accident. I'm sure there are some relationships that get here & are able to get out of it with relative ease, but for many, many couples that won't be the case; it'll take a lot of effort and work to be able to get back to a satisfying place.
By exploring it, you can recognize when you have this roommate dynamic (being in the roommate phase can be subtle and you only notice after being here for months), how to get out of that place, and what you can do to be proactive and not get here in the first place.
What is the roommate phase?
The roommate phase is most often described as feeling just like... roommates! For most couples this means the disappearance of their special connection – instead of feeling like this is your teammate, the person you can go to for support, connection (emotional and physical), and fun, it feels like they're just someone you live with. You might work "together" to get household tasks done and take care of your children, but it doesn't feel like you're in an intimate relationship with each other. It feels very transactional – you communicate almost exclusively about logistics, and rarely talk about your feelings, like what you're anxious about, what you're looking forward to in the future, or how you feel about each other.
Usually couples in the roommate phase don't get into a lot of fights or arguments, but their relationship has become very limited and not nearly as satisfying and fulfilling as it could be. These couples often don't feel angry, but instead feel rather ambivalent about the relationship. This is also one of the most common reasons for affairs as well, if we start to feel a more special connection develop with someone else in our lives.
The roommate phase can further degrade the relationship to a point where there are a lot of fights and unhappiness, but if it gets to that point it's moved out of the roommate phase to the conflict phase (any suggestions for a more creative name are appreciated).
How do we end up in the roommate phase?
Couples will usually find themselves here because they haven't prioritized their relationship appropriately. This is not surprising because it's incredibly hard to do throughout a long term relationship, and different life transitions / events. Here are a few major factors that lead us here:
This could be the most common reason for why couples end up in the roommate phase. It's often because our focus completely shifts to being parents and taking care of our kids – a sentiment I hear a lot is, we used to go out once a week for a date, but it's been months (or years) since just the two of us went out. Is this understandable? Absolutely! It takes an incredible amount of time and energy (physical, emotional, and mental) to raise a child, and it's very easy for us to get into the trap of prioritizing the family, and neglecting our intimate relationship.
Being together for a long time and getting complacent
When we've been together for years, we're much more likely to go on autopilot. When we're in a new relationship, we'll try our hardest to make the other person feel cared for and satisfied. But as time goes on we might take each other for granted – sure I still care deeply for the other person, but I'm not going out of my way to make them feel loved or cared for. "They should just know that I love them, that should be enough," is another sentiment that I hear. Is this also understandable? Yes! It takes conscious effort to continue to make each other feel loved and cared for.
Having a breakdown in communication
It will be almost impossible to fix any roadblocks we have if we're unable to communicate through them. For many couples this is what keeps them feeling like roommates – one or both will have a problem that's making them feel not as comfortable or open around the other, or issues that are causing resentment and further removing that special feeling. Even if we're not fighting, if I'm not confident we can work through an issue, I just might not bring it up at all. Then this roadblock continues to be between us, not allowing us to move out of the roommate phase.
What is the connected phase?
Not being in the roommate phase, what should that feel like? Feeling like a team, like someone who is your intimate partner. Even if we have kids, I still feel like we make room for being a couple. That could be spending alone time together and just talking, texting each other more intentionally throughout the day or leaving little notes for each other around the house, making time to be physically intimate with each other whether that means cuddling or sex, or going out on a date once every week or two.
Essentially it means that the relationship feels like it's going well. Even if we have disagreements or tiffs here and there, overall we feel like we're on the same page and still have that special connected feeling.
How do we get there?
So if you find yourself in the roommate phase and want to get out of it, and want to stay out of that phase, what can you do?
First, figure out what got you to this place. Is it that you've just not been prioritizing your couple relationship? Are there resentments or sticking points that keep you from feeling comfortable or wanting to relate to each other more intimately?
Then, talk about them with each other. Make space for each other so that both of you can share your perspectives / experiences, and talk through what got you to this place together. This is a crucial step - try your best to not derail into an argument and start blaming each other. If you both are invested in getting out of this phase, work together through the conversation.
Once you've talked through it to understand each other, it's time to think of solutions. Here are a few to think about:
Despite what you have going on in life, carve out time for each other and don't let your relationship go by the wayside. The amount will vary from couple to couple, so figure out how much you need. If you just had a 2-hour span every week that is carved out for each other, would that be enough? Or do you need 30 minutes every day? Figure out what your relationship needs, and stick to it as much as possible. For example, sure, we're both very busy, but we make sure we have 30 minutes just to ourselves at the end of the night where we're engaged.
Take more of an interest in the other person's life
Even though you've been together for years, still genuinely ask the other person how they're doing – not just in a given day, but overall how they are. Ask them what's been on their mind; what they're looking forward to; what they're not feeling great about. Become more curious about the other person and what's going on behind the scenes that isn't obvious to you.
Make bids for connection more often
Every day there are ways to show your spouse that you care about them, you're interested in them, you value them, etc. Think about a few main ways that you could show them that. Is it bringing them a cup of coffee when they're about to get up; is it expressing appreciation for something that they did; is it complimenting their appearance; is it giving them a spontaneous hug or kiss. The main point is that there are a million ways to do this, and the important part is finding a few ways that resonate and are sustainable so that they don't fall off after a week.
Be more physically close
Yes, this could mean having sex more often, but it could also just mean sitting next to each other on the couch instead of opposite sides. Make a conscious effort to have more of a physical connection that both of you enjoy. Does that mean just sitting and holding hands? Does it mean laying down and cuddling? More hugging or kissing? More frequent sex? Again, the specifics don't necessarily matter, what's important is that it enhances your relationship and connection.
Feeling like roommates isn't something to feel ashamed of or blame yourself for – it's an incredibly common dynamic that really can sneak up on us. The important part is to recognize it, get on the same page with your partner, and work together to fix it. Those solutions will be specific to your relationship, so try to get creative. What works for one couple might not work for yours, so ask yourself, what could I do differently to feel like a couple? What could my partner do differently to get us back to feeling special in this relationship?
It's a difficult process and all of this is easier said than done, but moving forward intentionally is setting you both up for success.
Check out the video here: https://youtu.be/vW2z1jSUxus