How to Revitalize Connection in a “Roommate” Marriage

This article is based on scientific evidence and clinical experience, written by a licensed professional and fact-checked by experts.

Marriage

Posted: November 30, 2021

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

You look over at your spouse and you realize the spark is gone in your marriage. A thought occurs to you: “It feels like we are roommates.” This may feel like a surprising revelation or it may feel like something you have known for a long time. The extent of the disconnection can be a range – anywhere from “you are my friend, but I am not romantically attracted to you” all the way to “I feel like I don’t even know who you are.”

If you find yourself in this place, the first thing I want to share is: You are not alone. Couples frequently come into sessions describing their marriages as roommate relationships: disconnected, emotionally distant, and directionless. In this article series, you will find three key areas of connection you can revitalize and strengthen in your relationship.  The focus of this article is on rebuilding an emotional connection and safety with your spouse. You will find practical tools and tips to utilize in order to feel that sense of emotional connection and safety with your spouse again.

How did we get here?

Couples arrive in a state of emotional disconnection through a series of different avenues.

NATURAL PROGRESSION OF A RELATIONSHIP
During the time when you are dating and pursuing your partner, your brain experiences a release of testosterone (yes, for men and women) and dopamine. These brain chemicals provide a sense of motivation, excitement, and give us that good “in love” feeling. Depending on your relationship history, these neurochemicals fade over time, and oxytocin takes over the show. Oxytocin creates a sense of stability. Sometimes couples describe wanting to feel that wild, passionate “in love” feeling, and begin to wonder if they have fallen out of love with their partners when they realize they no longer experience the level of intensity they used to. It is important to know that it is normal for the intensity to fade over time.  Through the use of fMRIs, Fisher (2009) studied people in different stages of relationship and found the brain chemistry changes as people move from each stage to the next. Testosterone stimulates sexual desire early in the relationship, dopamine motivates people to focus on a potential mate, and oxytocin creates a sense of stability – present later in the relationship, when things have calmed and people are more settled (Midori Hanna, p. 179).

BUSYNESS
Many couples find themselves very busy with tasks, activities, travels, and kids.  It is normal to have your schedule fill up over the years – especially as careers begin to gain momentum, kids attend activities, young children demand attention, church groups and meetings, etc. Often the marriage takes a backseat to some of the more “pressing” areas of life. It can feel like you are in survival mode, and the times of connection that used to be built in prior to marriage – date nights, walks in the park, phone calls, messages – naturally take a backseat.

CONFLICT
Another dynamic that can serve as a drain on your connection in a relationship is either too much conflict or too little conflict. There is no set amount of conflict for a marriage, but a general theme that is often seen in roommate marriages is beneath the “too much” or “too little” is the niggling sense that you rarely, if ever, fully resolve conflicts in your relationship. This leads to a dynamic in your marriage in which you find yourself and your partner either consistently seeking to work on your differences, or seeking to avoid these conflicts. When you have been in this kind of space for long enough, you can find yourself feeling helpless and/or hopeless to ever find resolution. It is normal for this to lead to criticism, blaming, or a complete shut down.

WOUNDS THAT NEVER HEALED
Take a moment to reflect on your relationship – particularly looking for areas in which you felt very hurt or very alone in your relationship – perhaps both. This could be a past affair, an addiction, a time of loss, a conflict that felt unsafe, etc. Ask yourself if it feels like the situation feels fully healed. These wounds, times of hurt can be like hidden drains on your relationship – sucking the life, the vitality, and the sense of safety out of your marriage.

If there are specific wounds in your relationship history that have never fully healed or perhaps have not healed properly, it is important to address them. This is where a skilled counselor can be very helpful. It can feel overwhelming to consider going back to these events and re-living, re-experiencing, or re-opening them. Engaging a counselor can be helpful, because a counselor can help create a deep sense of safety between you and your partner, and then can walk alongside you through the process of healing.

How to Revitalize Emotional Connection

At this point, you may be wondering “is it even possible to feel emotionally connected at this point? We do not have any of the same interests, we don’t know how to just have a normal conversation, we can’t work through anything together, I don’t know him anymore, I feel unappreciated and unseen in this relationship. Maybe we should just call it a day and end things.” There are no easy answers or quick fixes, but there is hope for you and your marriage.

These ideas can serve as a starting point. Before jumping in, remember that changing a roommate dynamic is difficult. In order to foster a sense of emotional connection, it requires some level of risk. It is normal to feel nervous, vulnerable, unsure, discouraged, and exhausted. It takes time for a relationship to drift, and it takes time and energy to create changes that last. It is normal to run into road bumps, to feel as though your partner is pushing back on your efforts. This can feel new, scary, pressured, and can have both of you scared to even try – fearing what it could mean if it does not work (is our relationship over?). If you are experiencing feelings of nervousness, hopelessness, or fear it can be very helpful to reach out to a trained couples counselor. You are not alone in your struggles. Having a skilled professional in the room can help you build momentum as a couple, and can help decrease the discouragement you feel.

CARE FOR YOURSELF
In order to have the energy to create changes that can lead to positive shifts in your relationship, you need to care for yourself first. Go back to the very basics:

  • Physically – How much sleep are you getting every night? Are you fueling your body with healthy sources of energy (nutritious foods and water)? Are you getting outside for 20 mins most days? Are you incorporating exercise into your life regularly?
  • Emotionally – Are you journaling? Are you filling your mind with podcasts, shows, music that lifts you up? Are you allowing yourself to really feel and experience your emotions in a way that brings relief (naming them, acknowledging them, and giving yourself the space to feel them) – not ignoring your emotions, not hurting others, not shoving your feelings down?
  • Relationally – Do you have a solid support system? Do you have people of the same sex you can share your struggles with who will meet you with encouragement? Do the people you spend time with give you wise, loving, hope-filled advice?
  • Spiritually – Do you spend regular time in Scripture? Do you have a church home? Do you attend a small group?

DATE NIGHT
Choose a date and a time, and intentionally schedule 2-3 hours to be together. If possible, try to get out of the house, away from the distractions and familiar settings of home. Take it slow, expect some road bumps. It is okay if you find yourselves sitting in silence or slipping into conversations about the kids. Having date nights that feel emotionally connected takes practice. Think of each date night as an opportunity to learn what works and perhaps what you can try differently for your next date night.

TRY SOMETHING NEW
Couples can find it helpful to get out of the box, to do something they have not done previously. You can participate in a new activity (cooking class, axe throwing, pottery class, paint seasonal pieces for your home together, attend a festival you have not attended before). You can engage in a conversation you have not yet had (wild hypotheticals, questions about the past or the future). You can explore a place you have never been to previously (new museum, different town, trail you have not yet hiked). You can try new foods together (a restaurant you’ve never been to, a part of the grocery store you normally stay away from, a recipe you have never braved).

TRY SOMETHING OLD
Sometimes it can be helpful to go back to familiar territory. Think about some of the activities, conversations, experiences you used to enjoy participating in together. Some couples find it helpful to revisit some of these experiences. This could be anything from going for walks together like you used to, revisiting the place you met for the first time, recreating your first date/anniversary. As you participate in these “old” experiences, feel free to discuss what you both remember enjoying, and what it feels like to take a walk down memory lane.

PRIVILEGE THE POSITIVE
Essentially, notice the small things, the normal things – the things that have perhaps been passed over during the last several months/years. Express your appreciation of anything you notice that is positive:

  • “Thank you for reading the bedtime story tonight,” 
  • “Thank you for switching the laundry,” 
  • “Thank you for re-filling the coffee pot this morning.”

Intentionally direct your focus to the parts of life you feel grateful for and appreciate. It is normal if this feels difficult. In fact, do not be surprised if you begin to feel like you cannot find anything to appreciate or acknowledge. Remain curious, be on the lookout, and try to remain patient.

Conclusion

If you feel stuck in a roommate marriage, you are not alone – many couples find themselves in relationships that feel directionless, connectionless, and emotionally distant. Whether this has been your experience for many years or if you have only recently noticed this shift, there is hope for you.

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This article is based on scientific evidence and clinical experience, written by a licensed professional and fact-checked by experts.

About the Author
Danielle Schaefer
Danielle Schaefer

Danielle Schaefer M.MFT, LMFT-A, has Bachelor’s degrees in Psychology and Family Studies and in Biblical Studies. She has a Master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy. She is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Associate, holding licensure in Ohio.

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