America’s Hidden Epidemic: Roommate Marriages
Carl and Sarah are on the couch opposite us. Married for nine years with three children, Carl had called saying they are in a crisis. They’ve spent the last fifteen minutes trading accusations but now sit quietly, staring numbly ahead as if at a wake. Sarah cries quietly through red rimmed eyes while Carl struggles to avoid a similar show of emotion. They’re mourning is over lost love, and it is filled with hurt, sadness and anger. It is Carl who breaks the long silence. In a barely audible voice he says, “We’re roommates; that’s the reality - pure and simple - we’re just roommates. I don’t know where the love went.”
While they may not be in the dire situation of Carl and Sarah a growing number of married couples are living together as roommates. They work, take care of the kids and even have something of a social life. To family, friends and outside observers everything seems fine. But inside things are tense, business like and unromantic.
Researchers estimate that almost 20% of married couples are in sexless relationships. This may be just the tip of the iceberg. We know from our own work with couples that a far greater number are emotionally disconnected even if they do have occasional sex. For these roommate couples once strong passion and emotional closeness has gradually morphed into silent routines and polite indifference.
Roommates are doing all the work of being married while getting few of the benefits. They do not feel loved, honored and cherished. And without a cushion of sexual and emotional closeness their relationship feels hard and brittle. Everyday stresses are harder to bare, parenting becomes more difficult and staying faithful looms as a bigger and bigger challenge. Increasingly partners ask themselves “Is this all there is?”
Why do so many husbands and wives who start off loving one another as soul mates, i.e. best friends and passionate lovers, end up living together as roommates?
We see two main reasons over and over again. The first is benign neglect. Some partners spend so much time and energy on everything else in their lives that their relationship, the quality of their togetherness, falls to the bottom of their “to do” list. Without realizing it they take one another and their marriage for granted. Kids, work, needy parents, money pressures, ex- spouses, career challenges all demand time and energy. Partners put themselves last thinking their love will carry them through. And it does until it’s buried under so much collateral damage it begins to fade into a distant memory.
The second, more prevalent reason, has to do with the mismanagement of anger. Anger is inevitable in a marriage. But problems develop when angry feelings are allowed to pile up. Accumulated anger kills love and passion. Most roommate partners are separated by a wall of anger that’s become so high they can no longer reach over it and touch one another. This is the situation Carl and Sarah found themselves in.