Passion and emotional closeness has gradually morphed into silent routines and polite indifference.
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.
And yet, despite the anger and neglect most husbands and wives, as well as partners in sincere, long-term relationships do not want to be just roommates. They emphatically say they long for the lost “in-love” passion of being true soul mates.
Can roommates become soul mates? Can couples regain lost passion and get back “in-love” feelings? In many cases the answer is “yes” if they are highly motivated, willing to look at themselves honestly and get professional help to guide them through the journey.
Are you in a roommate marriage and want to change? Here are six pointers to get you thinking and acting in a more marriage friendly direction.
1.See Each Other New. Recapturing “in-love” feelings requires seeing your partner with new eyes, eyes that are not clouded by old images. We call this kind of seeing imageless perception.
Images are made up of bad memories you and your partner have of each other. Every hurt that’s not healed, every fight not made better, every disagreement not fairly settled adds to the image. These Images then color how you see and react to one another. They prevent you from seeing each other fresh in the present moment. Reacting from images is a major reason why you and your partner get stuck repeating old tit for tat cycles of bickering and blame.
Imageless perception interrupts this pattern by denying images the mental energy they need to survive. Whenever you notice yourself dwelling on past memories pull the plug on them by switching your attention to the present moment. Focus on what’s going on NOW, don’t contaminate the present by dragging in old images from past.
In the present you can consciously choose to create a more loving space for you and your partner to appear in. You can choose to be more forgiving; appreciating and valuing one another as if you only had today. Savor the good in your marriage, put it front and center, have gratitude for and celebrate all that works well between you.
2. Play Together. Playing together is where you create opportunities to re-discover the important things that first drew you together. Set some time aside on a regular basis to be alone together. This itself won’t be easy given your busy schedule but make it happen.
Once you’ve carved out the time try out some new activity that neither of you has done before. Keep it simple and stress free. A new activity means you’ll both be sharing an adventure on new territory. Make sure you don’t fill it with competition. Don’t tease one another. Instead have each other’s back; encourage one another and enjoy not needing to be perfect. This kind of non-competitive play can be a strong aphrodisiac.
3. Let Go Of Needing To Be Right. Living together 24/7 can spawn lots of disagreements and making yourself heard at those moments is important. But knowing when to let go is just as important. Digging your heels in, being rigid and refusing to budge can make you feel powerful. But it’s a false power that comes at a steep price: damage to your relationship.
If you want to get back that “in-love” feeling it will not come from a partner who feels they’re always wrong because you’re always right.
Prioritize your needs. Is your need to be right more important than your need to be loved? Being flexible and cooperative brings caring and affection toward you while needing to be right pushes love away.
4. Offer Affectionate Attention. To people on the street you give passive attention. The persistently barking dog gets your negative attention. Affectionate attention is reserved for those closest to you, those you love. Affectionate attention is special because it is infused with caring, concern, interest and involvement. It’s the kind of attention that is nurturing, supportive and encouraging. It contains no judgements, blame or criticism.
Partners in roommate marriages often feel judged and unappreciated. They say they feel invisible, that their presence is not welcomed and their voice is not heard. Affectionate attention cuts through this sad situation by offering a safe emotional space where your partner feels valued and cherished.
You offer affectionate attention by putting yourself in your partner’s skin so to speak and seeing what they see, feeling what they feel and hearing what they hear. You listen deeply to both the facts and feelings in what your partner shares. You’re alert to sensing changes in their mood and whenever possible anticipate their needs.
5. Carefront Your Anger. Carefronting means taking the hot emotion out of anger. Anger is a physical/emotional reaction. There is nothing about anger itself that is bad or destructive. It’s a feeling like any other. All feelings come and go, they rise up and if we don’t latch onto them they pass through us like a cold chill.
Some people latch onto anger and feel empowered by it. They vent their anger and say and do things they later regret. Others latch on in a different way. They are afraid of anger so they push it down and pretend it’s not there. It comes out disguised as being moody or sad or not feeling well. There are also those individuals who nurse their anger, they hold onto it for long periods of time. They always have some old anger on hand to add to any new anger that comes up.
When you carefront your anger you don’t vent, deny or nurse it. You begin watching for any angry feelings as soon as they start moving inside you. This kind of “witnessing” gives you some distance from the anger. You will not immediately latch and automatically begin repeating bad anger habits. With this distance you will have more control and you’ll be less likely to act out your anger in destructive ways. In fact, carefronting will help you be on friendly terms with your anger so you can express it directly in a non-blaming and non-attacking way. This sets the stage for discovering the issue or issues that triggered anger in the first place.
6. Be Your Best Self. A simple truth: you cannot be selfish and happily married. Another truth is that we live in a self-centered culture that encourages us to think in terms of “me, my and mine.” Self-interest, looking out for #1, we are told is the way to a happy fulfilled life. Consequently most of us operate with a kind of me first survival mentality. We rarely consider an alternative way of being.
Loving as soul mates rather than living together as roommates requires this alternative way of being. Your best Self rather than your ego must guide your actions. Your best Self is wise, fearless and kind. It sees clearly with an intelligence not measured by I.Q. tests. It’s your true Self, the authentic you that is not defined by status or success or how you look or the role you play. Your best Self is capable of unselfish love, it’s the soul mate in you.
Get acquainted with your best Self. Sit quietly alone for five minutes a day. Keep your eyes open, take in your surroundings but do not think about what you see. Instead sense the silence that surrounds and envelops all you see, hear and feel. Listen to the silence, savor the depth and expansiveness of it. This timeless silence is the non-material dimension of life; tune into it, become more familiar with it and it will help you switch out of being in survival mode.
These six pointers have proven helpful to many couples wanting to go from roommates to soul mates. They are a beginning step in to a new understanding of both yourself and your relationship.