Escape Plan

How To Escape The “Roommate Phase” And Reinvigorate Your Relationship

It happens. But while sweatpants and comfort rock, stagnancy doesn't.

by Tanya Basu
Originally Published: 
Young man and woman using their phones while sitting on their couch
mihailomilovanovic/E+/Getty Images

The roommate phase of any relationship is very real. Who hasn’t, after some time, skipped the roses, begun to slouch around the house in sweatpants, and started to high-five your significant other? Hell, it’s nice to have such a casual relationship at times. But sociologist Pepper Schwartz from the University of Washington and author of Snap Strategies for Couples says that while it’s great to find such comfort with your partner, it’s less than ideal that you’ve shed your best self in favor of your most schlumpy.

The daily grind of committed life has a certain biological benefit. After all, the constant over-the-top impressing, the flutters in the stomach, the deer-in-the-headlights look of someone who’s practically chirping from love — that’s not sustainable. It’s normal to have a relationship evolve into comfortable friendliness, a point where not every brush against the hand or significant look transforms a person into the human version of the heart-eyes emoji because otherwise, it’s exhausting to maintain a relationship. And, besides, they’ve made some incredible strides in sweatpants tech over the years.

But some couples take this to mean that it’s time to wipe their hands clean of trying to impress their significant other and kick back. And therein lies the problem — especially when kids enter the picture.

“Remember you married or committed to each other because you are lovers,” Schwartz says. “You weren’t out there picking wombs or semen. You were attracted to each other.”

Here’s Schwartz’s sociological take on the roommate phase: Over the past couple centuries, our lifespans have improved markedly. Wooing another human and getting them to not only spend the rest of their lives with you but also spawn with you and make a home didn’t require the social conventions we were brought up with today, and often involved an arranged aspect. There also was the fact that — and this is important — in colonial times, your life was probably going to end in your mid-30s. This meant that the normal biological flow of feeling like the person occupying the other half of your bed was your roommate with benefits made sense.

Now, however, people are by and large getting married later, having kids later, and living longer. While getting into a comfort zone with your partner is arguably good for your raging hormones, it also puts you on a path toward complacency. And that’s exactly the opposite of what a modern marriage looks like: Modern marriages are partnerships that aren’t about balancing the other person out so much as having someone who will essentially be a cheerleader by your side, and that means someone with whom you’re beyond roommates-level.

That doesn’t mean you have to constantly lay out the red carpet for your other half — and it definitely doesn’t mean that your partner has to be all things for you all the time — but it does mean that you have to put some effort into your marriage. Starting off with the right frame of mind helps.

“It’s important to remember that you’re putting this relationship in a frame. Are you in the frame of mind of dating, or are you signed, sealed, and delivered — and checked out?” Schwartz asks. While the level of commitment in a relationship is certainly something that moves a couple forward, mentally checking out of investing in a relationship means you’re lazy and dooming your marriage from the start.

So, if the roommate phase is plaguing your relationship, show some effort with little things. Compliment your spouse and pay attention to them. Try to impress them with a new cooking skill or take the time to shift your routine. Maybe that means playing a board game instead of watching another episode of your comfort show. Or planning some time dedicated to connection and discovery. In other words, put yourself in a dating mode. How would you woo this person?

“It’s a psychological thing,” Schwartz reiterates. “You have to show that you put extra effort in for each other.”

And come children, this extra-efforting doubles in value. While it’s hard to stay sane and clean with children completely dependent on your care, don’t forget that kids, while totally absorbing, are not what originally brought you together. If the only time you’re clocking in with each other is when the kids are asleep, maybe look up local babysitters and get a dinner on the books. Yes, it’s tired advice and might seem insurmountable, but having an adult beverage with adult food in an adult setting talking about non parenting things is a strong investment for a marriage’s longevity.

The key point here? Treat your spouse as though she was your girlfriend — even after the wedding, the kids, the crowded schedules. Your roommate for life won’t seem as such, and you put your marriage on a path toward growth, not conflict and disintegration. As Schwartz points out, “There’s a 50 percent divorce rate, but that also means there’s a 50 percent marriage survival rate.”

Here are a few more ways to escape the roommate phase and regain your relationship.

1. Spend Time Apart

“If you spend all of your non-working time with your partner, you’re bound to find yourselves engaging in dull, repetitive activities like running errands, staring at your phones, or surfing the web,” says sexologist Dr. Kendra Harris. This, she adds, get boring. And boredom does not yield growth. Time apart helps you grow as individuals and build some much-needed excitement.

2. Get Back to Basics

Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin, a licensed clinical professional counselor, a Certified Imago Relationship Therapist and the co-founder of the Marriage Restoration Project, suggests that couples stuck in a rut should have a date night, but actually go back to a place where they used to date. “Revisiting a physical place where you have fond memories is another way to return back to the time where you once felt the spark in your relationship,” he says. “By returning to that place and remembering those positive experiences, you can actually relive in your mind and heart what happened.”

3. Kickstart Your Sex Life

When the roommate phase sinks in, sex is often one of the first casualties. Relationship and sex educator Brianna Rader says that couples stuck in this phase have to make an extra effort to energize their bedroom life. “To mix up your routine try having sex in another location, adding a sex toy, or playing out a fantasy,” she says. “If your partner seems less interested in sex recently, ask them what they are enjoying lately and focus just on them next session.”

4. Hit the Road

Even a quick overnight getaway to a new location can be enough to shake you both out of the doldrums and awaken some excitement. “Traveling is a great way to recharge your relationship,” says Slatkin. “Besides providing much needed time away, it returns you refreshed and invigorated and hopeful that you can establish new patterns that avoid you from getting sucked back into the humdrum of everyday living.”

5. Take a Class Together

This serves two purposes, as it not only allows you and your spouse to have a date night, but it also gives you something new and exciting to share and talk about. “When the brain learns something new, it not only creates new neural pathways, but it also brings about more joy and excitement,” says Slatkin. “Now, do it together with your spouse and the positive energy is compounded. It also provides a fresh new experience that you can share together.”

6. Show Some Appreciation

Parenting is a never-ending game of Did I Just Do Anything Right? It’s easy to feel doubt, let alone any sense of confidence. As the supportive spouse, it’s your job to step in and provide, yes, validation. The words can vary but the subtext remains: I saw that great thing you did and I’m not keeping it to myself. Goodwill is contagious. Give some and chances are high it will be returned, and then, “It snowballs,” says Dr. Emily Upshur, a licensed clinical psychologist in New York City.

7. Surprise Your Spouse

Doing something unexpected and out of the ordinary is a perfect way to break up the monotony and show your significant other that you’re thinking of him or her. “It’s often the unexpected, not the actual action, that can re-infuse the passion and anticipation we so often crave,” says Slatkin. “It could be something as simple as surprising your spouse at work and taking him/her out for a cup of coffee that can create the thrill that once swept you off your feet.”

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