How to Avoid the Dreaded “Roommate Phase” With Your Partner
Because while sweatpants rock, stagnancy doesn't.
You alternate taking the garbage out. You split the bills cleanly in half. And come Saturday morning, you might even grab an extra coffee to show appreciation to your roommate, errr, spouse.
The roommate phase of any relationship is very real. Who hasn’t, after some time, skipped the roses, started to slouch around the house in stained 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 you’ve become comfortable with your partner, it’s less than ideal that you’ve shed your best self in favor of your most schlumpy self.
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, sweatpants are pretty fucking awesome.
But some couples take this to mean that it’s time to wipe their hands clean of trying to impress their significant other and time to relax. And therein lies the rub — 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 how Schwartz sees it as a sociologist: Over the last 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, often involving 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, which means 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, we’re getting married later, having kids later, and living longer. And while getting into a comfort zone with your partner is arguably good for your raging hormones, it also puts you towards a path of 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, but it does mean that you have to put some effort into your marriage. Contrary to what countless movies and episodes of Everbody Loves Raymond have taught us, a long marriage doesn’t have to be boring. “Being less in love, less motivated — you can go against the natural decline in interest and rev it up.”
How? Well, it helps to start off with the right frame of mind. “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 throw in some effort with little things. Put on cleaner sweatpants. Compliment your spouse and pay attention to them. Try to impress them with a new cooking skill or take the time to put your phone down for a few minutes and talk. 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 after the birth of a child 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 sleep, maybe look up local babysitters and get a date night in 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 adult things is a strong investment for a marriage’s longevity.
It doesn’t even have to be a date night, Schwartz says. “If every good moment is spent snoring, maybe it’s time to take out a glass of wine and talk about the future or plan a trip for when you’re both next free,” she says.
And if you’re really in a roommate rut with your partner? Remember, be in the dating frame of mind. What would you do if you were dating your spouse? You’d try to do something interactive that got you two to spend time together. Go dancing, try bungee jumping, check out a museum exhibit — treat it like a date. Don’t go to the same restaurant you’ve frequented for years or follow the same dinner and a movie formula that’s become ho-hum. Shake it up.
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 towards 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.”