From the February 2018 issue

Spouse or Roommate? What to Do When It’s Getting Hard to Tell

When the romance has dwindled and the stress of kids and everyday life has ramped up, it's easy for couples to fall into a pattern where they feel more like business partners than life mates. How can you get back on track?

Before we became a couple 11 years ago, my husband and I were browsing at the mall when I stumbled on a pair of pink heart earrings I really wanted. I didn’t have the extra cash, though, so I put them back and walked away. Days later, before he left for a European trip, we met for coffee and he handed me a gift: It was those same earrings I’d been eyeing.

“I knew you liked these, so I went back and got them for you,” he said.

I smiled. It was one of the sweetest things anyone had ever done for me – and among the many reasons I fell in love with him at age 19.

The earliest stage of a romantic relationship is heart-fluttering. It’s when couples are most thoughtful and engaged. It’s when you really get to know each other. Every moment together is magic.

But that era, and the passion that comes with it, is fleeting. As the years go by, the intensity fades into something different.

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For us – after five years of marriage under our belts and a baby at home – it has faded into conversations about housework and child care duties. At the end of most days, we’re sitting on separate couches staring at our phones, barely speaking. The thrill, as they say, is gone.

And that’s not uncommon for couples. In fact, it’s one of the reasons they seek therapy, says Shirley Bavonese, a certified social worker and licensed marriage and family therapist at the Relationship Institute in Ann Arbor.

“It’s usually happening in long-term relationships. After a year to a year-and-a-half of a committed relationship, the romantic period is dissolved and it moves on to another stage of intimacy,” Banovese says. “People have to understand that intense connection is going to ultimately change into something quieter.”

But as time goes on, issues inevitably arise. And often, when couples can’t find solutions they either avoid fights, Banovese says, or they have the same old arguments. “That sours the connecting – cools it off,” she adds. “They are feeling like the relationship is stuck, stale, not moving anywhere. They often use the term ‘roommate.'”

More couples experience this than you realize, says Joe Kort, a sex and relationship therapist and founder of the Center for Relationship and Sexual Health in Huntington Woods. “Couples don’t talk about it, which is why people don’t talk about it,” Kort says. “It’s embarrassing.”

But it’s also reality – particularly once the little ones arrive.

“It often happens, and it’s normal that it happens after you have children,” Kort says. “You’re up all night, you’re tired,” and moms don’t have much left for their husbands. “Now you feel like brother and sister.” Talk about a relationship shift.

There’s hope, though, for couples whose relationships have “cooled” and connections are crumbling. Here are five ways to reconnect with your spouse.

1. Stop phubbing

Are you scrolling through your Facebook feed or texting instead of talking to your partner? Then you’re “phubbing” – aka snubbing someone with your phone. While it’s easy to blame technology, devices aren’t entirely the problem. “It’s not the technology,” Kort says. “It’s the way the technology is being used.”

So set boundaries around phone use.

“Make it clear to your partner: ‘I’m going to be on my phone for a little bit,'” Kort says. Allow your partner that time on his phone – whether it’s 30 minutes or one hour – without giving him grief for it. After that time, make an agreement that, for example, after 8 p.m. you’ll both put your phones away for the night.

2. Nix the kid talk

“When did the baby last eat?” “Did you help Ava with her science project?” “Am I driving Ryan to practice?”

As parents, it’s easy to fall into the pattern of talking solely about your kids, but there has to be more to your conversations than your child.

“Both parties need to bring something to the table,” Banovese says. “Whether you have a roommate, a lover or a marriage partner, you have to think about: What’s it like to live with you if all you talk about is the color of poop?”

Instead, a Women’s Health magazine article titled “6 Things You and Your Partner Should Talk About Every Day” suggests couples talk about their goals (both professionally and personally), discuss their plans for the future and even chat about their health. Banovese also recommends talking about politics or hobbies, whether they’re shared or you’re learning something new about your significant other.

3. Do stuff together

Kick it old school and spend time together – just the two of you.

“They should be making time for each other separate from the kid,” Kort says. Sometimes people do that by laying side by side in bed on Sunday morning, he says, or by talking on the phone when they are away from each other.

Or book a babysitter and go do something.

Share a hobby? People with common interests are successful in relationships, Banovese says. “I think when you are dating, it’s good to evaluate that you both have some common interests that are beyond going to dinner and going to a movie,” she adds.

If you don’t currently have common interests, don’t fret. Explore things you can do together. “If you both had not done rock climbing, do a date rock climbing,” Banovese suggests. Even if you end up hating it, it’s something that you did together – and that’s a memory for the two of you.

4. Create a mutual vision

Whether it’s division of household chores, child care responsibilities or intimacy, every person has expectations for what they think they should be getting out of their marriage. If your expectations don’t align, Kort encourages couples to do “mutual vision” homework. “They go home and she writes down her vision of what she wants in a relationship and he writes down his vision,” he says.

This method is based on information from best-selling author Harville Hendrix’s 1988 book Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples.

To do this, couples work separately to write down sentences for non-negotiables and desires. When writing your vision for your relationship, focus on different areas: sex and romance, finances, communication, parenting, in-laws, leisure activities and work.

Once you’ve both created your vision, sit down together to create a vision you can both agree on.

“Post your relationship vision where you see it daily. Read (it) together with your partner once a week, check if you are on target – this will help you make daily choices that will turn your vision into a reality,” notes Austrian website The Local in a post on Hendrix’s approach. “Update and tweak your relationship vision once a year to fit your current needs.”

5. Get help

“When people think about marriage counseling, a lot of times they’ll come in and go, ‘We don’t scream and fight like that,'” Banovese says.

But that’s far from the only reason people see therapists.

“Marriage counseling isn’t for screamers. It’s for small nuances,” like the eye rolls you give when your partner is talking. “All of those speak volumes,” she adds.

And a therapist’s main goal is to help couples work through their conflict and find ways to reconnect emotionally and physically – not prepare for divorce.

“If you start dealing with conflict, if you get out of that difficult, dark pattern and start dealing with the conflict and being more vulnerable with each other … then you’re going to want to connect with your partner and you’ll make time for more intimacy.”

And even if you’re the one who doesn’t think there’s a problem – or you’re afraid to seek therapy because you don’t know what’s going to happen or feel it will force the two of you to break up – you should still make the effort to see a therapist if that’s what your partner wants.

“It’s important for him then to validate and hear her experience – why it feels like a problem for her,” Kort says. “To help her resolve the problem, he has to be part of the solution.”

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