Does Your Partner Feel More Like a Roommate? How You Got There – And What You Can Do About It

By Relationships Australia

Is your partner feeling more like a roommate than a lover? You’re not alone. Long-term relationships can be challenging – especially if you’ve been living together for a long time. Life gets busy, and sometimes, that spark fades. If the partner who once felt like they set your world on fire now just feels like someone you happen to live with, you might’ve developed roommate syndrome.

Your paths might cross occasionally when you have joint obligations. Things might even still feel friendly. But the romance is gone. You may be feeling emotionally detached, and wondering: how did we get here?

What is roommate syndrome?

Relationships are exciting at the beginning. Everything is new and unknown. Everything feels special – because it’s usually the part of the relationship when both partners put a lot of effort in to woo each other. But over time, things can change, especially if we slip into bad habits. This is where you can develop roommate syndrome.

Roommate syndrome is when your partner has become more like a friend. You’re just two people who happen to live in the same house and share some responsibilities. Life has become comfortable, and that can make it easy to feel complacent. As life gets busier, your lives can begin to feel separate. The passion and romance might feel like it’s gone. Maybe you have different interests. Maybe you’re overwhelmed by all the things that are required to live, work and run a household, and carving out time for each other feels impossible. The relationship becomes less of a priority, as other daily life responsibilities take over. And as time goes on, that emotional bond can feel like it’s weakened.

If this sounds like your relationship, you haven’t done anything wrong. Roommate syndrome happens to a lot of couples, and it can be so slow and subtle that you might not realise it until it feels too late.

But if both you and your partner want to work through roommate syndrome, it’s not too late to re-ignite that spark.

How did my partner become more like a roommate?

If your partner feels more like a roommate, it doesn’t mean there’s no love left in the relationship: it just means you need to work on the relationship and be open and vulnerable with each other.

When we become busy and juggle a lot of responsibilities and pressures, it’s easy to push love and intimacy to the side to focus on the day-to-day. It might seem practical to begin with. Work might be busy. You might have kids or pets that are demanding. You might have other caring responsibilities with older family members. Or it might just be a particularly busy time of the year with a lot of extra stress. You might just want to get through the day – and you might even feel like it’s good to tackle tasks separately. While it won’t become a problem for everyone, this can be how roommate syndrome begins for a lot of couples.

“You might not panic when things change in the beginning, because you feel secure – but that can start to slide into complacency and can develop into disinterest or disconnection for one or both partners,” says our CEO, Elisabeth Shaw, who has worked as a clinical and counselling psychologist for couples and families for 30 years.

“I have seen this drift on for months or even years. The main topics of conversation turn into what tasks need doing next, and irritations about domestic issues become the explanation and justification for the distance.”

“Sometimes, the change in the relationship – from romantic to roommate – is a sign the nature of the bond has changed, and they have slipped into bad habits.”

“The cosiness of day-to-day partnership can make them not want to rock the boat, even when elements of the relationship are missing. Having this conversation takes courage but can kick-start the next phase of a relationship, whatever that may be.”

What are the signs my partner is more like a roommate?

When it’s our everyday life, it can be hard to recognise signs that our relationships might be fading or struggling. It happens slowly; you might not even entirely notice it – but you can probably feel it.

Some common signs you might be experiencing roommate syndrome could include:

  • Struggling to communicate
  • Feeling less intimate
  • Feeling like there is no affection or romance
  • Feeling like your lives – aside from mutual obligations – are separate
  • Feeling like the relationship isn’t a priority
  • Feeling like you don’t have support.

While sex isn’t important to every relationship, according to Elisabeth, a lack of intimacy can be a huge sign.

“Signs you might be experiencing roommate syndrome could be when you feel preoccupied with day-to-day living and are happy enough – or at least okay with – missing out on date night for months,” she said.

“You might find yourself avoiding sexual contact or even affection and make excuses and justifications for backing away or not reaching out. You might get approached for sex and feel no interest in your partner or feel irritated by the request, even if you still have sexy thoughts and still masturbate (not that masturbation in itself is a negative sign – it can be a part of a good sex life, too).”

What can we do to fix roommate syndrome?

It can be scary to admit your relationship is struggling – especially if you still love and care for your partner and want to fix things. It can be even harder if you’ve tried to open up to your partner – or ex-partners – in the past and things haven’t gone so well. It might seem daunting: but the good news is, there is hope. Of course, it won’t be an overnight fix, it just takes effort from both partners, because, as they say, it takes two to tango.

“Both partners have to want things to be different,” said Elisabeth.

“When we have long-term relationships, there are off-putting things happening in daily life, like domestic inequality, exhaustion, a lack of babysitters and so on. These issues are real and need to be addressed.”

Fixing relationship syndrome requires open and honest communication. Take the time to understand how you both feel, and what you each need and desire. Actively listen to each other, and agree you both want it to work, and that discussions – even if uncomfortable – come from a place of love with the mutual goal of repairing the relationship.

Learn conflict management and identify any additional stresses weighing the relationship down, and how you can fix it. Don’t just wait for when there is time: value the relationship enough to carve out time to spend together.

Rekindling intimacy in your relationship

When the spark has faded, it can feel difficult to rekindle it. But even small changes can make a big impact.

Maybe you can spend five minutes talking to each other about your day, but ask questions of greater care and significance. For example – “how are you?”, rather than “what happened?”

Maybe you can give them a more lingering kiss goodbye or send them a sweet message during the day to let them know you’re thinking of them. Check-in on each other and remember to express your love and appreciation for each other, even for the little things: it shows you don’t take what your partner does for you for granted.

When it comes to re-establishing physical a romantic connection, even something as small as holding hands if you are not now, cuddling on the couch, or having a spontaneous, lingering hug can help repair that bond. And if sex is an important part of your relationship, talk directly about it.

“Being able to talk about what sort of intimacy is wanted, what preferences have changed, and what possibilities there are opens the way to greater creativity and interest,” Elisabeth said.

“It’s also common that there may have been an unsatisfactory sex life before, so the idea that ‘we need to get back to where we were’ may not be valid. This is where couples can get stuck, as perhaps they’ve never had to talk about sex before, or might have assumed the other was satisfied.”

“A good sex life also builds goodwill and the relational bridges that enable solving problems. Importantly, both solving problems and recovering sex and intimacy are valid requests.”

What are some common mistakes couples make when trying to overcome roommate syndrome?

Change can be uncomfortable – and a lot of couples might be scared to talk about the reality of their relationship over fears this talk might end it. If both partners are committed to the relationship and want it to work, having those tough conversations is an important part of recovering the relationship.

The threat of losing a relationship can be hard to face. It’s easy for people to feel triggered, especially if they’ve had bad experiences in the past – but pretending it isn’t happening is one of the most destructive things you can do.

“Leaving issues for a long time can bake them in and make them harder to turn around. If your partner raises the flag about working on the relationship, having more time together, or addressing ongoing points of disagreement, putting it off or blocking the progress can be at your peril,” Elisabeth said.

“When couples get into the ‘my way vs your way’ or ‘I’ll change if you change’ that becomes a problem.”

Triggers happen for everyone, but it’s important to recognise them, understand why they’re happening, and work through them. You have to be vulnerable and open.

How can we prevent roommate syndrome from happening

Preventing roommate syndrome can be a challenge – but it begins with open, honest communication, and making sure you put time into the relationship.

“That means having difficult conversations, being a little on the edge of your seat, and being bothered by the potential loss of the relationship if things are not addressed,” Elisabeth said.

“It’s not about a relationship riddled with anxiety. It’s about stepping into the space of intimacy which is at times exciting, a little edgy and interesting enough to engage you both. Making sure you do have couple rituals and routines that are precious to you and guarded by you both, for example, date night.”

“However, bear in mind any routine can also become domesticated – for example, going on date night and just discussing problems or the kids. Surprise each other and break routines with new ideas. This will keep you looking at each other with fresh eyes.”

Seeking professional help from a couples counsellor can really help guide these important, but tough, conversations, and identify any unhealthy patterns that have emerged in your relationship. Your counsellor will then  work with you to develop strategies to work through the challenges you’re facing.

Need help with roommate syndrome in your relationship? You don’t have to work through it alone. At Relationships Australia NSW, we have experienced relationship counsellors, and we’re here to help.

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