“Are you going to tell me what the problem is, or not?” Ilana said, exasperated. “For the past two weeks, you’ve been just down, and, I don’t know, just sad. It’s like you’re someplace else and that place is making you miserable.”
Penina looked down into her coffee, seeming to crumple. She absently stirred with her spoon. “It’s just…Well, it’s complicated.” She sighed.
“C’mon, it’s me.” Ilana reached out and patted her friend’s hand. “I’ve got your back, you know that. I want to help.”
Another sigh. “I’m not sure what there is to do, but…I guess.” Penina shuffled her feet. “Well,” she started hesitantly, “well, Ben and I have always had an OK relationship, and, well…” she stopped. “I’m not sure how to say this. It’s gonna sound weird.” A pause. “We both feel like we’re just roommates.”
“We’re great friends,” she continued in a rush, almost trying to get it out of her mouth and into the open before she could stop herself. “We work really well together, we’re great parents, and we’re on similar wavelengths in terms of how we run the house. We don’t really have major disagreements, and we know how to handle it when we do. But…” She swallowed hard, catching herself. “The spark is gone, and it’s just killing both of us. We’ve talked about it. We don’t know how to handle it. We’re really good roommates with a family together.”
This may be surprising, but Penina’s story isn’t unique at all. It’s actually surprisingly common. There are a bunch of factors that lead to a dynamic like this.
In order to understand this dynamic a little more deeply, let’s first clarify what goes into a strong married relationship. There are essentially two parts to it. One part can be looked at as friendship; a constant foundation of stability, predictability, and calm. Think about your close friends. What makes them so valuable to you? The answer might be a sense of calm presence, or a foundation of predictability and support. There’s a mutual feeling of “They’ve got my back,” which allows the feeling of comfort, safety, and closeness to exist. The value of a friendship is in its predictability.
The other part of a marriage is the unpredictable. There’s a sense of excitement around the other person, a sense of not knowing what’s going to happen next. When accompanied by that foundation of safety, this sense of excitement breeds a desire to grow closer. Some people call it romance. It’s the sense of trusting that there’s something more to see, something that you don’t know, and that you want to find out about it because it will be worth it. It’s this second part which can be so hard to maintain. When your life is run by routines, carpools, work, schedules, and whatever life throws at you, it’s really difficult to stick some unpredictability in there.
So where does that leave you, if you’re like Penina and Ben?
One place to look is your personal history with relationships in general. We learn about relationships from what we’ve seen in life, both with ourselves and others. If you’ve learned that relationships aren’t safe on some level, and that risks aren’t worth taking, you may not feel so keen on the idea of risk or excitement in your marriage. That’s something to work through. Working with a qualified therapist can help. Your spouse can be involved, too. The best way to change how an experience impacts you is to re-experience it differently. If your spouse knows how to support you in building trust in your relationship, you stand a good chance of getting to where you’d like to be.
It’s also possible that something is going on in the foundation of your current relationship. You may not even be consciously aware of it. Is there trust? Is there mutuality? When one of you is going through a tough spot, what does the other do? Why? If there’s a crack in that foundation of trust and safety, excitement is usually not an option, even if personal history is solid. There’s a sense of learned detachment that develops between the two of you. If your spouse doesn’t feel like you have their back, it’s very difficult for them to venture out of their comfort zone to do something exciting or different. Many people complain about a lack of passion or excitement, when in truth, what they’re lacking is the foundation of trusting friendship. Real excitement in a marriage can’t last unless that foundation of trust and safety exists. Fortunately, that’s something that can be worked on.
Aside from these two options, look at your day to day stress levels. Especially in communities where big families are the norm, it can feel like a couple is being pulled in all sorts of different directions, needing to direct their individual attentions to work, parenting, logistics, and self care (the basics, like food and sleep. We’re not talking about spas and pedicures, or golf). The end result is that both spouses feel there’s something urgent that must be addressed at most times. This leads to precious little time to spend focusing on that which is less urgent. With both sides drifting to address the urgent, distance in the relationship inevitably pops up. Carving out a small amount of time for yourself and each other can change the whole landscape of your relationship.
Putting honest work into building the foundation of trust in your relationship will naturally lead to a willingness and interest in stepping up the excitement and passion. When you live in an environment of safety and acceptance, you’re more willing to explore new territory. You know that at the end of the day, you have a safe place to come home to.