What Is A Parallel Marriage (And How It Can Be Fixed)?

Independence is usually a good thing in romantic relationships. Couples often thrive when they have their own interests and can confidently handle some problems on their own. But it's always possible to have too much of a good thing. When independence — and, more specifically, separateness — becomes the norm in your marriage, emotional distance often sets in, making you feel more like strangers than lovers.

This dynamic is known as a parallel marriage. In a parallel marriage, spouses remain in their relationship and continue moving in the same direction — raising a child, tag-teaming household chores, working together to pay bills, or funding the occasional family vacation — but they do so while staying emotionally disengaged from each other. Metaphorically, it's like they're on two separate ships that happen to both be heading west, rather than experiencing the journey together on one boat.

Parallel marriages can appear functional and even ideal on the outside, but the emotional distance can be toxic over time. In fact, a 2012 study published in the Journal of Divorce & Remarriage found that 55% of divorcing partners cited "growing apart" as the reason their marriage dissolved — more than any other reason. If you think you might be in a parallel marriage, here's how to bridge the gap before you grow apart for good.

Identify why you've become parallel partners

Though a parallel marriage isn't sustainable for long — at least, not if you want an emotionally intimate relationship — the good news is that the distance is sometimes only temporary. Couples with small children may build parallel lives as they juggle feedings, bath time, doctor's visits, and trying to catch up on sleep. Work, too, can play a role, particularly if one or both partners have busy periods that require overtime and business trips.

These kinds of circumstantial factors often get better over time, especially if you and your spouse both commit to making changes. For example, you could agree to get a babysitter every Friday evening for date night, or you might talk to your boss and set boundaries around how many extra hours you're willing to work.

However, some parallel marriages grow out of conflict and can be just as destructive as a marriage plagued by infidelity, according to The Summit Counseling Center. In these relationships, partners often villainize each other and prefer to avoid meaningful conversations that could potentially stir up an argument. If you're in a conflict-ridden parallel marriage, the bad has mostly eclipsed the good, and you feel more like competitors living under one roof than a team working toward the same goals.

Take steps to close the gap

Whether your parallel marriage is due to temporary circumstances or long-established disagreements, it may be possible to fix the dynamic with a few adjustments. First, make time for the activities and interests that once brought you together. If you bonded over music festivals early in your relationship, for instance, find concerts to attend together. Some long-term couples may realize that their interests have changed over time and they no longer share a common hobby or passion. In that case, find a new one! A 2019 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that couples report more desire and relationship satisfaction after trying new "self-expanding" activities, so keep an open mind and don't be afraid to get out of your comfort zone.

For couples who have become conflict-avoidant after a few too many explosive arguments, keep in mind that distance can often be more destructive than conflict, as long as you learn to fight fairly. When a problem arises, talk about it without bringing blame and criticism into the conversation. Alternatively, schedule a weekly relationship check-in to discuss issues when you're both feeling less reactive. If you still struggle, consider visiting a couples therapist to polish your communication skills.

Finally, establish shared rituals that intentionally bring you closer. According to The Gottman Institute, a center for relationship research, meaningful rituals can be as simple as eating together without your phones or sharing a bedtime routine.