A new couple recently came to see me. Dave contacted me in crisis mode, saying that Chelsea, his wife of 20 years, had announced suddenly that she didn’t love him anymore and wanted out of their marriage. As she began to explain, she used some of the most common words I hear: “I love him but I’m just not IN love with him anymore.”
If you’ve been married for a while, you may find yourself feeling this way too and wonder if this means you need to leave your marriage.
Allow me to explain why this occurs and why I believe the answer to this question is a resounding “NO”!
In many places, where marriage is more about shared socioeconomic or religious values and raising a family, losing that lovin’ feeling wouldn’t be a deal-breaker. In these parts of the world, marriages are often arranged and there is no provision for divorce. I’ve worked with some of these clients and they are generally great friends because their bond is based on a shared commitment and reasonable expectations.
But in the Western world, where everyone seeks a soulmate and expects this person to meet their mental, emotional, sexual, and intellectual needs for a lifetime, doubts about where the good vibes have done and fears that they’ll never return can be deadly and lead to quick exits from an otherwise good marriage.
In sum, when two people come together with the expectation that they’ll need to work collaboratively to build a life—even in the absence of strong romantic feelings—and divorce isn’t an option, they tend to do well. When they join forces based on feelings of passion and positivity—accepting that divorce will always be an option of those feelings fade—the rate of divorce is high.
The Relationship Life Cycle
Most romantic relationships start with these feelings of desire and optimism. The intensity of a new relationship can make it feel “right” and “perfect” in a fairly short period of time, even though there may be many unknowns and things to work out. This stage is fueled by hormones and neurotransmitters which spike when things are new, different, and exciting but start to diminish as familiarity sets in.
Affection, appreciation, admiration, and acceptance tend to run high in this phase. That’s why it’s called the “honeymoon period”, and it usually lasts through the dating period until some time after the nuptials. Think of this like a drug-induced ‘high’ of sorts. It’s great while it lasts but it can’t last forever. (After all, we wouldn’t get anything done).
Just as this sense of falling in love is almost universal, so too is the sense in a more mature relationship that “the thrill is gone.” Affection may wane, appreciation and admiration are harder to gin up as habits begin to annoy you, and acceptance can evaporate in the heat of conflict.
Taking this one step further, when the daily routine grows stagnant, conflicts become more common, and one or both parties begin to withdraw, the edges of a marriage can begin to fray and the relationship itself becomes vulnerable. At this point, marriage can feel less like a high and more like a hangover.
The bottom line is that—just like you maintain your health through good nutrition, exercise, and sleep—you need to maintain your marriage to nurture ongoing feelings of love, security, and intimacy.
We’ve written on this topic before. Check out our blog on
Falling Out of Love (and How to Fall Back In)
Three Common Scenarios
>> ONE: You Feel Differently About Your Partner
By far, the most frequent situation I see is when one spouse begins to feel differently about their mate. Sometimes, they don’t know why (or aren’t consciously aware of the reason). However, in most cases, something has been bothering them for a long time and they’ve allowed resentment to build—causing a wall between themselves and their spouse.
There could be a legitimate problem—such as a lack of trust or anger—that the partner has been made aware of repeatedly and not addressed. But it could also be something this person isn’t even aware of.
If you can identify with this and resent your spouse for some reason, it’s imperative to start working on the problem as soon as possible. The longer it goes unaddressed, the more resentment is likely to form. This can result in other issues that may not have been a big deal in the past, but now seem monumental.
>> TWO: You Feel Differently About Yourself When You’re With Your Partner
How someone makes us feel about ourselves plays a major role in attraction. How often have you heard someone in the early stages of a relationship say wistfully, “She/he just makes me feel so loved / safe / secure / appreciated”? Sometimes, it’s the way we feel about ourselves when we’re with someone—and not how we feel about them, per se—that binds us together. When someone brings out the best in us and accepts us completely, we relax and feel as if we belong together.
If you begin to feel insecure or inferior when you’re around your partner, you may begin to question their motives. If, in reverse, you see them as inferior to you in some way (e.g., ambition, energy, intelligence), you may feel as if they are holding you back from reaching your full potential as an individual and begin to consider your options.
>> THREE: You Feel Differently About Your Relationship and the Future of Your Marriage
This sometimes happens when there is a sudden major event, such as the death of a child, a health crisis, or the empty nest phase of life. Whereas before, you could easily recall the reasons you chose your spouse, you now find it hard to think of even one and have difficulty picturing your lives together in a few years’ time. You feel as if you’ve already grown apart and don’t see a way back to each other.
These feelings can emerge after seeing yourself or your partner differently (see above), acknowledging that your needs or wants have changed, or wondering if you can still create a life where you’re both happy and fulfilled.
What to Do Next
>> First, don’t panic!
Feeling disillusioned and even disappointed is normal and natural after the natural high of the honeymoon phase. You may essentially wonder, “Is this all there is?” and fear that marriage is not going to meet your lofty expectations.
>> Second, assess the situation.
If you relate to any of the above reasons for feeling as if you’re “falling out of love”, you should view it as a serious wake-up call! Negative feelings have a way of expanding and moving into other areas of our lives over time, so you can’t expect them to go away on their own and may need to get some professional help to sort them out or get back on track with your spouse. Don’t be like so many spouses who say to me and their mates, “I should have said something years ago, but I didn’t.”
>> Third, realize that there is a cost to pay for the benefits marriage has to offer.
Just like you probably pay a portion of the cost for your health and insurance benefits, you must strive to meet your spouse’s needs in order to get your own needs met. This is a two-way street. If you’re not feeling interested in your marriage, it may be because you’re not investing enough of yourself in it. Like many things in life, marriage tends to give us what we put into it.
>> Fourth, be intentional about staying connected with your spouse and communicate clearly.
The everyday demands of life can cause the best of spouses to drift apart and it may seem easier to stay silent when something is bothering us. Learning how to communicate your wants and needs effectively, “fight fair”, learn your partner’s love language, and resolve differences productively will go a long way toward keeping the spark alive. You shouldn’t necessarily scare them by saying, “I’m falling out of love with you”, but you should express what you’d like to see in your relationship. For example, “I feel like we’ve drifted apart and would love to spend more quality time with you during the week.”
>> Fifth, get an assist.
It’s always a great idea to get regular “tune-ups” in the form of some professional help or even speak to others who have been successfully married for a long time. It’s usually much easier to walk in someone else’s footsteps than to carve a new path that may lead you right off a cliff.
>> Sixth, focus on your spouse.
When we feel under-appreciated or ignored, it’s natural to pull back and focus only on ourselves. While this may be helpful in some situations, paying even more attention to your spouse will likely get you better results in the end. In all my years of working with couples, I’ve never had a spouse who complained about their partner paying TOO MUCH attention to them.
>> Seventh, do something NEW.
Remember that dating was fun because it was thrilling and exciting and everything felt fresh and novel. If you usually binge Netflix on Saturday nights, take a cooking class or check out a new local bookstore instead. This will give you the chance to see your partner in a new light, explore a potential shared interest, and have some conversations you haven’t had before.
>> Eighth, appreciate where you are.
Stability, security, comfort, and companionship are under-rated in marriage, but were probably what you were looking for when you tied the knot to begin with! By reminding yourself of this fact and valuing the friendship you’ve built with your better half, you will affirm for yourself that you would marry them all over again and be willing to put more effort into the everyday little things (that are actually the big things).
>> Ninth, don’t do anything rash.
Don’t let this normal phase push you into doing something you may regret. Take responsibility for your own happiness and realize that violating the commitment you made at the altar is unlikely to increase your satisfaction with life. Remember that—with a little patience and effort—couples can not only survive this season of their marriage but move beyond it to create something truly special.
The feeling of falling out of love is not uncommon in a marriage. Though most people will feel this way at some point during their relationship, the trick is to acknowledge it early on and work with your spouse to rekindle the fire. Good communication, renewed investment in your marriage, and the willingness to be honest are all necessary parts of the process.
And know that we’re here for you. Give us a call if you’re struggling with doubt and aren’t sure what it means. We’ve helped many couples sort out these feelings, reconnect, and recommit to this great adventure called marriage!