When love starts to fade, before we even face the potential loss of the person we’re with or the relationship we’re in, many of us mourn the loss of something inside us. Falling out of love is like losing a part of ourselves that was once illuminated. It’s one of the most painful processes to endure, not only because of the loss itself but because of the mystery surrounding that loss. The period in which we realize that our feelings have changed tends to be riddled with confusion. What happened to that excitement and admiration that once made us come alive? According to many experts who’ve studied relationships, this mystery is something worth exploring when we feel ourselves falling out of love.
Before diving further into the subject of why we fall out of love and what we can do to make sense of these feelings, it’s important to note that many of the reasons we fall out of love are valid. Of course, when some relationships end, it’s for the best. There are real reasons people find themselves unhappy and wanting to move on. Some people change in real ways that make them grow apart. Others get to know themselves better and realize they were never really in love but in fantasy. No one should ever force themselves to stay in any situation in which they feel miserable and less like themselves.
However, when we talk about why so many people experience falling out of love with someone who once lit them up and filled them with joy, we have to question what goes on that creates this shift. Do we fall out of love for the right reasons? Is it possible to stay in love for the long-haul or fall back in love after falling out of it? You may be surprised that the overwhelming answer for many in the scientific community is “yes.” Real, lasting love is possible, but it involves some effort, some avoidance of certain relationship trappings, and a willingness to overcome some of our own defenses and fears.
Because we bring so much to the table when it comes to our relationships and our feelings about those relationships, it’s valuable to practice self-reflection and look inward to help explore the question of where did our love go. Many of us question our relationship when our feelings start to fade. It’s necessary to make sense of these feelings, so that, if we leave, we know it’s for the right reasons, and if we stay, we’re doing what we can to feel the most alive and most in love. To understand our own experience of falling out of love, we should consider three things:
- Why am I falling out of love?
- What are the signs that I’ve fallen out of love?
- Is it possible/worthwhile to reconnect with my feelings and fall back in love?
Why Are You Falling Out of Love?
As I said, one of the most challenging mysteries we encounter in life is where all those feelings go when we fall out of love. There are many reasons relationships change for the worse, but what’s perhaps most valuable to consider is our own struggles surrounding love and intimacy. After conducting a 75-year longitudinal study from Harvard University, researcher George Vaillant and his team concluded that the keys to happiness were 1. Love, and 2. “finding a way of coping with life that does not push love away.” Lasting love is possible, but it isn’t always easy.
“Almost every one of us struggles, to some degree, to stay connected to our loving feelings,” said Dr. Lisa Firestone, co-author of Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships. “Early experiences of feeling hurt or rejected can injure our ability to connect with and sustain our loving feelings. Giving and receiving love actually challenges our core defenses, early adaptations we formed to protect ourselves against the ways we were hurt.”
While none of us choose to fall out of love, many of us are unaware of the defenses we’ve formed and adaptations we’ve made that may now limit us in our ability to stay close and connected to our partner. For example, it may be hard to stay connected and trust someone completely when we grew up feeling insecure and neglected. It can be difficult to be vulnerable and consistently kind when we grew up with people who were cold, punishing, or had their own difficulty giving and receiving love.
Our unique upbringings and early attachment styles come to influence our defenses and behavior patterns. They can also create insecurities and fears about love. “Interpersonal relationships are the ultimate source of happiness or misery,” wrote Dr. Robert Firestone, author of Fear of Intimacy. “Love has the potential to generate intense pleasure and fulfillment or produce considerable pain and suffering.” When we fall out love, we may, in some ways, be falling into this fear.
How can you tell whether you’re really falling out of love or just giving into fear?
Contrary to what one might assume, our fears around intimacy tend to get bigger as we get closer to another person. Therefore, we may allow ourselves to fall in love at first but become scared when the relationship deepens or becomes more “serious.” “Love—kindness, affection, sensitive attunement, respect, companionship—is not only difficult to find, but is even more challenging for many people to accept and tolerate… They often find it difficult to accept being loved and acknowledged for who they really are,” said Dr. Robert Firestone. “Many people are unaware that being loved or especially valued makes them feel angry and withholding.”
In their research, Drs. Robert and Lisa Firestone, have listed common psychological reasons that love scares us without us being fully aware:
- It arouses anxiety and makes us feel vulnerable.
- It brings up sadness and painful feelings from the past (i.e. a love we didn’t feel as children).
- It can provoke a painful identity crisis, as we’re seen in a new, more positive light.
- It disconnects people from a “fantasy bond” with their parents or early caretakers.
- It arouses guilt in relation to surpassing a parent or caretaker.
- It stirs up painful existential issues and fears around loss.
Are You Falling Out of Love or Falling Out of Fantasy?
Many of us aren’t consciously aware of the ways they may be afraid of love. We may see the real problem in the relationship as being the ways it’s changed. We may list all the issues our partner has, the way he no longer looks at us or she no longer treats us. We may notice our own behavior as being less patient or vulnerable, and we chalk that up to no longer feeling the same way toward our partner. However, the real question to ask is why did these dynamics shift in the first place? The answer to that often has to do with fear and fantasy.
When we describe the spark fading in our relationships, we’re not usually aware of a process we’re engaging in that is literally dousing the flames. A “fantasy bond” is a concept developed by Dr. Robert Firestone, which describes how couples forego real love for a fantasy of connection. “Most people have a fear of intimacy and at the same time are terrified of being alone,” said Firestone. “Their solution is to form a fantasy bond – an illusion of connection and closeness – that allows them to maintain emotional distance while assuaging loneliness.”
A fantasy bond is created when a couple replaces the substance of real relating with the form of being a couple. They start to overstep each other’s boundaries, relating as a “we” instead of a “you” and “me.” They fall into routine and start to do things out of habit or expectation as opposed to real passion or interest. They may try to control each other, showing less respect for each other’s autonomy and independence. This type of relating naturally diminishes attraction, and there is usually less physical and personal relating. Ultimately, engaging in these patterns can drive a couple further and further not only from each other, but from themselves and their loving feelings. When we consider why we’re falling out of love, it’s helpful to look at how much we may have fallen into a fantasy bond with our partner.
Learn more about the Fantasy Bond here
Signs That You’re Falling out of Love
When a relationship becomes less vital, there are often a lot of elements at play. Dr. John Gottman, one of the leading researchers on relationships, has spent 25 years observing couples’ interactions. He lists the four most toxic behaviors between couples, what he calls the “four horsemen,” as the following:
- Criticism: Are you blaming or attacking your partner?
- Defensiveness: Are you closed off to feedback from your partner?
- Contempt: Are you rolling your eyes, mocking or pushing your partner away?
- Stonewalling: Are you shut down in your interactions with your partner? Is your underlying tone and body language standoffish or withdrawn?
When we first fall in love, we tend to maintain a level of respect and kindness toward our partner that connects us to our own loving feelings. But love isn’t just a feeling that comes and goes; it comes from this way of treating each other. We should always try to think of love as a verb. It requires real action to exist and thrive. If we’re engaging in the above destructive behaviors, we’re doing both our partner and ourselves a disservice by limiting both our expressions and feelings of affection. We all act in ways we don’t like from time to time, but it’s always beneficial to consider if any of the four horsemen have marched their way into any part of our relationship.
It’s also helpful to consider the following questions set forth by Dr. Lisa Firestone to help evaluate the situation and determine whether the relationship itself is not working.
- Is my relationship negatively affecting other areas of my life?
- Do I feel upset and fragmented a lot of the time?
- Am I too distracted by my relationship to function in healthy ways?
- Do I rarely feel like myself anymore?
- Am I anxious or desperate toward my relationship partner?
- Do I feel like there is something wrong with me that I am frantic to fix?
- Has my relationship impacted or hurt my friendships?
- Has it affected the way I parent (i.e. I’m distracted from caring for my children or too reliant on them to meet my needs?)
- Do I feel chronically ashamed of myself?
- Do I feel down or hopeless about my life most of the time?
If any relationship is causing us this type of distress, we may very well decide it isn’t right for us. We can end the relationship or seek counseling that may help us make sense of what’s going on.
Can You Stop Yourself from Falling Out of Love?
Every relationship will face challenges, because no person is perfect. If we’ve fallen into some destructive patterns or our relationship has some characteristics of a fantasy bond, we shouldn’t despair. These problems exist along a continuum, and it’s truly possible to take a turn toward getting back the love you once shared with another person. The short answer to the question of whether we can stop ourselves from falling out of love is yes. Staying in love is possible, but like most good things in life, it usually takes some effort.
A neurological study from Stony Brook University led by Bianca P. Acevedo and Arthur Aron revealed similar brain activity between couples who had just fallen in love and couples who’d been together as long as 20-plus years. These long-term couples experienced what researchers called “romantic love,” which is characterized by “intensity, engagement and sexual interest.” This form of love is linked to marital satisfaction, well-being, high self-esteem, and relationship longevity. When couples maintain intensity, engagement, and physical connection, they can keep their brains firing and enliven their loving feelings for each other for decades. This led Dr. Acevedo to conclude, “Couples who’ve been together a long time and wish to get back their romantic edge should know it is an attainable goal that, like most good things in life, requires energy and devotion.”
This brings us back to the idea that love is a verb. Connecting to our own loving feelings often involves taking action. Erich Fromm once wrote, “There is only one proof for the presence of love: the depth of the relationship, and the aliveness and strength in each person concerned; this is the fruit by which love is recognized.” It’s also Fromm who famously said that love, “isn’t a feeling, it is a practice.” Before we decide we’ve fallen out of love, we may want to think about all the actions we can take to check in with our own loving feelings. Can we commit to coming fully alive in ourselves before calling time of death on our relationship?
“Love involves behaviors. It is a skill,” said Dr. Lisa Firestone. “When we choose each day to treat another person with gentleness, affection, kindness, and respect, we cultivate and grow our own ability to love.” After years of researching relationships, Drs. Robert and Lisa Firestone developed the Couples Interactions Chart to distinguish characteristics of an ideal, loving, romantic relationship and a fantasy bond. These are the qualities they found were most important to maintaining lasting love.
- Non-defensiveness and openness Vs getting angry and closed off – This is the opposite of stonewalling. We have to welcome feedback and open communication with our partner in order to really know them and address issues that hurt us in the relationship.
- Honesty Vs deception – We have to be able to trust each other to feel completely vulnerable.
- Respect for independence Vs overstepping boundaries – Dr. Lisa Firestone says in a relationship, we should try to expend each other’s worlds, not shrink them. That means supporting each other’s interests and independence, allowing each other to express ourselves fully as who we are.
- Physical affection and personal sexuality Vs lack of affection and routine sexuality – In a recent survey published in the Journal of Social Psychological and Personality Science, nearly half of the participants reported being “very intensely in love” after years of being together. The top reason given for maintaining these feelings long-term was the presence of physically affectionate behaviors like hugging and kissing. This is consistent with Dr. Acevedo’s research emphasizing the importance of a physical connection in lasting romantic love.
- Understanding Vs misunderstanding – In order to love someone, we have to see them for who they are and try to understand what they’re experiencing.
- Manipulations of dominance Vs Non-controlling behaviors – We have to strive for an equal and respectful relationship, in which neither person tries to control the other or deny each other the opportunities to be themselves.
Before we decide to give up on love or relationships, it’s valuable to reflect on the defenses we bring to the table and the dynamics that may be limiting our capacity to love. This is a process that can alter the course of our lives. We must know ourselves in order to truly fall in love with someone else. Only when we realize who we are can we fully know what we want. We can use the experience of falling in or out of love as an opportunity to know ourselves better, to understand our tendencies, our fears, and our patterns. We can recognize the behaviors we fall into that may create distance in our relationships, and we can meet the challenge of changing these behaviors with self-compassion. Whatever lessons we learn, we can carry into any relationship, and when it’s the right one, we’ll have the tools to fight for the love we want for the long-haul.