Falling Out of Love

falling out of loveWhen 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 are we losing something valuable, we are also caught up in 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. However, it involves some effort, 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. We must be sure that, if we leave, we know it’s for the right reasons, and if we stay, we’re doing all we can to feel the most alive and in love. To understand our own experience of falling out of love, we should consider three things:

  1. Why am I falling out of love?
  2. What are the signs that I’ve fallen out of love?
  3. 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:

  1. Love arouses anxiety and makes us feel vulnerable.
  2. It brings up sadness and painful feelings from the past (i.e. a love we didn’t feel as children).
  3. Love often provokes a painful identity crisis, as we’re seen in a new, more positive light.
  4. It disconnects people from a “fantasy bond” with their parents or early caretakers.
  5. It arouses guilt in relation to surpassing a parent or caretaker.
  6. Love 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.  Or, we may notice our own behavior changing, and 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:

  1. Criticism: Are you blaming or attacking your partner?
  2. Defensiveness: Are you closed off to feedback from your partner?
  3. Contempt: Are you rolling your eyes, mocking or pushing your partner away?
  4. 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 treat our parter with a level of respect and kindness that connects 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.  When we engage in destructive behaviors, we do ourselves and our partner a disservice by limiting expressions/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.

  1. Is my relationship negatively affecting other areas of my life?
  2. Do I feel upset and fragmented a lot of the time?
  3. Am I too distracted by my relationship to function in healthy ways?
  4. Do I rarely feel like myself anymore?
  5. Am I anxious or desperate toward my relationship partner?
  6. Do I feel like there is something wrong with me that I am frantic to fix?
  7. Has my relationship impacted or hurt my friendships?
  8. 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?)
  9. Do I feel chronically ashamed of myself?
  10. 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. 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. They found these qualities 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. Open communication with our partner allows us to really know each other and address issues that hurt 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. Allow 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. We should try to understand what they’re experiencing.
  • Manipulations of dominance Vs Non-controlling behaviors. We have to strive for an equal and respectful relationship. Neither person should try to control the other or deny each other 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. So when it’s the right one, we’ll have the tools to fight for the love we want for the long-haul.

About the Author

Carolyn Joyce Carolyn Joyce joined PsychAlive in 2009, after receiving her M.A. in journalism from the University of Southern California. Her interest in psychology led her to pursue writing in the field of mental health education and awareness. Carolyn's training in multimedia reporting has helped support and expand PsychAlive's efforts to provide free articles, videos, podcasts, and Webinars to the public. She now works as an editor for PsychAlive and a communications specialist at The Glendon Association, the non-profit mental health research organization that produced PsychAlive.

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12 Comments

Tatiana

I really like it that “love is a verb. It requires real action to exist and thrive”, and “love isn’t a feeling, it is a practice”.

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Gina

My significant other just told me that he doesn’t love me like he used to anymore.. But he still loves me.. We used to be so close and understanding and we could talk and conmunicate abiut everything..We used to tell each other that we were best friends. And now it is the complete opposite. For months now, all we seem to do is argue, bicker, put each other down. Its never ending, i love him so much and its so hard to met him go. This article really opened my eyes and gave me a little hopebc he’s everything to me. He’s my world. I will do my part snd try and change for the better and sake of us. Im not ready to give up even though i can seeand feel that he’s already started to. I love him so much imwilling to do anything for him. I hope and pray that it works out

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Candice

I know exactly how you feel. I feel this 100%. I can’t say things will get better, but let’s just hope for the best, and that they don’t get worse. It really does hurt when your bestfriend/boyfriend is pulling a way from you. Like the cute little kisses, the jokes, the laughter..etc. I’ve been with my guy 8 years, and it hurts everytime I think about those years draining. But, you never know what God has inspired for you. That’s why you just pray until you can’t pray anymore. Once you pray, let it be, give it to God! I know the feeling. Stay strong!! The truth will be revealed soon, and God will answer you.

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Tammy Tran

My boyfriend of three years have fallen out of love with me because I was gone for the summer to work. He admit to talking to a girl for a week which gave him excitement that he haven’t gotten from me. I’m very hurt because I been gone for work just to make enough for the both of us to spent more time with each other and it’s just trigger me to the core, I’m very heart broken over this, he said he only to talk to her and nothing psychical but he basically cheated on me emotionally. He broke this news to me the week of my birthday. I do not know how to react. He wants to still take me out for my birthday but we already breaking up so it’s hard to just go out with him after he rips my heart out.

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Beverly

I have been in this relationship for years and we have broken up for the same thing over and over again because he would rather spend his time working overtime, Holidays or with his family But Always comes up with an Excuse when I mentioned spending time with me, or he had no Money, As of now My Love for him has died a long time ago and I can’t stand the sight of him or his touch, he walks around like there’s nothing wrong I want him out of my apt. and My Life (Love Doesn’t Live here anymore)

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Lola

Thank you so much for this article. I was crying throughout and wished it would never end. It gave me so much clarity and what started as me feeling as if I am falling out of love with my lover/best friend of 3 years ended up with me coming to terms with my fears, my unlovingness and tendency to control. Thank you!

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Skye

I very much had a similar reaction throughout this piece Lola. <3 I too have fallen out of love with my partner and I’m still trying to piece together why. This article was exactly what I needed to read right now to learn how to better myself and address my past and how it affects my ability to maintain a relationship. I hope things get better for the both of us.

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Tovah

My boyfriend of 2 years broke up with me because ‘he loves me, but isn’t in love with me anymore.’ I told him we’re out of the honeymoon stage and so we’re probably just in a bit of a rut because of the routine so it’s okay that he’s lost some excitement about us, but he said he doesn’t know if breaking up is the right thing to do but he felt like he had to do it in order to know. I’m completely heartbroken. We had such a good and healthy relationship and I feel completely blindsided. It’s been about 2 months and I still hope he realizes he loves me. but he’s very much a bottle up the feelings and distract himself kind of guy, so i’m scared i’ve lost him forever.

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Rosie

My partner of almost 12 years decided to break up with me a couple of weeks ago saying ‘I love you, but I am not in love with you anymore’. Last year he confessed me he was struggling with depression due to a lot of stress for his job, the divorce of his parents, the fear to have an incurable illness (the doctors say that he can have Rheumatoid arthritis, but it can’t be confirmed) and the death of a close relative. He started eating less, having sleeping problems, loosing interest in any activity and our intimacy started to be affected to the point we stopped any contact apart kisses and hugs.
He started to focus only on his job and nothing else. He started to avoid to stay alone with me and started to spent more time with a colleague and I started to be jealous of their relationship. More than once we had arguments about it, as I was feeling like he was replacing me with this girl and he started to be upset that I was jealous and he was showing contempt. When the lockdown started due to Covid-19, he started to work from home for several hours without any break. Then at some point he decided to go running in his lunch break and I started to suspect he was meeting with his colleague without telling me, despite it wasn’t allowed to meet people outside the household, but I convinced myself I was only paranoid.
One day I decided to join him and I took my bike to go find him to come back home together and I saw them together walking along the river and in that moment I felt like I was betrayed and my heart just broken. I went back home trying to be calm and relaxed waiting for him to come back.
When he was at home I started to ask some questions and he lied when I asked if he was meeting with someone. I then told him that I saw them together and I started to cry and told him I felt betrayed also because he lied when I asked.
He said there is nothing between them, but he needed someone to talk to and she is very understanding and he said that he didn’t like what our relationship became because of my jealousy and the fact that it was impossible to have any conversation without anger and jealousy involved and he had the feeling that I became to dependant on him.
He said he was feeling too depressed and he didn’t know how to delete everything has happened in the past year and he felt guilty that he was causing me pain and unhappiness and he said that maybe the best thing to do was to end out relationship because his depression was ruining everything. He asked me to leave him as he didn’t want to drag me in the darkness. I refused to leave him as I saw him suffering and we decided to try to do something to fix our relationship and seek help from a professional.
A couple of weeks passed, but nothing changed. Actually it started to be worse. He stopped to go out, he started to stay in bed until late on Saturdays and Sundays, he stopped going out, stopped showering and shave his beard, and everything I tried to to involve him failed. Until one Sunday morning, when he said that he wasn’t sure he loved me anymore, that he felt empty and he wasn’t sure he wanted to stay with me. He confessed that he suffered of depression in the past and he is worried that also if he can get over it now, the depression will come back at some point. He said he had to be alone as he needed to understand his feeling but with me in the house it was impossible.
For me was like a hearth-quake came and destroyed everything and I was devastated. His colleague contacted me and she said she wanted to talk to me as she knew about his mental health issues. She told me that she noticed him very unhappy, but she didn’t know we had problems until he told her. She wanted to confirm that they aren’t seeing each other but they are very good friends and she tried to help him to face his problems and convince him to seek professional help. She told me he confessed that he was unhappy and he felt guilty to end the relationship because he didn’t want to make me suffer, but I had to accept that he didn’t want to stay with me anymore.
I couldn’t do anything else to make him change his idea and I accepted to let him go with the death in my heart. From that day he changed behaviour, he started to shower again, he shaved, he started to go out for a walk. He was like a new person and I started to think that he faked his depression to make me go away. I also thought that he is probably faking now; he put a mask to seem relieved to convince everyone that now he is happy and he was suffering about the situation.
He stayed in our house for more 2 weeks since the break up and he was sleeping in the spare room. Despite he told me that he was going away he wasn’t looking for a new apartment, until I told him that I found a new place and I was moving out in a month, as I couldn’t live in a place where there are so many memories. Only at that point he started to look for a new place and he moved out recently. It seems like he didn’t want to do the first step.
The day he moved out his colleague helped him to move all his stuff and I started to have again the feeling that they are seeing each other.
When he finished to collect all his stuff, he came to say goodbye (he wants to remain friends and he will help me for the moving) and he asked if he could hug me. At the beginning I hesitated, but then I hugged him and I started to cry. He cried as well and I told him that I loved him so much and to take care of himself and to ask help and solve his issues. He said that he loved me as well and I was the most important person in his life and he doesn’t want to loose me, but I also have to take care of myself and I have a long journey ahead.
Since he moved out I live like in an alternative reality, I still think that it didn’t happen and I hope that once he stays alone in his house, he starts to think and he will change his mind.
I read a lot about depression in this period and I found out that sometimes depressed partners may refuse to face the inner pain that’s wrecking their lives. Rather than seek treatment, they come to believe that it’s the existing relationship that is ruining them. Their answer is often to leave and find happiness elsewhere.
I know that I have to think about myself now and I have to do something to heal, but I’m still very concerned about him.
Most of the times I think that I want to come back together and start again, but I’m also worried that if this has happened once, it will probably happen again.
The only thing I’m sure is that I love him so much that I don’t want to loose him forever.

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Lost in Love

Thanks for sharing! I am a hopeless romantic that’s lost in love! My partner and mother of my children for over 13 years has told me that she has fallen out of love! This has crippled everything that I believed and valued in the thought of love and relationships.. I have had hope for months that this was a “phase” that just required me to convince Denise that anything that I may of done to upset or discourage her love and our bond was done without intent and with full regret. I hoped that whatever I may of done wouldn’t be the focus but instead please allow MY love to prove to her, how grateful I am to have her in my life and how sorry I am to allowed myself to do anything that could of allowed you to doubt who I was or how I truly feel. I pray she falls back into love.. I’m not sure where this is going but the trauma I’m feeling is killing me.

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