Number one on the list of exit doors from marriage used to be an affair. Infidelities seemed to require that a couple give up on their relationship. Healing from an infidelity now looks possible to more couples.
At the same time, falling out of love is being taken increasingly seriously with growing apart now ranking above more dramatic causes of divorce like physical abuse, bad behavior, and financial worries.
What is the nature of falling out of love and growing apart?
Falling out of love involves a gradual loosening of pair-bonding energies focused on your partner, and reinvestment of these energies elsewhere.
Fortunately though, growing apart is not a death sentence for a relationship. As I've written about in an earlier post, healthy relationships typically accordion in and out with periods of increased closeness and periods of distance.
The key is to heed signs of excessive distance and do something to bring a return of connection. Usually couples can do this on their own; if not, some form of counseling can help.
Try this self-quiz to rate yourself on ten warning signs of growing apart that merit particular attention.
Rate yourself from 0 to 3 on how true each of the following sentences are for you.
0= Not at all true
1 = Somewhat true
2 = Quite true
3 = Very true
The Falling Out of Love Warning Signs Quiz
___1. We have very few shared interests or times that we enjoy being together.
___2. Staying together is just not a priority for me, for my partner, or for both of us.
___4. In my gut I don't see my partner as a truly good person.
___5. We have a hard time talking over differences constructively.
___6. I'd rather not talk about what bothers me than risk getting into arguments about it.
___7. I still resent some of the hurtful things my partner has said and done.
___8. There's things in my life that have disturbed me deeply; and/or my partner continues to be profoundly upset about something in his/her life; and we don't talk about these experiences.
___9. I rarely feel playful or joyful; when I look ahead at my future I feel pretty bleak.
___10. I rarely express appreciation, affection, or gratitude toward my partner. Mostly I feel irritated.
___ TOTAL number of 0's
___ TOTAL number of 1's
___ TOTAL number of 2's
___ TOTAL number of 3's
How to interpret your score.
A score that's all 0's would be ideal. Few people are that perfect.
1's and 2's indicate areas where there's room for improvement. The fewer the 1's and 2's, the more secure and connected you are to your loved one, and at the same time, even a little improvement in these areas is likely to make your relationship all the more loving.
Any 3's mean danger ahead. Better do something right away about these. Check out online relationship help resources or get counseling.
Fortunately, if you catch these warning signs early, and especially if you add a quick upgrade to your communication-skills toolkit, you will be likely to succeed in keeping your bonds of connection in tact. Ignore these warning sides though and the danger ahead is likely to grow over time.
What is so important about each of the warning signs in the quiz?
Here's some explanation of each of the items in the quiz.
1. Couples who play together stay together. Growing apart can reflect a switch from interest in shared time and activities, including sexual sharing, to one or both partners turning outside the marriage for friends, fun and emotional connection.
Couples who accordion in and out with comfortable rhythms of together time alternating with individual activities generally thrive.
At the same time, if the hours apart involve activites that one partner disapproves of, instead of enriching the relationship the impact of the separate time is likely to be corrosive. Marijuana smoking, high-risk sports, religious or political dedication to ideas that are not embraced by both partners, or association with friends that the partner distrusts, for instance, can open ever-widening canyons between partners.
Similarly, if times spent together evoke negative feelings ike boredome or irriation, there's likely to be trouble ahead. Couples do best if they can talk, play and make love together in ways that renew their positive connection.
Insufficient together time, even from purely practical impediments, also can lead to growing apart. Excessive work hours, long commutes, practicing to run a marathon...these situations can starve the bonds of connection that normally get enhanced from eye-to-eye, voice-to-voice, smile-to-smile and skin-to-skin time.
2. Priorities: Growing apart can reflect priorities. Is sustaining your relationship a priority for you? Or are you really more invested in hanging out with your old friends, political action, or watching TV sports than you are in sustaining your love partnership?
3. Sexual interests aroused elsewhere. Growing apart can reflect a growing interest in a new potential partner.
There may not be a specific someone. Flirting with many people, for instance, can be a sign, as well as a cause, of falling out of love. Looking on the internet at porn or at alternative partners for marrieds may be particularly strong signs of growing disaffection.
4. Character issues. Growing apart can mean that some behaviors of your loved one are problematic, and you see no hope in these ever changing. Addictions, excessive anger, and chronic affairs may be the most common. At the same time there can be limits to how long even a very loving partner is willing to tolerate malicious narcissism (selfishness combined with a tendency to be mean), borderline personality disorder (dramatic emotional storms; misinterpretations of benign situations, lots of anger), controlling behavior, unwillingness to try to earn a living, paranoia and the like.
When your love first began, these issues may not have been apparent. Maybe in the excitement of new love you brushed aside the warning signs. At some point in a relationship, however, troubling character patterns can become too much. Unacceptable behavior definitely can cause love to fade.
5. Skills issues. Growing apart can indicate that you have insuffiient confidence in your skills for raising issues in a way that will lead to productive discussion. With insufficient skills, you are likely to say nothing about behaviors that bother you lest you come on too strong, too complaining or too blaming.
You may distrust also your or your partner’s responsive listening skills. If speaking up is going to lead to defensiveness or arguments rather than improvements, talking together really may be too risky to try. It may feel safer to let your love languish in a slow death spiral.
6. Conflict avoidance. Even if you have generally good skills for talking together cooperatively, you may be so wary of conflict that you would prefer to suffer again and again the same annoyances than risk arguments.
Conflict avoidance often comes from having grown up in a family where arguing with a parent was useless or dangerous. In these cases it may be a younger part of you, say the 12 year old part, that self-silences. Conflict avoidance also can come from having a shy or gentle soul that would rather capitulate than stand up and voice concerns.
Therapist/author Terry Real, who spoke at the excellent Milton Erickson Foundation Couples Therapy Conference I attended recently in LA, attributes self-silencing to a male tendency to believe, albeit wrongly, that “Yes dear” is the only option in intimate relationships. Other therapists regard self-silencing as a female tendency, learned from generations of cultural beliefs that men have the power and will not listen. I see both genders as being at risk for reluctance to speak up about what troubles them.
Yet, as the saying goes, nothing ventured, nothng gained...and love may end up being the grand loser.
7. Resentment. Misses such as misunderstandings, miscommunications, misperceptions, misbehaviors and mistakes occur from time to time in all relationships. The question then is whether a couple has tools for repair of the hurt or angry aftermath of such misses.
When couples do not have sufficient relationship repair tools, they become at risk instead for taking the path of resentment. Many people mistakeny believe that harboring hurt and anger about how their partner, in their view, wronged them somehow will protect them in the future. Wrong idea. It's another formula for growing apart.
8. Unhealed wounds.
Falling into painful situations can lead to falling out of love. Emotional wounds from, for example, the birth of a handicapped infant or the death of a child can be particularly difficult to heal.
If there is any element of blaming one’s partner, a gulf between the partners is likely to develop and to widen over time if the issues are not constructively discussed. Even without blame, after a trauma partners sometimes believe that launching a new life without their former partner will help them to escape on-going sadness or resentments.
9. Untreated low-level depression
Depression puts dark glasses on the outlook of the depressed person. Everyone in a depressed person's life, and particularly those closest, appears to have many faults. In addition, hopelessness about things ever getting better in the future is a hallmark of depressive thinking.
10. Misplaced focus. Focusing on negatives, on don’t likes, makes the gulf between two people ever wider. Criticism erodes love. As therapist Michele Weiner-Davis explained at the Couples Conference mentioned above, you will get more of whatever you focus on.
By contrast, switching your focus to your partner’s positives, on the do likes, invites a return of affection and good will. Criticism erodes love. Gratitude and appreciation enhance joy and love for both partners.
The bottom line: fewer couples are willing to put up with unhappy marriages than in the past. It's all too easy to think that the unhappiness in your marriage is all because of what your partner does and doesn't do, which can block you from seeing what you could do differently to regain those loving feelings.
The good news: taking action to correct the drift plus openness to learning new ways often can change the patterns that have been at the root of a couple's unhappiness. This free online quiz may help you to get started thinking about where growth might help.
So If your intimate partnership seems to be splitting apart, pay attention! And take action sooner, not later when the split has become such a vast divide that even fix-it help will no longer save it.
Denver clinical psychologist Susan Heitler, Ph.D, a graduate of Harvard and NYU, is author of Power of Two, a book, a workbook, and a website that teach the communication skills that save and sustain positive relationships. See the video below for a sample video from poweroftwomarriage.com.
Click here for a free Power of Two relationship test.
Check out also the prescriptions for sustaining relationship well-being in Dr. Heitler's most recent book, Prescriptions Without Pills.