Amanda reached for another tissue as she repeated the hollow statement that Cliff mumbled to her last night in bed: “I love you but I’m not in love with you”. She unglued her eyes from the floor and said angrily, “What the hell does that mean – I love you but I’m not in love with you?” How was she supposed to respond to a cryptic message like that?
“I love you but I’m not in love with you.” It’s the one sentence that has ended more marriages than any other – this declaration that what was once a juicy plum of a relationship had withered on the vine. Sometimes the person being told knew it without knowing; had been aware for some time that there wasn’t much flash in the eye anymore. Other times he or she was clueless, plodding securely along the ups and downs of couple life believing that all was well.
But the “I love you but I’m not in love with you” pronouncement is almost always the closing bell. In so saying, the speaker may be as miserable as the person to whom it’s being spoken. Sometimes in marriages, the robust couple connection slowly starts to die, but the decline is so subtle, so gradual that neither partner notices its gasps and whimpers until it reaches its final breath. And then he or she wakes up one day to the unwelcome realization that it’s over.
Then the person to whom these words have been spoken comes to my office and asks if it’s possible to bring that stilled body of a marriage back from the grave. And, for the life of me, I wish I were skilled enough to be able to perform that feat, but know, in my heart of hearts, that once that sentence has been uttered, it’s time for mourning, not for communication skills training.
But why? What does it mean, this string of ten words that has so much power to harm? It speaks about the lost life force of a couple – that desire to be close, to be together, the impulse for intimacy, the complicity, the sexual energy that was an essential part of falling in love in the early days of the union. It describes the loss, on the part of one of at least one the partners, of the pleasure of the other’s company. And although sometimes, the one who finds him or herself deeply disillusioned doesn’t want to feel that way, once the scales have fallen from their eyes and they realize that there is no more desire, being together becomes intolerable and the end comes quickly.
I know I’ve said this before in these pages, but it breaks my heart when a couple who once experienced mutual love loses it through the demands of living, raising a family, being tired, not understanding their own or each others sexual needs, not tending the garden. It’s a shame when it ends, not through selfishness or contempt, but through not heeding the fact that relationships in our world can’t sustain themselves on air. They need to be watered, fed, pruned and cared for.
One half of the pair realizes that the desire has died although he or she still cares about the other and deeply wishes there were that spark, but when desire has left, it’s next to impossible to coax is to come back. And that can be a sadness for the person who no longer feels the want, as well. He or she may also wish that the web of familial relationship could be preserved when the sexual love is gone. Men in this circumstance may want to remain friends and don’t understand why that’s not possible for the woman they are leaving behind. So they say, “I love you, but I’m not in love with you” not knowing where it will lead. They just don’t know what else to say.
I’m a family therapist and the author of Runaway Husbands: The Abandoned Wife's Guide to Recovery and Renewal and My Sister, My Self: The Surprising Ways that Being an Older, Middle, Younger or Twin Shaped Your Life. I can be found online at www.vikkistark.com and www.runawayhusbands.com.