- Growing apart is not a death sentence for a relationship, but there are signs you can watch for.
- Signs include having few shared interests, difficulty talking over differences constructively, and rarely feeling joyful about the relationship.
- Taking action to correct the drift, plus openness to learning new strategies, may help change the patterns at the root of a couple's unhappiness.
A British study conducted several years ago found that, at least in England, "falling out of love" was the most commonly cited cause of the choice to forego trying to save a marriage and instead to seek a divorce.
Number one on the list of exit doors from marriage used to be an affair. Infidelities appeared to require that a couple give up on their relationship. Now, healing from an infidelity 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 Does It Mean to Grow 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 both 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 10 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 = Mostly true
3 = Very true
The Falling Out of Love Warning Signs Quiz
- We have very few shared interests or times that we enjoy being together.
- Staying together is just not a priority for me, for my partner, or for both of us.
- Flirting with others appeals to me; so does sex with other partners.
- In my gut, I don't see my partner as a truly good person.
- We have a hard time talking over differences constructively.
- I'd rather not talk about what bothers me than risk getting into arguments about it.
- I still resent some of the hurtful things my partner has said and done in the past.
- There are 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.
- I rarely feel playful or joyful about my relationship; when I look ahead at our future, I feel bleak.
- I rarely express appreciation, affection, or gratitude toward my partner. I find myself feeling irritated toward them.
How to interpret your score:
A score that's all 0's would be ideal, but few people are that perfect.
1's and 2's indicate areas in your relationship where there is room for improvement. The fewer the 1's and 2's in comparison to the 0's, the more secure and connected you are to your loved one—but 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. It's best do something right away about these. Check out online resources or seek 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 intact. Ignoring these warning signs, however, means that the danger ahead is likely to grow over time.
What's So Important About These Signs?
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 friendship, 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 activities of which one partner disapproves, instead of enriching the relationship, the impact of the separate time is likely to be corrosive. Drug use, 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 time spent together evokes negative feelings like boredom or irritation, 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, can also lead to growing apart. Excessive work hours, long commutes, or other barriers 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.
Growing apart can reflect priorities. Is sustaining your relationship a priority for you? Or are you more invested in hanging out with your friends, political action, or watching TV?
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. Excessive use of pornography or looking at alternative partners online may be particularly strong signs of growing disaffection.
4. Character issues.
Growing apart can mean that some behaviors of your loved one are seriously problematic and you see no hope in them ever changing. Addictions, excessive anger, and chronic affairs may be the most common. There can also 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 (which may manifest as dramatic emotional storms, misinterpretations of benign situations, or lots of anger), controlling behavior, unwillingness to try to earn a living, or paranoia.
When your love first began, these issues may not have been apparent. It's possible that 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 can definitely cause love to fade.
On the other hand, many habits that are merely annoying can be accepted as, "Oh well—no one's perfect. I'll focus on the things I do appreciate about my partner, and I'll figure out how to work around our minor differences." Better yet, with collaborative communication skills, you can work together to find solutions that work for both of you. If so, these differences are unlikely to lead to growing apart. It's the big ones—like alcohol use, other forms of addiction, affairs, or personality issues—that tend to spell doom for the marriage.
5. Skills issues.
Growing apart can indicate that you have insufficient confidence in your skills for productive discussion. With insufficient skills, you are likely to say nothing about behaviors that bother you—lest you come on as too strong, too complaining, or too blaming.
You may also distrust your or your partner’s responsive listening skills. If speaking up is going to lead to defensiveness or arguments rather than improvements, talking together may feel too risky to try.
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 through the same annoyances instead of risk arguments.
Conflict avoidance sometimes 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—the part that still feels 12 years old—that self-silences. Conflict avoidance can also come from having a shy or gentle soul that would rather capitulate than stand up and voice concerns.
Therapist and author Terry Real, who spoke at the excellent Milton Erickson Foundation Couples Therapy Conference I attended recently in Los Angeles, attributes self-silencing to a primarily 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.
But nothing ventured means nothing gained. If you don't speak up, your love may end up being the grand loser.
Misunderstandings, miscommunications, misperceptions, misbehaviors, and mistakes occur from time to time in all relationships. The question, then, is whether a couple has tools to repair the hurt or angry aftermath of such "misses."
When couples do not have sufficient relationship repair tools, they are at risk for taking the path of resentment. Many people mistakenly believe that harboring hurt and anger about how their partner "wronged" them will somehow protect them in the future. Instead, it's another formula for growing apart.
8. Unhealed wounds.
Falling into painful situations can lead to falling out of love. Emotional wounds from the death of a child, for example, or another shared trauma, can be particularly difficult for couples to heal.
If there is any element (on either side) of blaming the partner for the traumatic event, a gulf between the parties is likely to develop; this gulf will only widen over time if the issues are not constructively discussed. And even without blame, partners sometimes believe that launching a "new life" after the trauma—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. Relationships may appear hopeless or "doomed to fail."
10. Misplaced focus.
Focusing on negatives, or 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, or do likes, invites a return of affection and good will. 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. This can be positive for many, but 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. This can block you from seeing what you could do differently to regain those loving feelings.
The good news: If your intimate partnership seems to be splitting apart, pay attention! Taking action to correct the drift, plus openness to learning new strategies and ways of being, can often change the patterns that have been at the root of a couple's unhappiness. For starters, my book and workbook called The Power of Two, and also the website poweroftwomarriage.com, teach the skills couples need to talk together safely and constructively about their differences. ITaking action sooner, rather than later, makes it more likely that your partnership can be salvaged.