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Adrift in Love: 3 Key Signs of a Failing Relationship

1. Feeling alone, even though you're together.

Key points

  • People may come to a point where they're in a relationship but feel unfulfilled.
  • Failing relationships experience loneliness when partners lack emotional connection.
  • When a relationship doesn't fulfill your needs, you experience longing.
  • Loneliness and longing lead to languishing, a feeling of falling short and unable to do much about it.
Charlie Foster/Unsplash
Source: Charlie Foster/Unsplash

You’re in love. You’ve been together a while.

But something doesn’t feel quite right.

Your relationship feels almost incomplete, like something is missing. It’s not like your partner treats you poorly, and you’re not totally unhappy. But if you’re honest, you’re not super happy either.

It’s hard to put into words. But you know it’s not what you want. But you also wonder if you’re being too harsh. You have the stable relationship you always wanted. Yet it’s not exactly the one you dreamed of. You haven’t fallen out of love, but recognize that things aren’t quite the same.

You don’t feel great. You don’t feel terrible. Your situation isn't ideal, but it's also not a dealbreaker.

You’re caught in between.

You’re adrift in love.

This may be the worst relationship experience of them all because you feel listless, directionless, and a bit melancholy. But it's not like you're apathetic. That’s only possible when you don’t care. The problem is that you care about everything: your partner, relationship, and future. You care enough to figure out what's going on.

You’re left feeling distraught and despondent, yet there is no obvious cause, and the path forward is unclear. Confidently making a decision about your future feels impossible. Your relationship isn’t good enough to happily stay, but it's also not bad enough to leave.

You need to figure out what's going on before your relationship is permanently destroyed.

The 3 L's of Being Adrift in Love

1. Lonely. It seems impossible: You’re in a relationship and feel very much alone. Yet it’s your daily life.

Perhaps as you watch TV with your partner sitting next to you, they’re not really there. You’re offering observations and making predictions, but they are oddly silent. You glance at your partner and find that they’re otherwise occupied, checking social media, email, sports scores, stock prices, or simply sound asleep. You want to share, but they’re just not there. They are emotionally unavailable despite being nearby.

Obviously, absentee TV watching isn’t the world's biggest relationship sin. But it’s often a symptom of bigger issues that may be lurking.

Research shows that many married people are lonely (Hsieh & Hawkley, 2018). That’s important because we easily recognize the potential for loneliness when we end a relationship, but often fail to see how it’s an issue in ongoing relationships. That same research shows that loneliness is especially likely with demanding and critical spouses.

2. Longing. Ultimately, loneliness is a craving. It’s yearning for the closeness and connection that’s missing. It’s hard to feel close when a partner is distant, emotionally unavailable, has attachment issues, or is narcissistic.

That mismatch creates a sense of longing, or wistfully wanting what you can’t quite have. You yearn for what you hoped your relationship would be but recognize that you’re falling short. Specifically, you’re longing for more connection, intimacy, validation, recognition, respect, nurturing, and growth.

Longing in relationships is common. In fact, a study that had 1,316 adults describe their life’s longings found that many focused on family and romantic relationships, especially when there was a strong desire for change (Kotter-Grühn et al., 2009).

Ironically, we commit to partners because we believe they will fulfill us over the long term. Your relationships once had everything you wanted, so you know fulfillment is possible.

But now, there’s no denying that your connection with your partner isn’t what it used to be. It’s confusing. What you want is possible and within reach, but you’re just not getting there. While you have enough to survive, you lack what you need to flourish.

3. Languishing. Loneliness and longing lead to languishing, a feeling of falling short, failing to make progress, and feeling like you can’t do much about it. Languishing is the opposite of flourishing (Keyes, 2002). Languishing isn’t a full-blown, clear-cut crisis, but it’s a distinct feeling of not having what you need.

Languishing relationships feel incomplete, listless, and directionless. In other words: stuck. You’re stuck because you know what you want, but also know you don’t have it, but don’t know how to fix it.

Instead of being held together by love, emotional connection, and mutual fulfillment, languishing relationships are held together by obligation, laziness, or basic inertia. While there are obvious issues, you also don’t have the energy, motivation, or knowledge to make it better. This leaves people feeling like they’re in a rut and bound to the relationship (Jamison & Beckmeyer, 2020).

You’re stuck. Things are not bad enough to leave, but it’s also not good enough to feel fulfilled and happy about staying. That’s the insidious nature of languishing. You fall into a pattern of tenacious mediocrity where it’s a struggle to be completely average. All of which make you feel… adrift. An incomplete emotional connection is certainly not what you signed up for.

Worse Than Being Alone

The 3 L's of loneliness, longing, and languishing sound like a single person’s problem. When you’re alone, you might be lonely because you long for the loving relationship you don’t have, resulting in that incomplete languishing feeling. That’s a familiar narrative we have about being single. But it reveals a major blind spot we have regarding love.

We sometimes believe that any relationship is better than being alone. Yet people in relationships can have the exact same issue with the 3 L's. Where your relationship is adrift you seem so close to having what you want, but also feel far from actually reaching it. The key pieces are in place, but you’re missing that elusive something that brings it all together. You see what a better relationship looks like, but also see how you fall short.

Make no mistake: Experiencing the 3 L's of being adrift in love is worse than being single but wanting a relationship. It's like relationship purgatory. At least when you’re single, you’re free to find the great relationship you deserve. When you’re adrift while in a relationship, you are unfulfilled and unable to find a better relationship. You either need to get out, or get to work.

Getting Yourself Reconnected

One thing is clear: You can’t keep going on like this. Something has to give so that you can move forward. Time to put in the effort by dedicating more resources to your relationship. Start by taking small steps.

Try giving a bit of your time. It only takes four hours of non-negotiable, dedicated time, committed to you and your partner. There are 168 hours in a week. Your relationship deserves at least four of them. With that time you can split it up any way you’d like, provided you’re doing things that benefit you as a couple or building a better connection with your partner. (For more, read about the 4-Hour Relationship here, including ideas for specific activities; and consider these 36 Questions to Ask Yourself.)

Good relationships take work. Spending only four hours a week is a bargain. With this minimal investment, you should gain more clarity about the state of your relationship and give you a better idea of which direction your relationship is headed. Are things improving? Is it status quo, and if so, will that be OK? One way or the other, you’ll be able to get yourself out of relationship purgatory and on the path to the great relationship you deserve.

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Hsieh, N., & Hawkley, L. (2018). Loneliness in the older adult marriage: Associations with dyadic aversion, indifference, and ambivalence. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 35(10), 1319-1339.

Jamison, T. B., & Beckmeyer, J. J. (2021). Feeling stuck: Exploring the development of felt constraint in romantic relationships. Family Relations: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Applied Family Studies, 70 (3), 880-895.

Keyes, C. L. M. (2002). The mental health continuum: From languishing to flourishing in life. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 43(2), 207–222.

Kotter-Grühn, D., Wiest, M., Zurek, P. P., & Scheibe, S. (2009). What is it we are longing for? Psychological and demographic factors influencing the contents of Sehnsucht (life longings). Journal of Research in Personality, 43(3), 428-437.

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