We know a lot about falling in love, but what about falling out of love? Relationship judgments naturally vary over time; for some, this might be minor ups and downs over the course of a week or even a day; for others, these judgments might change in a seemingly downward trajectory to the point of concern. So how do we differentiate a bad day, week, or year from a bad relationship? When do we know we've fallen out of love?
Scholars have identified predictors of breaking-up and what happens afterward, including the consequences of divorce for individuals and families. Of interest here is the experience of falling out of love: what it feels like, and how it unfolds.
Researchers engaged in the empirical study of falling out of love tell us that, even as people's experiences are unique, there are themes or patterns that often emerge as people fall out of love (Sailor, 2013).
Five common experiences of people falling out of love
- Loss of intimacy. Couples falling out of love typically experience a decline in physical intimacy, which may mean less sex, not desiring sex, lower-quality sex, less post-coital affection, or other losses in terms of physical intimacy. They might make excuses to avoid intimacy until eventually, neither party is initiating contact. A decline in affectionate touch over the course of the day may also describe people's experiences during falling out of love.
- Loss of trust. Can you rely on your partner? Do you wonder if your partner is being honest with you? Are you being honest with your partner? Couples describing falling out of love as a decline in trust.
- Loss of feeling loved. Maybe there's a disconnect between how your partner acts and the idea that they love you, and reconciling their behavior with love just doesn't seem possible. People who are falling out of love might start questioning if their partner can love anyone, or if it's they themselves who their partner does not love.
- Emotional pain. The pain falling out of love likely takes different forms for different people. In the sample considered by Sailor (2013), it included feelings of depression, crying, misery, and hurt, and a great deal of loneliness. The grief that individuals experience can be overwhelming and prolonged.
- Negative views of the self. A corollary of falling out of love appears to be poor self-image and feeling like a failure. Perhaps this reflects disappointment in the realization that a relationship isn't what you imagined it to be; maybe it is an outcome of being rejected by someone whom you at one point trusted. People's self-esteem may take a major hit during the process of falling out of love.
How does falling out of love happen?
Sailor's (2013) research extracted two additional themes worth considering. Both of these themes are critical for discerning the trajectory of falling out of love.
- Gradual decline. First, most falling-out-of-love experiences are not dramatic transitions from full-on love to full-on apathy. Instead, people describe it as a slow decline in feelings of love over time. Love diminishes as small changes accumulate and move a couple away from closeness. They want different things as time goes along, have different goals, and maybe come to see themselves as different people than they were when they fell in love.
- Pivotal moment of insight: It's over. A fascinating trend emerged among Sailor's (2013) participants: They expressed recalling a moment when they knew the relationship was done, irrevocably done. This clear moment of insight, anticipated by growing distance and emotional separation, suggests small changes in emotions (e.g., jealousy, contempt), behaviors (e.g., more arguments, disrespect), or thoughts (e.g., seeing a partner as incompetent) might be swept to the side at first, but they build to the point where they are impossible to ignore. These may become the destructive forces that ultimately lead to the clear awareness that they are no longer in love.
So how do you know when it's over?
If you're questioning the health and stability of your relationship, it can be difficult to discern whether the issue is the relationship or surrounding circumstances. Think about all of the significant transitions that add stress to couples' relationships (e.g., work and school decisions, moving, a new baby) and consider the changes that couples can experience in how much time they spend together (e.g., shifting to long-distance or reuniting after periods apart, suddenly working from home together, becoming "empty nesters"). All of these transitions can add considerable strain to a relationship, or shift it a bit to a new norm.
Temporary stress can draw on the resources of even the healthiest couples. The question is whether the circumstances are permanent or not, and if they are, can the relationship sustain the stress?
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Sailor, J. L. (2013). A phenomenological study of falling out of romantic love. Qualitative Report, 18, 37.