Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Why Do People Fall Out of Love?

All relationships face hurdles that stretch their resources.

There is almost nothing more tragic for intimate partners than to watch their once-hopeful relationship fall apart.

I have faced many of these saddened and disillusioned partners as they endlessly ask themselves and others, “How and why did our relationship fall apart? Why didn’t we see it, and why couldn’t we stop it from happening?”

Many times, the stressors that caused the ending did not even come from within the relationship. Some of those partnerships might actually have blossomed, yet fell prey to outside factors that neither partner could control. Sometimes there are unexpected pressures that may have overwhelmed the couple’s capacity to rebound. I’ve witnessed the power of relentlessly unwelcoming families or prior relationship partners who are intent on destroying the relationship.

So often, even once-beautiful relationships that have everything going for them fall apart when there are unpredictable illnesses, financial crises, past traumas, or other losses that can stretch the once-confident lovers beyond their capacity to rebound.

Then, there are the issues that happen within the relationship, itself. Each couple has to deal with their own unique blending of histories and personalities. One or both partners too often bring unresolved issues into the relationship, some of which don’t emerge until the relationship matures. Or, unequal appetites create pressures for performance and guilt for inadequacies. Disappointments and disillusionment can mount when desires are higher than resources can provide.

Sometimes, old, unfinished relationships come back to haunt and take precedence over the current one. A couple who could once speak openly and authentically to each other suddenly cannot speak their truth or listen openly anymore because of a threat neither anticipated. Negative issues that were once only a small fraction of the relationship slowly overwhelm what positive experiences once counteracted them. Betrayals happen. Promises don’t pan out. And dreams change.

Most often, there is a period of growing disharmony that precedes a breakup that the partners may not want to recognize. Conflicts happen more often, last longer, and hurt more. One partner may push while the other runs. Repeated arguments become ritualistic and eat away at the core the lovers could once rely upon.

By the time the actual separation occurs, both are often ragged and begin to blame each other for their waning capacity to rebound. They are too wounded and too disillusioned to remember what they ever treasured in one another.

When I’ve spent time with these understandably discouraged patients, I steer them away from regret, guilt, or blame. It is far more important that they understand that even seemingly true love can fail its most committed partners. They must not allow themselves to fall prey to cynicism or giving up their belief that they did their best.

Most people have the capability to end a relationship without losing love or respect for the other partner. But, sadly, most people have not been taught the skills to be able to do that, or even know that they could. Their role models have never shown them that it is possible for partners to love each other beyond a breakup and that separation always leads to disconnection.

When couples who have once loved each other deeply can leave their relationship feeling grateful that they’ve been able to live in it, they can maintain their love for one another forever. Even after years apart, they talk to others about those past relationships with pride, determined to remain grateful for what blessings they did create together, despite the outcome.

I have long advocated that those who are able to do that are the people we should hold as the models of what true love is like. I have met them in my practice, and consider them the unsung heroes of what love should be like for all of us. They are people who seem to herald the essence of unselfishly loving another and the real sacrifice it may ask of us; to want their partners to be fulfilled and successful in life, even if it means they have to separate for them to achieve those goals.

Because they are so rarely profiled, I’d like to share two stories that illustrate what this kind of love looks like. I’ve protected their identities by altering the details to ensure their privacy, but I assure you that they exist.

Also, in both scenarios, it is the women who left the relationship. I’ve purposely chosen these two illustrations to challenge the widespread belief that men are more likely to leave a relationship before women do.

Kate and Tanner

From Kate:

“Before Tanner and I met, neither of us had ever stopped long enough in our careers to even think of settling down. My commitment to being a reporter necessitated that I be away from home far more than I was there, and often without much warning. My friends and family knew that my bags were always packed and my keys were on the counter, ever-ready to embrace any new adventure.

I only had a few relatively serious relationships that had promise, but my work came first for me. In my twenties, it didn’t matter. I was fine the way things were.

Then, somehow, I stopped long enough to look at the clock. I was thirty-five and everyone I’d known since forever was planning a future with someone they adored. I began to wonder if I had truly missed something.

Tanner was only a 10-year-old kid when I met him. He was my best friend when we were young and androgynous.

Later, I met him again at a mutual friend’s wedding. The night morphed into weeks and months of what felt like genuine and true love. He was an artist and loved the times I was away so he could paint without feeling that he was neglecting me.

My family and friends loved him. Everything seemed perfect.

We had never discussed a family and, seemingly out of nowhere, he was more connected to time, and knew that, if we were going to have a family, we’d better get going. At first, I thought he was just musing, you know, kind of like, “shouldn’t we have a kid, Kate? I think it’s time.” So, I pretty much ignored him. Until I realized that he meant it. We began to argue. The conflicts escalated and it seemed that was all we talked about. I kept sweeping it under the rug, focusing on what was still so good and easy between us, pretty much refusing to take him seriously.

I came home one day to find all of his things gone. The note was simple: ‘I will always love and treasure you, Kate. I believe in your hopes and dreams. But they are no longer mine. I’ve met someone who is more in line with my desires. I would never have started an affair without leaving first. The honesty we’ve shared has fed my soul and it will always be that way. Stay on your path, Kate. Hold onto your own light.’”

Love, Tanner

From Tanner:

“I loved Kate when she had braids and a face full of freckles. We were just kids but life was always more fun when we were together. She was my best friend until I went to boarding school and she worked hard enough to get into a great college. But we always kept in touch.

My folks wanted me to be a doctor, but art held my heart and I persisted. I dated enough women to know that I wasn’t ready to commit, and maybe never would be. Maybe I just never found anyone who touched my heart in the same way.

Until that wedding.

When Kate walked in, my heart stopped. I hadn’t laid eyes on her for almost 15 years. She was an amazing kid, but a phenomenal woman. Smart, beautiful, charismatic, welcoming. I tapped her on the shoulder and she turned around. It was mutual synergy. We hugged and talked throughout the night, and never left each other’s sides for a decade.

I was an only child. When I turned 40, I felt an urge within me that I’ve often heard women talk of. I wanted a family. I wanted to be a dad, rather than the uncle I’d become to a hearty tribe of young people. And time was running out. I began to bug Kate. After a few months it was clear that she was just not on board.

I could not let go. I could see my desires threatening and entrapping her need for freedom and her devotion to her career. I knew, deep in my heart, that true love is about letting someone go if they would be better off without you.

Then, my next wife showed up one day in my studio. We hit it off. She had a two-year-old and had been widowed since the baby’s birth. It was as if some universal angel had interfered. We are still together.

Julia and Sean

From Sean:

“We met on a college trip to Uganda. Julia was full of hope for the world and open to everyone and everything that came her way. She was a true adventurer, like a jigsaw puzzle without edges. Every moment we spent together, I felt that I was expanding my world views and learning things I would never have seen without her.

I may have been overwhelmed at times, but I was never bored. She filled my head, my heart, and my soul, with ever-changing dreams and possibilities. I never would have lived a life anywhere near what we had without her constant and amazing eye for the next meaningful adventure.

We had agreed that one day, we would have a family but that it would not stop our way of life. We’d have double backpacks, carrying our two children around the world as we continued our adventures.

The kids came, and for a while, everything worked like magic. We stayed with our folks when we weren’t traveling and with the many friends along the way when we were. When Julia wasn’t spurring a cause, she’d find work in whatever country we were in and we managed to survive. Those years before the kids and following were the most beautiful of my life.

We didn’t prepare for the fact that kids are better off settled in one place once they start school. I could work from anywhere, so my career was unaffected. Julia had to find a non-profit that shared her dreams and could utilize her multiplicity of talents. She applied everywhere. Nothing came up that could meet her needs.

Being her unstoppable self, she tried over and over to start programs that might further the causes of those in our area who were less fortunate. People would rally, and then drop out. She became disillusioned and then gave in, joining the other moms. She’d often tell me, ‘I feel like there is a phone growing out of my ear, and I listen to most conversations in a trance. I just don’t know if I can do this, Sean.'

I listened and comforted but just didn’t see it coming. One day she said to me, ‘You are a great dad. The kids are happy with you. I feel as if I’m smothering to death and you seem okay. I just got offered an amazing job overseas. It’s for a year. Sean, please understand. I have to go, or I will not be able to intellectually or emotionally survive.’

I looked at her and realized that the adventure that was us no longer filled her hunger to make a bigger difference in the world. And I knew she would not be back.”

From Julia:

“I truly meant it when I said ‘forever.' We were the most perfect team I’d ever known, totally and completely compatible in every way. Those first years were like a fantasy. Sean was up for anything I wanted to do.

I never noticed that it was always me who created our never-ending discovery life. He was so enthusiastic and participatory when we did things, that I just assumed he would do them on his own were I not to be in the picture.

The kids were a joint decision and they didn’t stop us. We had friends all over and defined ourselves as an easy couch potato family. We never looked back and never regretted any of our decisions.

I’d begun to notice Sean’s reticence to travel so much as the kids got a little older. He wanted to volunteer to coach soccer and hang out with the other dads. He convinced me that we just needed to enter another phase of life and it would be equally joyful. He seemed so confident and sure.

I settled down and immediately became aware that I was sinking into a depression. I began putting all of my energy into creating new ideas and shaking up the community in a good way. No one seemed interested. Even the non-profit I worked for seemed to be sluggish and uninspired.

On the other end of me, Sean was truly happy. He’d settled into the life that he might have always wanted had he not met me. The kids and he embraced their life, their new friends, and the community activities. I still loved him as much as ever but boredom began to erode my attraction to him and we stopped making love. He complained a little, but not heartily.

I knew that I had to go. It was the hardest decision I ever made. We stayed married for five more years and I visited often and kept in constant touch. I took the kids on vacations when I could and visited them often, but they became closer and closer to Sean’s family and the people who had become their 'forever tribe.' It had to be that way.”

All relationships face hurdles that stretch their resources. All couples must learn kindness, patience, maturity, and sacrifice to keep love alive and growing. Any couple who has managed to stay in love knows to feed and nurture their relationship no matter what threatens to drive it apart.

But, sometimes the most beautiful of promise cannot fulfill itself, even when all indicators point to success. Sometimes separation has to happen. Most often it is not important who was write or wrong, only that what intimate partners once loved about each other is not lost, even when the relationship must end.

Most people cannot end a failed relationship easily, let alone maintain love beyond that loss. But getting as close as possible to that no-fault, no-blame outcome should be something we all strive for. Holding a past beloved relationship in mind as we search for the next, is the surest way to find love again, and to cherish it as we bathe in what we have honored in the past.

Dr. Randi’s free advice e-newsletter, Heroic Love, shows you how to avoid the common pitfalls that keep people from finding and keeping romantic love.

More from Psychology Today

More from Randi Gunther Ph.D.

More from Psychology Today