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Keep Marriage Alive: How to Avoid Relational Apathy

Research reveals the importance of staying interested in your spouse.

Key points

  • The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference.
  • Romantic disengagement can involve feeling indifferent toward a partner, coupled with attempts to increase emotional distance.
  • The good news is that couples who don’t know how to effectively communicate can learn.

As many couples learn the hard way, the failure to express relational interest or maintain positive interaction leads to lower marital satisfaction. This can lead to feelings of depression and negativity toward a spouse. But in many cases, once-inseparable partners do not slide toward animosity, but apathy.

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The Opposite of Love Not Is Not Hate

Irum Saeed Abbasi and Nawal G. Alghamdi (2017) examined the factors that characterize the process of falling out of love,[i] and identify the opposite of love as emotional indifference. They identify emotional indifference with the terms “marital disaffection” and “romantic disengagement.”

They define romantic disengagement as feeling indifferent toward a partner, coupled with cognitive and behavioral attempts to increase emotional distance. They explain romantic disengagement as a lack of strong positive emotions, but also relatively few negative emotions toward a partner, as well as the relationship. Abbasi and Alghamdi explain that compared to engaged spouses, disengaged spouses are less involved in their partners' lives, spend less time talking with them, are less intimate, and are less attentive to their partner’s needs, or to the relationship.

Abbasi and Alghamdi define marital disaffection as “a gradual deterioration of love and emotional attachment,” as well as a decline in care, and increasing indifference. They list factors that determine whether a disaffected spouse will remain in the relationship including both personal and social commitment, the number of children, age, length of the marriage, and what they refer to as general control over their life.

Abbasi and Alghamdi cite a study of 300 married male teachers (Sadati, Honarmand, & Soodani, 2015) that identified factors that directly affect marital disaffection as including negative emotionality (neuroticism), forgiveness, differentiation (maintaining individuality while in a relationship), and marital conflict. They also identified a link between marital disaffection and workaholism—which is likely not a surprise to many dual-income spouses who barely see each other due to their schedules.

Education and Communication

The good news is that couples who don’t know how to effectively communicate can learn. Maryam Fallahi et al. (2022)[ii] used an Iranian sample to investigate the extent to which relationship education and changes in communication impacted marital functioning between newlyweds. They found that couples in the intervention group described enjoying a higher level of marital functioning, as well as more positive, and fewer negative communication behaviors for up to six months after the study. Increased negative communication between spouses, on the other hand, seemed to predict lower marital functioning in the future.

Effort Instead of Apathy

Even within unions suffering from indifference, there is hope. Abbasi and Alghamdi note the value of marital therapy, marital adjustment, and recognition of dysfunctional coping styles and behaviors that characterize marital disaffection. Fallahi et al. report the positive value of education on marital communication. When both partners are interested in and committed to working on their relationship, they can combine efforts to enhance relational quality, and enjoy married life.


[i] Abbasi, Irum Saeed, and Nawal G. Alghamdi. 2017. “Polarized Couples in Therapy: Recognizing Indifference as the Opposite of Love.” Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy 43 (1): 40–48. doi:10.1080/0092623X.2015.1113596.

[ii] Fallahi, Maryam, Reza Fallahchai, and Tayebeh Abbasnejad. 2022. “Communication Behaviors and Marital Functioning among Iranian Newlyweds: The Effects of the Prevention and Relationship Education Program.” Current Psychology: A Journal for Diverse Perspectives on Diverse Psychological Issues 41 (6): 3565–76. doi:10.1007/s12144-020-00889-9.