What It Really Means To Fall Out Of Love
We hear it all the time, but what does it actually look like?
You hear it all the time: Oh, they fell out of love. That's why their marriage ended. But what does that even really mean?
Most often, people use the phrase “falling out of love” to describe losing a certain type of romantic feeling that used to be present in a relationship. But it’s important to distinguish the loss of love from the loss of passion — two related but ultimately separate concepts, one of which is actually much more common than you might think.
What It Means to Fall Out of Love
To understand what it means to fall out of love, it helps to first consider what it means be in love.
In the field of relationship psychology, many theoretical frameworks attempting to define and taxonomize the concept of love have been proposed throughout history. One of the most enduring among them is Robert Sternberg’s triangular theory of love, which holds that love involves three key components: passion (feelings of excitement, intensity, and attraction), intimacy (feelings of closeness, connection, and trust), and commitment (the ongoing decision to maintain that love).
When many people think of the idea of “being in love,” they’re often actually thinking of just one component of it: the passion. Love is often associated with those hotter feelings, that intense desire to be around the person all the time, the physical chemistry, the infatuation, the so-called “butterflies in the stomach.” Brain studies show that this falling-in-love feeling even has neurochemical similarities to that of an addiction in terms of the way it activates the brain’s dopamine reward system.
Many people equate the disappearance of that passion with “falling out of love.” But in truth, much research suggests those more infatuated feelings in fact usually fade in long-term couples—even among those who report to be very satisfied with their relationships. As such, if you operate under the belief that a relationship is over just because it lacks the highs of early romance, you’re likely to find basically every relationship you ever enter to eventually become unfulfilling.
When passion wanes, what’s often left in its stead is what’s sometimes referred to as “companionate love”— that comfortable, steady feeling of warmth and closeness you have with someone with whom you’ve developed a long-term, secure attachment — as well as the desire to maintain it. In other words, Sternberg’s other two components of love: intimacy and commitment. While passion does matter and is important to actively nurture, it’s often these other aspects of love that fuel relationships that last a lifetime.
Falling out of love, then, can perhaps be most accurately described as the disappearance of all three pieces: the passion, the intimacy, and the commitment.
How to Know If You’re Falling Out of Love
When researchers study people who’ve fallen out of love with a long-term partner, most describe it as a gradual process that happens over time —“a slow, progressive deterioration of the relationship in which over time the romantic love decreased and eventually ended,” as licensed marriage therapist Joanni Sailor, Ph.D., LMFT, put it in a 2013 study.
That process is punctuated by a “pivotal moment of knowing,” wherein you suddenly realize the feelings are no longer there. Or, as another study puts it, “the point of no return,” where you realize the love has not only been lost but is also unlikely to return.
If you’re not sure just yet if or where you might be in that process, here are a few signs you may be falling out of love:
- Spending time together isn’t that fun for you.
- You don’t actually really enjoy their company much at all these days.
- You’re easily irritated by little things they do—and not in a cute way. Like, in an actually frustrated and sometimes sort of disgusted way.
- It’s harsh, but you don’t really care about what’s going on in their life anymore. You find yourself feeling uninterested and disengaged when they tell you about their problems, stories, or thoughts.
- You don’t really care to tell them about what you’re feeling, thinking, or going through either.
- You feel very aware of their flaws, and you generally have a lot more negative things to say about them than positives.
- Date night feels like a chore.
- The idea of sex with them is a little repulsing, or just something you do for the release rather than for any sort of real connection or erotic thrill.
- You no longer trust them or feel able (or willing) to rely on them in any meaningful way.
- You feel relieved when you get some time away from them.
- You feel more relaxed and yourself when they’re not around.
- You don’t feel loved by them.
- You know things haven’t been great, but you honestly just don’t really want to put in the effort to work on the relationship.
- The idea of being single—or being with someone else—sounds pretty appealing.
- The main things keeping you from leaving are the kids, the fear of hurting your partner, and the daunting prospect of starting all over again.
- When you think about the state of your relationship, you feel sad—and maybe even guilty for feeling this way. It just all sort of hurts.
While a few of these signs alone may just be fleeting feelings that may pass with time, if a lot of these are resonating with you, it may be time to take a hard look at your relationship and where you want to go from here.
Contrary to what tropes about romance might have us believe, we do have some say in whether or not our feelings for someone grow stronger or fade away. Some studies suggest that people can actually actively “up-regulate” or “down-regulate” their feelings of love for someone by using specific cognitive and behavioral strategies. In other words, we do have some control over whether or not we fall out of love.
That’s because love is partly a choice. Per Sternberg’s theory, love is not just passion or intimacy — it’s also a commitment. It’s all the short-term and long-term decisions we make, day in and day out, to keep investing in our relationship and putting in the work to keep it alive.
So, if you feel like you might be falling out of love with your partner, it’s important to really pinpoint what exactly that means for you—and what you’re willing to do about it. Is it just the passion that’s missing for you these days—or is it something deeper? And most importantly, are you open to trying to stoke the flames of love once more?
It’s okay if the answer is no. Honor your feelings, and give yourself permission to grieve the end of something you once cared about and walk away.
On the other hand, just know that it is possible to shift your mindset and rekindle the romance once more, if you choose to do so.