Updated: Jul 20, 2021
From Hemingway’s famous novel The Sun Also Rises we get these often-quoted lines:
“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked.
“Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually, then suddenly.”
That pretty much sums up how most catastrophes happen. That’s how the building in Surfside, Florida, collapsed: gradually (through neglect and denial), then suddenly. This is how people die of cancer. There are often months, even years when the cancer is doing its evil work, but we don’t have a clue, especially if we don’t get regular checkups. Then suddenly we’re sick and, too often, it’s suddenly too late.
And that’s how you can trace the collapse of most relationships. A long, slow, often imperceptible decline and then a swift and dramatic ending. When people come to me in this last period I can only wish they’d come sooner, during that long period when it was so easy to ignore the warning signs or to explain them away.
And yet, they say, all couples fight. So what are the warning signs?
This is confusing territory, with lots of false positives and false negatives. But we were recently interviewed on one aspect of this. We were asked about one of the scariest, most painful things that can happen to a person: the fear that your partner is falling out of love with you. But what are reliable signs that this may actually be happening?
1. What’s missing? What are things that made you feel your partner loved you that are no longer happening? It could be something as simple as your partner no longer kissing you good-bye; it could be your partner’s forgetting your birthday when they’ve always remembered it in the past. If a big piece of your “feeling loved” has dropped out, that’s a reason for concern. It’s a sign that something important has changed for the worse.
2. Do they care about you? When people share their lives, they have ways of conveying that “you matter to me.” If you have a sense that this isn’t there, that your partner just doesn’t want to hear about your day or that they don’t seem moved by your feeling discouraged about something, that’s a reason for concern. Love can be just words, but caring is love in action. When someone can’t show caring, there’s reason to doubt there’s love there.
3. Do they hurt you? Has your partner said cutting, unkind things to you of a sort they’ve never said before? Not, “Babe, have you been putting on weight?” but “My God, you’re fat!” Words that shock you. Or have they done something—like come home very late with no text, no explanation, no apology—that they’ve not done before? Things like these are reasons for concern. We never intentionally hurt the people we love. So behavior like this can be a sign that love is not there.
4. Do they seem shut down to you? You want to reach out. To discuss what’s going on. To figure things out. To re-connect. And your partner seems utterly uninterested in any of this. That’s a reason for concern. When things go wrong in the land of love, people in love want to make things better. If they don’t even want to deal with it, then why not unless love is gone?
Now here’s the problem with this. None of the things I just listed necessarily means that your partner is falling out of love with you. There are many other possible explanations for these behaviors. Your partner no longer wants to make love to you? That could be a bad sign, or it could be all about something being wrong with your partner that they find hard to talk about. Your partner has been mean to you? That could be a terrible sign. But it could also be a sign that your partner can’t cope with all the stress they’ve been under, and it’s not about you at all.
It’s essential that you try to talk to your partner about this, but it’s also essential that you go about it the right way. An angry, teary tirade about how “You just don’t love me anymore” will make a mess. What you really want is to make it easy for your partner to talk to you.
So instead of talking to your partner about what they’ve been doing to you, talk to them about them. Show your love. Ask, “How have things been going with you recently? I’m a little concerned. You haven’t seemed quite yourself. I’d love to know what’s happening.”
See? No accusations. No demands. Just an open stage to share. An opening for you to be there for your partner. That’s your best way to find out what’s going on.
If you aren’t getting the understanding you’re looking for, you might try, “Remember yesterday, when you said such and such? That was so not like you. What was that all about? I’m just trying to understand.” Again, no accusations, no demands.
And if things continue to go downhill, and you can’t get anything helpful from your partner, you should insist on couples therapy. That’s often the only place where a partner will feel fully free to open up.
I beg you to understand this: most of the time love doesn’t simply die of its own accord; we kill it. Both people in the relationship. Just the way you’d kill a plant, by depriving it of what it needs and by giving it toxins it most definitely doesn’t need, that’s what happens with love. But as long as you’re not yet in that phase when things are happening suddenly and catastrophically, love and your life together can be saved. Even when it seems as though someone is “falling out of love.”
Remember: falling out of love isn’t a death spiral. It’s just a warning sign.
Most of the time this death of love has to do with not being able to get your needs met with one another, with not even being able to talk to each other about your needs without conflict. Well, Why Couples Fight, is about why couples can have such a tough time getting their needs met with each other—hint: it’s all about power struggles—and how they can turn this around, faster than you might think.