Editor’s Note – this post is read between 30 and 80 times each day. We’ve received four or five series’ of correspondence about the content, and others have quoted and posted it in various internet venues. I’m reposting it because there might be something of value for you to pass along to others. The topic is a timeless one, and we hope there are still people who can find the information useful. Thanks.
Just over a year ago, I was sitting in a meeting room in the Edmond Public Library. Across from me was a friend of a friend of a friend who had been referred to me for a class assignment. He had agreed to a one hour interview over the topic of his in-progress divorce proceedings and questions related to seeking help before he and his wife finalized the process.
I felt protective of him in some ways because all the walls of the room were glass and our activity was visible, although not audible, to the other people in the library. However, he seemed to be holding up pretty well emotionally, even as we worked through some of the more sensitive questions. His face began to change and contort, however, when he related “the ending discussion” with his wife. He recounted that every time she brought up a problem in their relationship and stated that ‘she wanted out’ he had countered with a way they could fix the problem.
But then she ‘brought the hammer down.’ She told him that she wasn’t in love with him anymore, and hadn’t been for a long, long time. “And when she said that,” he recalled quietly, “I knew there was nothing I could do. You can’t change someone’s feelings. It was over.” He paused and stared at the table for a few moments. I asked him if he needed a break.He looked up, as if snapping out of a deep thought sequence and smiled. “No, no…we can go on. What’s your next question?”
I followed that meeting up with four other interviews over the same sequence of questions, in the same way. Three of the other four included conversations where one or the other partner had “fallen out of love,” and the knowledge of that phenomenon became the precursor for ending their relationship. In some ways, it seemed that the conclusion of that particular interview series was this: You can get through a lot of problems in a marriage, but if one of the spouses declares they are no longer in love, it’s over.
Or is it?
At least two different data sets indicate that couples who at one point in their marriage “wanted to get a divorce, but decided against it and ended up staying together,” are glad they did years later. The Oklahoma Baseline Survey on Marriage published this finding: Of those respondents who considered their marriage to be in serious trouble at some point (34%), 92% said that they were glad they were still together (OSU BSR, 2002). So, although there is some evidence that people who may have fallen out of love dug in and are now making it – there is much to be discovered in this painful area of marriages on the brink. In this next section, I will cover some information on the falling out of love process, options for the consideration of staying together regardless of feelings, information about why some of those feelings experienced might even be sending you false signals, and then information about approximate timelines for ‘re-falling’ back into love.
Information on the Falling Out of Love Process
It is important for couples to understand that the “falling out of love” process can be personalized to them; it’s not just others and there IS information that can help describe what they are experiencing. Dr. Joanni Sailor of Cameron University used her dissertation to research this particular process in 2006. Here is a summary of the phases she modeled after extensive interviews with eight people who responded to a newspaper announcement inviting participants to discuss falling out of love with their spouse:
1. Gradual decline – Some individuals describe the falling out of love process as a gradual one. Sailor wrote, “Time mask(s) subtle, almost imperceptive changes of gradual decline.” Tiny problems turn into small ones. Left unattended, they become medium sized issues and the initial committed relationship begins to crack and become vulnerable to other problems. The protective factors erode away and leave partners open and susceptible to attacks that would have earlier been easily averted. Therefore, one of the two findings of the disconnection process is a very slow and gradual process that happens over a long period of time.
2. Pivotal Moment – Another process, however, was also articulated. It was a different process where those interviewed described a very personal illustration over a specific interaction noted as “a pivotal moment” in their falling-out-of-love process. Sailor writes, “Pivotal moment represented an easily discernible, easily identifiable instantaneous revelation in which there is unquestionable knowledge that the romantic love for one’s spouse has vanished. The perceptions and descriptions of ‘pivotal moment’ were intense and did not diminish with the passage of time.”
3. Change in sense-of-self (self-preservation, guilt, feeling like failure) –Another pervasive finding was that those who were involved in the ending of a relationship experience intense changes in their own sense of Self. They felt guilty or depressed; they grieved, felt like a failure, wanted to take all the blame and then switched and wished to blame everyone, etc.
Those who are in the middle of this process feel flooded with an abundance of intense emotions and very often completely change the way they see themselves. This can be further complicated by other things going on during the emotional separation process as described in the next bullet point:
4. Contempt/anger/hatred – Not only are there intense negative emotional floods directed toward themselves, but there are also equal emotional floods directed toward their spouse. Extreme feelings of contempt, disdain, anger, hatred, and – in some cases – even fantasies about their death, frequently occur. Therefore, not only are those who are going through a relationship disconnection unhappy with themselves (and possibly seeing themselves in a distorted way), they are unhappy with their partners and very possibly seeing them in an equally distorted way.
I spoke with Dr. Brandt Gardner of Oklahoma State University about this issue. We mulled over the fact that falling out of love is, as described by some, the peak level of the emotional pain threshold. That’s probably because pain creates a flooding of protective factors, including hormones and other processes kicked in by the endocrine system. When this happens, some of these endocrine processes serve as specific catalysts to embed memories, especially if that pain is accompanied by surges of adrenaline. What happens when there is such a great amount of emotional wounding is an experience likened unto any other trauma, then the hippocampus (responsible for short-term memory) experiences actual nerve damage brought on by cortisol flooding.
What this means in layman’s terms is that during the whole “falling out of love process,” there is actual distorted emotional memories being created.
These distorted memories, when embedded by floods of adrenaline, end up – in essence – being emotional brain scars…and take a long time to heal.
Now – let’s flip over to the “falling IN love process” for a moment. The experience is amazingly complex and sort of like being on drugs. The unconscious is at work; couples get their greatest needs met from a partner who seemingly is a perfect fit, their bodies are flooded with cortisol creating a natural high; interestingly, females testosterone levels spike (making them feel a little more virile and aggressive) while male testosterone levels are lowered (making them feel more docile and amicable). Between the two entangled in the wonderful thing called Love, all of Nature’s blessings are being showered down over them in a rainstorm they probably wish would never end.
That’s quite a difference to the falling out of love process, isn’t it? It’s almost as if, to coin religious phrases, falling in love is Heaven, and falling out of love is Hell. And both are accompanied by a range of bio-socio-emotional processes that almost seem bigger than the individuals involved.
But all this information begs a few more follow up questions. If we know what happens to people when they fall in love, and we understand (to a degree) what happens when they fall out of love, WHAT do we know about couples having a chance to RE-fall back into love?
In beginning my research on this particular question, I checked some public message boards. Several have posted this question: “Can a person fall back into love with their spouse?” The answers cover an entire spectrum from YES to NO, but frequently you see this type of response: “If it was ACTUAL, REAL love… then you never actually fall out of love with them.” I’m sure I saw this advice on the sitcom “Friends” several times over the years.
This advice, however, is FALSE.
The feelings of connection I’ve seen described in my therapy office over the past ten years beg to differ, and offer altogether a different perspective. The perspective I’ve seen is, surprisingly, the Un-process of Sailor’s findings. Some couples fall back into a romantic love connection gradually. They’ve described the process taking up to two years from their “out of love” feelings to their “back in love” feelings. Other couples have experienced a “pivotal moment” of falling back into love.
One person in my office recalled that when they witnessed their spouse stepping up in a big way and protecting their family from a perceived threat, that became their pivotal moment and their romantic feelings began to return. However, all couples state that they have to undo the feelings of contempt, mistrust, and isolation. They had to actively work at “turning toward” each other when they had been shutting each other out for such a long time. And mostly, all had to take a risk. They had to take a leap of faith that went exactly and expressly against how they felt emotionally in order to achieve what they recaptured. None of them, when taking that risk, were sure about how it might work out…and most took the risk because of someone other than themselves: their children, their family, their connections with collective friends, etc.
So – can you fall back into romantic love with your spouse once you’ve disconnected from them emotionally? Yes. Will it always happen? I have no idea, but assume (because I’ve witnessed it) that some relationships are irreparably damaged and the individuals that make up those relationships are so hurt they are simply unable to take the steps necessary to heal. Remember, there is more than just attitude at play here…there is biology and physiology and certainly other family or friends involved as well.
So what’s the summary here? I think there are some clear messages:
1) To those of you who are or have fallen out of love – it’s a hard, painful process and there are many levels to the journey that got you to that place.
2) To those of you who wonder if you can fall back into love – it MAY BE a hard, painful process and there will most certainly be many levels involved on that particular journey as well.
However, it can happen. And reconnecting in a romantic way with a spouse is reported as a highly treasured attribute to many long term marriages who state they are ‘so glad they dug in and stayed together.’ But…only YOU can know yourself, your limits, and whether you have emotionally what it takes to risk stepping out on a journey that seems completely foreign, uncomfortable, and probably will be many times painful before it gets better.
It could be one year. It could be two. And unfortunately, sometimes it will be never. But…if you are ready to take the risk, I wish you the very best, and am offering this tool to help you find a therapist to help guide that process if that’s what you choose.
Good luck. And, if you’re in the middle of this “falling out” process, and DO “fall back in…” drop us a line when that happens. It would be nice to hear your story. Thanks.
Kelly Roberts, M.S., LMFT (aka Red Dirt Kelly) is a licensed marriage and family therapist, and AAMFT approved supervisor. She studies marriage and family policy, and marital interventions at Oklahoma State University. You may reach her at OSU here:
For those of you who would like to hear a “real life” story, I received the following narrative as a response to this post in November of 2011. I hope it will lend a “real life” perspective that could be helpful for you…RDK
Dear Ms. Roberts,