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When Love Dies

How does it happen? In phases.

Key points

  • "Falling out of love" in a marriage occurs in identifiable phases that happen before the decision to divorce is made.
  • There are things partners can do after becoming disappointed, disillusioned, and disaffected in a marriage, but before deciding to divorce.
  • Partners can learn to examine their expectations of marriage, communicate more effectively, and be more self-aware in a relationship.

It's hard to define exactly what falling out of love feels like. In working with couples in therapy, it was not unusual for one or both partners to “want out." Unfortunately, by the time one or both seek therapy, they are feeling disaffected, demoralized, and simply can’t stand each other.

Let’s look at the process by which couples reach this impasse, having "fallen out of love," as a guide for you to intervene earlier.

Love and Marriage

A 2013 Pew survey reported that about 9 in 10 Americans (88%) cited love as a very important reason to get married, ahead of making a lifelong commitment (81%), and companionship (76%). This is the good news. However, it should not surprise us that a "lack of love" is one of the top reasons for a marital breakdown, given love has become a hallmark of marriage.

This does not mean that people who "fall out of love" are going to get divorced. In fact, a very interesting study done by social worker and social scientist Karen Kayser describes how falling out of love, which she defines as “marital disaffection,” is a process that may or may not lead to a breakup.[1]

It is important to know these phases in the dissolution of a marriage so that you can better figure out where you are in the process of "falling out of love" and more wisely choose what to do about it.

Phases of Falling Out of Love

Kayser has identified three phases of falling out of love, which have identifiable feelings, thoughts, and actions.

  • It begins with being disillusioned and disappointed.
  • It moves on to becoming disaffected.
  • It ends in disaffection—apathy and indifference.

Becoming Disappointed in Your Relationship

Kayser found in her study that the disillusion may begin during the first 6 months (40%) of marriage with another 20% experiencing doubts about the marriage within the first year. Events that identify this phase of disillusionment include a partner’s controlling actions (53%), partner’s lack of responsibility (53%), and partner’s lack of emotional support (47%). The common element of these events is the lack of consideration for the partner’s input, opinions, and feelings in making marital decisions.

This disillusionment and disappointment still was often paired with optimism about the future of the relationship. Thus, most of the partners decided not to leave the marriage although 35% were at least thinking about it.

Moving On to Becoming Disaffected

Disaffection is described by Kayser as the gradual loss of an emotional attachment to your partner that leads to caring less about him/her. This disaffection or loss of loving feelings usually follows the lack of requested changes in the way the coupled interacted.

What is happening in this phase? First, the feelings of disappointment decrease but feelings of anger and hurt increase because of the ongoing negative actions that don’t change. These recurring actions are neither forgiven nor forgotten. Secondly, the focus of the relationship now is about the perceived negative traits of the partner that are thought to account for the irresponsibility, controlling actions, and lack of emotional support. Other bad behaviors such as drinking become a focus of attention. It is no longer possible to focus on the positives in the relationship.

As the anger and the hurt increase, the unhappy partner will increasingly seek more physical and emotional distance from the partner. Some may seek a physical separation.

Thoughts of leaving are no longer fleeting in this phase. About 40% of partners said they were trying to decide whether to stay or leave the marriage.

It Ends With the Hallmarks of Disaffection—Apathy and Indifference

Increasing distancing, both physical and emotional, characterize this last phase of falling out of love. No longer angry and hurt, just apathetic and indifferent. While some partners felt sorry for their spouse, they did not feel guilty enough to stay in the relationship. Some 80% of the partners interviewed in this study who were in this phase reported taking some action to end the marriage.

Partners in this phase of disaffection no longer saw their partners as capable of change. Asked what kinds of changes were needed, the partners most often cited:

  • Changes in personality or attitude
  • Stop trying to control and dominate
  • Be more intimate
  • Develop ways to solve problems

Efforts to solve the marital problems decreased. Anger and resentment subsided as apathy and disaffection increased. Partners began dealing with their disaffection in a more personally proactive manner, confiding in friends, seeking professional help, seeking out support groups, etc. Before the resolve to end the relationship occurs, partners are often reluctant to "go public" with their difficulties.

What Partners Tried to Do

They tried to please

Partners during the first phase made valiant efforts to please their partners such as being a more “perfect wife,” trying to get the partner involved in an activity, agreeing more with his/her suggestions, changed interests, etc. As you can see, partners took on the responsibility for creating change in the relationship, even blaming themselves for things not working well.

Unfortunately, during the first phase—the disappointment period—partners "suffered in silence." Most likely these sufferers were reluctant to admit marital problems. Also, unfortunately, there is a taboo in our culture to openly talk about your marriage. Some reported trying to ignore the problems by self-destructive patterns such as overeating, excessive sleeping, working, shopping, substance abuse, and even suicide attempts.

While some partners did talk to family members or close friends, rarely did they seek professional help.

They became more active and assertive

As none of these efforts made a difference in the relationship, the increasingly unhappy partners became more direct and assertive in seeking a change in the relationship. They are still hoping the marriage will work out, but the negative emotions of anger and hurt become more intense.

Active attempts to get husbands or wives into alcohol/drug treatment programs were made. Women became more active in asserting themselves such as getting a job or going to school. Increasingly disaffected partners also wanted more physical and emotional distance.

These more assertive actions toward the reluctant-to-change spouse not only enhanced the unhappy partner’s self-esteem, but these actions also provided alternatives to the marriage—means of financial, social, and emotional support if the marriage ended.

Once the decision was made, they struggled with how to end it

During the final phase of disaffection, partners increasingly thought of ending the marriage while struggling with how to do it. This struggle takes different forms. Some made long-range plans (e.g. when a child gets older); waiting for fate to end it (something will happen); realizing they have a choice; and vacillating between staying and going.

A partner may make one last valiant effort to save the marriage by turning to professional help. As I noted at the beginning of this post, this is often too late to try to save the marriage. Therapy/counseling can be helpful either to an individual partner or in the process of ending the relationship if the marriage cannot be mended.

How to Deal With Disappointment, Dissolution, and Disaffection in Your Relationship

Couples need help the most when they are least likely to seek it out. This is in the first phase of disappointment in their marriages—before they see the need for outside professional help.

There are several types of issues you can work on: your expectations about marriage, how to communicate what you want and feel, how to become willing to be self-aware of your own issues, how to deal with resistance from your partner, and how to recognizing when you are blaming yourself for relationship issues. Listed below are relevant blog posts for you to read.

Moving on

Letting go will not be easy. Be sure you seek out friends and confidants. Seek professional help. Join a support group. Stay active.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


1. Kayser, K. When Love Dies: The Process of Marital Disaffection. New York: The Guilford Press, 1993.

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