This article is based on the Reimagining Love podcast episode “I love them, but I’m not in love with them.” To listen to this episode, click here.
I have a question for you. Have you ever had this thought? “I love my partner, but I don’t know if I am in love with them.”
It’s certainly a statement that I’ve heard many times over the years. I’ve heard clients or students describing their relationship in this way. I’ve heard it on reality TV shows or in movies. Early in my career, when I heard this statement, I’d sort of nod my head, thinking I knew what this meant. But, love is complicated. Like, really complicated. And what I know for sure is that “I love them, but I’m not in love with them” needs to be teased apart. It’s a declaration that masquerades as an explanation. It sounds like you’ve just said something decisive, but it actually doesn’t really tell us anything. It’s a sentence that needs unpacking, and you know that I love unpacking!
So, we will talk about what this statement means, especially if someone has said this to you, if you’re having this thought, and/or if you’re saying this to your partner. We will discuss how some of our romanticized mythology creates the conditions for this thought, “I love them but I’m not in love with them,” to be really scary and how the science of love can help us better understand this thought. We will talk about some of the deeper vulnerabilities that this thought might be revealing to us. And finally I will make some recommendations of what you can do with this thought.
If your partner has said this to you…
I want to start with a really important qualifier if you are reading this, and you have been on the receiving end of this comment. First, I can imagine this was a painful thing to hear. I imagine it stirred tender emotions in you: sadness, disappointment, fear, confusion, anger perhaps. If you’re in this situation right now especially, I want to invite and challenge you to read carefully with curiosity.
I want you to resist the urge to overfunction or to get kicked into action mode. As I explore these layers, I am worried you’ll read all of this and have the urge to approach your partner and say, “A-ha, I know now what you’re saying. If you do this, this, and this, you’re going to feel better about our relationship. If you look at this from another angle, you’ll see that you’re being short-sighted.” Remember you can only ever control your side of the street. If you’re with a partner who is telling you that they love you but they are not in love with you, you could surely ask them to read this blog post. But be careful not to work harder than they are.
If this statement feels like your truth right now…
I want to ask you to listen carefully as well. I do NOT want to deny or invalidate any aspect of your experience. Relationships, by and large and in the context we discuss them on this show, are free-will arrangements. If you are ending a relationship and this is the narrative of the ending, “I love them but I am not in love with them,” that is fine. You may notice a rise of defensiveness already, “Why is she making this complicated?” It does not have to become complicated for you. I am not in the business of deciding for people whether their relationships should continue or end. I am in the business of providing information, tools, strategies, and perspectives so that people can make choices that feel aware and aligned. I am going to offer some ways of framing this common relational knot, but you may very well end this episode exactly where you started it. Perhaps all this will do is help you feel even more clear on what needs to happen next!
If you’re having this thought….
Take some time to feel your way into this thought, “I love them but I am not in love with them.” As you hold the thought, take a second to check in with yourself. What do you notice in your body? Where do you feel it? Is there an emotion attached to this thought? Does it feel familiar? Is this something you’ve felt before? If so, when?
Our thoughts fuel emotions. Emotions inform thoughts. And the knot of emotion and cognition can create an urgency to act. Here, that action might be to tell our partner, or to end the relationship with our partner.
And that’s what can happen with this thought, “I love them but I am not in love with them.” The thought can take on emotion and meaning and we can scare ourselves. We can begin to experience an urgency to act.
I am reminding you here about another path. A path of containment. Just holding the thought, “I love them but I am not in love with them.” Sitting alongside that thought– getting to know it. Separating a relational experience we are having from any action that we need to take because it is in getting to know our internal experience that we can move into choice.
Disney Did Us Dirty
We are all products of our culture. We have internalized all kinds of beliefs about intimate relationships. One of the most problematic notions is that intimate partnership should be easy. If you are “The One,” my soulmate, my experience should be one of steady enthusiasm. “I love you but I’m not in love with you,” sometimes reflects the internalization of a highly romanticized vision of intimate relationships. As a culture, we are way more obsessed with falling in love than living in love. We value romance over commitment. We idealize the chase and demean the cultivation.
Our notions of love are heavily influenced by the media we consume– things like movies, TV, music, porn, and social media. We see lots of highlight reel relationship moments and not so many ordinary moments. We see dramatic turning points and crises and not so many mundane nuisances. It can make it really hard to scale our expectations. “How am I supposed to feel?”
Here’s what we know. Love is an alive thing. It changes over time. That is normal, common, and expected. Dr. Helen Fisher has a wonderful TED talk in which she talks through the neurophysiology of love. In this talk, she explains that:
- Love is initially often marked by lust and sexual desire, which are fueled by estrogen and testosterone.
- As love develops, there can be a stage of attraction, fueled by dopamine and norepinephrine.
- As a relationship becomes established and committed, partners attach to each other and the chemistry of love tilts toward oxytocin and vasopressin.
There’s something ironic in how this all happens. We want and need to feel trust, and trust takes time to build. And in building trust, some of that early chemistry shifts, and needs to shift. There’s nothing to be done about that X axis of time, but we need to hold onto the both/and: the loss as well as the benefit.
When we first started teaching Marriage 101, two decades ago, it was a team-taught class. We would rotate through about 4 or 5 lecturers, but we would all show up on the first day of class to introduce ourselves and the curriculum. We would have students write down questions about marriage, and we answered them as a group. It was so fun. Every year we would get some version of this question, “When does the sex go bad in a marriage?” “How long does it take for marriage to get boring?” Our students had an intuitive awareness that love changes, but they were at risk of conflating change with erosion.
So, “I’m in love with you” and “I love you” feel different. That is normal, common, and expected. It is also normal, common, and expected to have feelings about how love changes over time. However, there’s a world of difference between grieving that some of the novelty is wearing off and deciding that it means something is wrong with us, our partner, or our relationship. We need to grieve that some of the novelty is wearing off. It is healthy to mourn the loss of N.R.E. (“New Relationship Energy”) so that we can welcome all that lives beyond.
A while ago, I received a message from someone on Instagram that touched me so much. A woman shared with me that her married friend recently told her, “I think you keep feeling disappointed by your boyfriends because you think love is more exciting than it actually is.” This is totally understandable! Rom coms never show us a random Wednesday night during year 8 of a couple’s relationship. The result? If our love story doesn’t look like a-breathless-make-out-in-the-rain, we are at risk of feeling like we’re doing it wrong. We say, “Maybe this isn’t the right person for me.” Or we ask, “What is wrong with me?” This woman actually found her friend’s insight to be quite permission-giving.
So all of us, to some extent, have internalized a myth that love should be a constant state of delight that includes thoughts like:
- I want to make love to you all the time.
- I want to be near you all the time.
- I never have attraction to anyone else.
- I never think about my former partner.
- I never wonder what my life would be like if I hadn’t committed myself to you.
If these myths live inside of us unchallenged, then we are at risk of experiencing massive cognitive dissonance the moment we are attracted to someone else, or miss a former partner, or feel bored. Any of these passing thoughts then can take on a life of their own.
The neurophysiology of love changes. This means that sexual desire changes too! Researchers have identified two types of desire: spontaneous desire and responsive desire. Spontaneous desire sounds like this: “Hmmm, sex would be awesome right now!” Responsive desire sounds like this: “I wasn’t thinking about wanting sex, but becuase you want to, and I can’t think of a great reason not to, I’m willing!” Or like this, “I wasn’t thinking about wanting sex, but now that we’ve had some time together, I definitely could.”
Research has found that early on in a relationship, there tends to be an abundance of spontaneous desire and that over time, there tends to be a shift, for one or both partners, toward responsive desire. One type of desire is not better than the other. What matters is that partners understand how desire tends to operate for themselves and for their partner. In relationships in which one or both partners tend to experience responsive desire, it just means that desire needs to be cultivated– as an erotic practice. I talk much more about this in my second book,Taking Sexy Back, but I wanted to mention it here because it can feel upsetting or confusing when you feel the nature of your desire shifting inside of you, and/or when you observe the nature of your partner’s desire shifting inside of them.
What’s beautiful is that love is an infinitely renewable resource. Couples who commit to cultivating desire deserve to feel proud of themselves and each other that they prize the relationship and nurture intimacy rather than feeling somehow broken or inadequate that they need to invest time and attention to their sexual connection!
As I said before, there can be some grief in the shift from a phase of new relationship energy into a phase of effort/cultivation. Can you and your partner grieve together? Grieving together feels so much better than panicking and retreating. Can you bring a bit of levity to the situation? Can you reminisce together about the early days? Sometimes reminiscence sparks desire!
Chasing the Fairy Tale
Here’s another layer. Perhaps you’re thinking, “I love them, but I’m not in love with them” because you are imagining there is some way you should feel that is different than how you do feel. Yes, I outlined earlier some of the neurophysiology of love to validate that love changes over time. But it is also the case that not all of us move through those stages just like that. Some of us fall in love. Others of us step into love.
This may be particularly true if you are a survivor of trauma, in a prior intimate relationship or when you were young. Falling in love might feel really out of control for you. Really scary. You may need to go slowly, keeping your feet on the ground. If that’s the case, you may not experience the “I’m in love with you” feeling. I want to give permission for that to be okay. Perhaps you let yourself feel sad about that. But I want to ask you to not let yourself feel ashamed about that.
You get to assess the quality of the relationship you’re in based on how it feels to you. Here are some questions you might ask yourself:
- To what degree do I feel seen, heard, valued, cared for?
- To what degree do I feel able to support my partners hopes and dreams?
- To what degree am I able to be tender with their growing edges?
- To what degree do we speak with concern and gentleness with each other?
- To what degree is our erotic connection a place of safety and play and pleasure and connection and enjoyment?
- To what degree are we aligned on a vision of where we are heading, as individuals and as a couple?
The answers to these questions are found internally and in the space between you and your partner. The answers to these questions are not found in some objective sense of what “in love” feels like. There’s no exact right recipe of lust, passion, care, commitment, etc. You don’t need to hold your relationship up to some externally-defined standard. It’s about how you get to feel with your partner, how your partner gets to feel with you, and what you get to create together.
Statement can reflect a sense or a fear of inequity
So there’s no exact recipe that distinguishes “I love you” from “I’m in love with you.” That also means that when I say, “I love you” to you, and you say “I love you” to me, neither of us will ever truly know how similar those experiences are. When I say “I love you” to you, you cannot fully understand what I’m saying, because you can’t experience how I feel about you at this moment in time through my perspective. The best you can do is an approximation. Thanks to the power of empathy, you can rely on the network of mirror neurons that gets activated inside of you, the way the right hemisphere of your brain lights up, and you feel my love.
We can never have two computer printouts that we put side by side that we compare and contrast. There’s no lab work that tells us the exact alchemical blend that makes up my love and your love. We are never going to get that analysis of the ingredients of my “I love you” and your “I love you.” We have to persist anyway in a space of not knowing. We have to sit with the mystery and be humbled by the mystery, lining up my words, my actions, and how you feel in my presence. So that thought, “I love them but I’m not in love with them” might reflect a fear that they are more into you than you are into them. Some amount of enthusiasm discrepancy is expected and understandable, and awareness of an enthusiasm discrepancy can feel really tender.
Feeling like you like someone more than they like you can spike feelings of vulnerability and fear, and feeling like they like you more than you like them can spike feelings of guilt and confusion. There’s lots we can learn about ourselves when we tolerate those feelings instead of acting on them, and when we practice patience and curiosity in the presence of love’s existential questions.
What to do
Let’s talk about what you can do with that thought, “I love them but I’m not in love with them.”
- Here’s what NOT to do. Do NOT plop this statement (“I love you but I am not in love with you”) on your partner’s lap as if it’s their problem to solve. It’s not. You are half of the equation. If you feel disappointed, shut down, or ashamed of your relationship, you have to approach it as a we problem. Turn toward your partner, lead with love, and enlist their help. “I am feeling disconnected lately. I miss how we used to behave. How about you?” Work together to figure out what helps each of you move from retracted to engaged.
- You’ve already done one big thing! You turned toward the thought by reading this blog post. Notice whether and how this information and these perspectives change where the thought lives inside of you.
- Ask yourself a constraint question. You know I love a constraint question, which is one that begins with “What keeps me from…” Here, the constraint question is, “What keeps me from feeling more enthusiastic about and engaged in this relationship?” Perhaps you need to ask for something from your partner. “I’d love for you to come up with a date night plan!” “When we make love, I’d love to spend more time kissing.” Perhaps right now, you simply cannot bring the same enthusiasm to the relationship that you can at other times, not because of something between the two of you, but because you are ill or you have a new baby or you are overwhelmed at work. Love may be an infinitely renewable resource, but energy is not! Can you cut yourself slack? And can you share this truth with your partner? This might feel really validating to them.
- Explore your motivation. Dr. Bill Doherty created a treatment model called Discernment Therapy for couples who are not sure if they are going to stay in their relationship or break up. Couples therapy usually begins with a presupposition that both partners are going to work on the relationship. If a couples therapist doesn’t have two customers, the therapy is going to be rudderless. The leaning-in partner is at risk of overworking, and the leaning-out partner is at risk of feeling like the depth of their concerns is not being validated. One of the questions that the therapist asks in discernment counseling is this: Do you want to want to heal this relationship? Do you want to want to turn toward your partner once again? Maybe you are shut down beyond repair. I do not for a moment want to invalidate that relationships end and need to end for so many worthy reasons. So in this case, your thought, “I love them but I am not in love with them” has an additional part to it, which is, “And I do not have it in me to try” or to keep trying.
- Get help. This is something you can bring to individual or couples therapy. I want you in a relationship with a therapist who can sit with you in the complexity rather than making a simple sweeping statement like, “oh. That’s a red flag. You gotta get out!”
A relationship is not going to be sustainable if two people are just waiting around for a particular way they want to feel. Love is a verb, an active process.This statement, “I love them but I’m not in love with them” needs to be unpacked and investigated, because it’s a common one in our culture, but it’s not exactly precise and carries a lot beneath it.
If you’ve been on the receiving end of this statement, it can be extremely painful. If you’re having this thought about your partner, reflect on your expectations for romantic relationships and where they come from, the science about ebbs and flows in love, sexual desire, and general enthusiasm in long-term relationships, and your own relationship history and/or history of trauma. Express your wants and needs to your partner, find out their wants and needs, and grieve together if necessary.
Sometimes the thought/statement signals that one partner is no longer willing or committed — that will be a problem and you will have to make a decision. If you know that this relationship is no longer serving the two of you and you’ve tried to work on issues and it has not worked, this may be a sign to go.
Ultimately, love is a verb. Relationships are not effortless. Remember this and consider what this thought can point you towards.