It is not uncommon, says Ammanda Major, head of clinical practice at Relate, for couples who come to therapy to say they love each other but that they’re not “in love” with each other. “Often in a longer-term relationship, the humdrumness of life has taken over their relationship,” she says. “And so, before you know it, people are feeling very disconnected from their partner.”
Maybe you have lost sight of what made you fall in love, or you have reached a cosy stage of companionship that lacks fire. But is it unrealistic to expect to be in love with the same person for decades? “Love, intimacy and sex does fluctuate across the lifetime and there will be stages of closeness,” says Kate Moyle, sexual and relationship psychotherapist. “I think what’s unrealistic is to expect consistency.”
But if you feel your relationship is drifting, don’t bank on it being only temporary. “It won’t change unless it is actively being changed by those involved,” says Moyle. “I hear a lot of: ‘I just thought things would sort themselves out’ and we know that isn’t true.” So, is it possible to reconnect with your partner, and if so, how can you do it?
Of course you would love to get back to the giddy days when you first met and couldn’t keep your hands off each other. But your lives were different then. Perhaps you didn’t have children, or your job was less stressful, or you had more disposable income. You had yet to find the things that annoy you about your partner “because you didn’t know each other that well”, says Major. “You can’t go back to that because now you do know more about your partner, and more about what it’s like to be in a long-term relationship with them.” It depends on what your definition of being “in love” means, she says. “Some therapists will say the being in love stage is really only the bringing together of the couple and that will fade, but hopefully what takes over is a much deeper, richer, sense of each other. Which is not to say that people can’t find their partner exciting and interesting and fun, and have good sex.”
Look anew at your partner. You might, says Major, “suddenly wake up one morning and you think: ‘We haven’t really done that for a year, I wonder why that is.’ Have you lost the ability to be curious about what’s happening in your relationship or has life overtaken you and obliterated any time to stop and stare?” When you start to look back over your relationship, you may spot places where you could have checked in with your partner and didn’t. “Once people start to understand where those places were and what they looked like, they’re best placed to make different choices,” says Major.
Prioritise your relationship
Put time aside regularly to talk (put your phones away); it needn’t be a formal sit-down discussion, or a dedicated date night. Talking while on a walk or in the car can be easier for some couples. “How do you claw back precious couple time? If you do that, you’re more likely to be telling your partner they’re important to you,” says Major. Moyle advises working out what it is that you would like to be different. “Is it physical, emotional, or both? It might be that one partner is saying: ‘I just need you to recognise that I need a bit more help. Could you do the food shop this week?’ An exercise I often do with couples is if we pledge to do something, then we get to ask something for something in return. There’s a mutual agreement to doing something differently. One partner can’t do all the work.”
Couples therapy is an option, but you can also buy workbooks that can help guide conversations. Moyle recommends the books Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman, and Attached by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller, and the Relationship Reboot cards – which encourage emotionally open conversations – from the School of Life.
Focus on the outcome
It can be hard to tell your partner you’re falling out of love with them. “The truth can be a little dangerous,” says Woodward Thomas. “So when you go to say something that could be potentially delicate, you always want to lead with the future that you’re committed to creating. So you might say something like: ‘I want to share something that’s a little hard, but I’m doing so because I want us to be closer.’” Setting the context with a positive intention can get the conversation off to a better, kinder start.
It’s never too late to rediscover the spark, says Moyle, but it helps to tackle it sooner rather than later. If you wait, “there are more things to work through, potential resentments and negative feelings. It’s always better to proactively approach sexual and relationship problems, but it’s also often the hardest thing for couples to do because they don’t want to rock the boat.” There is a chance that starting these conversations may not lead to the outcome you think you want. “The goal of relationship therapy isn’t to keep couples together, it’s to help couples work out what’s best for them and what they want,” says Moyle. “A lot of relationships function without intimacy, sex or love, but something will happen at some point to disrupt that.” It could be an affair or meeting someone else, but also something more mundane such as one person spending more time at work or on their hobby, which creates even more distance.
Remember who you fell in love with
Woodward Thomas recommends making a “gratitude list” of all your partner’s strengths “so that you remember the complexity of what it is to be a human. Everyone has places where they’re unhealed and moments when they’re needy and unattractive. But they also have moments when they’re noble, and when they show up as the knight in shining armour. In those moments, when they’re having a bad week, or they’re going through a crisis, which can be kind of repelling, remember who they are, and help them remember that part of themselves.”
Maybe your partner has changed, and isn’t happy about it. “I do think that sometimes if we fall out of love, it’s because our partner might not be loving themselves very much – and you’re just picking up on that,” says Woodward Thomas. “So they’re rejecting themselves and then you’re rejecting them. You could ask them what’s really going on, create an opportunity for them to share in an emotionally intimate way. You remember who they actually are, you speak to them with respect and love. You build them up.”
Emine Saner is a feature writer for the Guardian