Are You Falling Out of Love With Your Spouse?

Have you ever wondered if you are falling out of love with your spouse? Maybe they have fallen out of love with you? This idea of falling out of love is called “Disaffection” in clinical therapy language. It one of the most common reasons for infidelity and divorce in long term marriages.

From time to time, I will be sharing some of my research papers and assignments from my grad studies in Family and Marriage Therapy. Although these posts will read with a more scholarly tone, the information will be useful and very helpful as we seek to understand ourselves, our behavior and our emotions.

Although it would be easy to blame the person who has “fallen out of love”, the reality is that disaffection is often a result of ignoring martial issues and bypassing the signs of marital dissatisfaction.

The following was an assignment that I wrote for a class on Marital Crisis, focusing on separation , infidelity and disaffection.

Martial Disaffection (Falling Out of Love)

 “Marital disaffection is the gradual loss of an emotional attachment, a decline in caring about the partner, an emotional estrangement, and in increasing sense of apathy and indifference” (Kersten, K, 1990).

As people live longer and thereby have longer term marriages, research is finding that a loss of love is being given as a major reason for marital dissolution.  In fact, those experiencing “disaffection” are on the burgeoning trend of emotional bond being the strongest reason to stay together. Financial, social and legal realities have been significantly weakened in the modern world, turning the spotlight on the more romantic, emotional qualities in a marriage, intimacy and love. 

Disaffection typically begins and is isolated with one partner in the marriage. Often these marriages are described as “devitalized” or “empty shells” of what a marital experience should be. Serving as a barometer of sorts, disaffection indicates the emotional status of the couple and often is the reason couples arrive for marital therapy. 

Research indicates that disaffection follows many pathways to the breakdown of a marriage, but most frequently it begins within one partner. The most common sequence to a breakup starts with a decline of feelings of attraction toward one’s partner, followed by a focus on the barriers to ending the marriage, and ultimately, giving attention to the attractiveness of an alternative partner.

Researchers conducted in-depth interviews and a Likert-type scale questionnaire about disaffection with approximately 50 married couples. Many of the subjects described turning points that were seemingly small but often resulted in crystalizing the ending of the marriage.  Ranging from 1 year of disaffected feeling to 38 years of disaffection, most respondents report that the feelings began with anger and hurt. The beginning of disaffection was characterized by accompanying disillusionment with their partner and the partner’s behavior. 

This article records the process of disaffection through three stages: Beginning Phase, Middle Phase, and End Phase. Participants consistently ranked anger as the primary emotion throughout all three stages, generally followed by a secondary emotion of hopelessness, loneliness, and eventually pity for the partner.

Summarizing the stages, disaffection begins with an initial disappointment in one’s partner but hopes for marital happiness and resolution are high.  Shifting to the middle stage, disaffection is more anger and hurt-based, with little hope for problem-solving attempts to shift the partner/marriage. The end stage is often entered with a visit to a professional counselor to save the marriage, or more ominously, beginning to gather assistance to leave the marriage. 

Unfortunately, it is difficult to shift the disaffected spouses view of their partner, negative often thinking prevails. Even with a possible shift of behavior from the partner, most disaffected spouses hold little hope for permanent change as they see undesirable traits as immutable.  As a result, most End Phase disaffected partners decrease problem-solving attempts and activities. 

Clinical findings indicate that most couples need help and intervention in the first year of their marriage. Most turning points and unexpressed doubts emerged in the first six months to 12 months of married life.  Disappointment and unmet marital expectations contribute to the early stages of long-term disaffection. 

The Middle stage is often marked by one partner attempting to communicate their dissatisfactions, but no significant change is taking place. If behavior changes are not made, the disaffected spouse will begin to lose hope, and resentment will build.

Spouses in End Stage of Disaffection often need assistance in deciding whether to repair the marriage or dissolve it. Multiple interventions exist for those considering divorce. Given therapeutic assistance, couples are encouraged to systematically evaluate the major gains and losses of repairing or divorcing. A structured separation might be suggested, but if the disaffected spouse has begun to end the marriage, a separation may not prove helpful.  Often the goal of treatment in end-stage disaffection is to help both partners facilitate disengagement.  

Studies indicate that Marital Disaffection is a process that occurs over time. By assessing what stage of estrangement each partner is in, the therapist can attempt to apply interventions to meet client goals. Repairing a relationship that has gone numb can be difficult, if not possible. Effective strategies are few, and further research is needed to determine what interventions can be most useful in repairing the relationship in each stage of disaffection breakdown. 

 Kersten, K. (1990). The process of marital disaffection: Interventions at various stages. Family Relations, 39(3), 257-265.

So, what do you think? Are you falling out of love with your spouse? If you find yourself struggling with uncertain feelings about your partner, I suggest you begin to work on the relationship. I am unable to provide any type of counseling, but I can recommend some books for when you are falling out of love.

  • When Love Dies – the process of marital disaffection
  • I Love You, but I am Not in Love with You: Seven Steps to Saving Your Relationship

Reading and research can help you understand why you might be falling out of love, but ultimately, you and your spouse might need to see a couples therapist. I encourage you to invest in yourself and in your marriage by finding a competent and caring counselor.

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Melane Ann is a writer, blogger, and life coach. In 2020, she turned her experience in midlife divorce and creating a new life for herself into midlifeismagical. With a master's in Marriage and Family Therapy, Melane focuses on helping women over 50 navigate their relationships and commit to healthy aging. She and her new husband share 7 children between them. Melane jokes that she has a black belt in blended families! In addition to her writing, Melane works virtually with her coaching clients from her home office.

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