If I could do away with any relationship myth, it would be that good relationships are those in which partners always feel "in love," with each other. Octavio Paz, a philosopher and writer who has written extensively about love and romance, argues that eroticism - which is the cornerstone of desire - and love - which is the cornerstone of intimacy - creates the double flame of life.
Relationship expert Esther Perel expands on this idea by suggesting that sometimes, love and desire work against each other. The familiarity we need to create a family requires love, which sometimes acts like a wet blanket to desire.
When this happens, it can feel like we're falling out of love with our partners, when what's actually happening is that we're falling out of desire.
Most of the time, when we lose attraction to our partners, it's not because we're no longer in love with them, it's because we no longer desire them. This is both normal and also could be a sign of distress that needs to be dealt with.
Here's how you know.
Are you under a lot of life stress? Are you having a baby? Do you have toddlers? Are there crises in your family that require you and your partner(s) to spend a lot of time together solving problems like business colleagues or roommates?
All of these situations can create a stressful environment that requires a LOT of love and intimacy so that the problems can be dealt with. But the cost of that closeness and familiarity is predictability. We lose novelty and distance, the fuel for desire's flame.
We're not taught from a young age to expect desire to normally diminish over time with a partner. So we're certainly not ready for this to happen when stress increases. Usually, we expect the opposite. We expect that when stress increases, our partners will know exactly what we need, even if we don't expect it. That's rarely the case.
When our expectations for caretaking aren't met, we feel hurt and resentful. This is the point at which our desire starts to diminish. But here's the thing. It's normal. It's normal for desire to come and go. For the feeling of being "in love" to come and go. It's a problem, but it's the kind of problem you want. We have these emotions because they're like data that helps us ask the questions we need to ask. Questions like:
Why do we feel distant from each other?
What should we do about it?
How can I help you feel closer to me?
The problem we don't want is when we just keep our feelings to ourselves, plug our heads in the sand like an ostrich and just forge ahead. It's these ineffective solutions that lead people in my office five years later considering separation or divorce.
So what should you do when you're aware that you no longer feel attracted to your partner? First, do a personal inventory. Consider what's going on in your life that's preventing you from experiencing desire. Are you overwhelmed at work? Have you created enough space in your life for levity, play, adventure and risk? Are you stuck in a routine with no flexibility for change because you don't believe your partner can change?
Second, consider how you feel about yourself. One of the best kept secrets about attraction is that very often when we don't feel attracted to our partners, it's because we're remembering how we felt about ourselves when we knew our partners were attracted to us. For example, in the beginning of every relationship, people tend to report that their confidence and feelings of sexiness are at their highest. Do you feel attractive? Do you feel vital? Do you feel confident?
If not, is it possible that your lost feelings of attraction are really because you don't feel attracted to yourself?
Once you've done a thorough personal inventory, it's time to start talking to your partner. Many people are afraid to disclose that they no longer feel in love with their partner because of the value our society places on this phrase. The moment we hear our partners say they no longer feel in love with us, it triggers a deep anxiety response that can push us into anxious pursuits that can become suffocating and overwhelming.
Finally, what is the state of your relationship? Are you fighting a lot? Do you ever fight? We tend to assume that a lack of conflict means a relationship is in a good place, but that's not necessarily true. A lack of conflict can be the result of boredom and fusion. On the other hand, too much conflict can be chaotic. Conflict is nothing more than a symptom. It's not the heart of the problem. But even symptoms can get out of controll
Falling out of love - or really, falling out of desire - is common. It's not unusual. It happens to most of us. The issue is, what do we do about it when it happens? Couple and sex therapy can be a good option, but only about half of all distressed couples seek help. And many of those distressed couples who don't seek help get better on their own.
If you're not in love with your partner, don't panic. Instead, consider what's going on within you that is preventing you from feeling desire. If you feel desire for other people, don't be threatened by that. You're attracted to other people and not your partner precisely because those people aren't your partner. You don't have history with them. Those other people are novelties. You've never shared a bathroom with them. It's okay.
Turn inward toward yourself for discovery and then turn outward toward your partner for change. If your partner resists the conversation or refuses to participate with you in a conversation to help you get better, then consider couples therapy or some other medium to create change.
Just don't wait.