There’s nothing quite like the magic of falling hard for someone: the giddy excitement of your first date, the anticipation of your first kiss, the back-and-forth of “do you really think he likes me?” with your girlfriends over brunch—it makes you feel like a child again.
But as your relationship evolves, so do your emotions. That connection starts to run deeper, and you realise that loving someone takes a lot of communication, commitment, and genuine hard work.
You may wonder, then, how something so seemingly perfect can go terribly wrong down the road. Being in a loveless relationship usually isn’t something that happens overnight and it’s possible to get to that point without even realising that something is definitely off with your relationship.
But how can you tell the difference between a slight shortcoming and a serious shift? Here, the most common signs your relationship has become loveless and what you can do to reconnect.
What is a loveless marriage, exactly? And how does sex play a role?
It can be easy to confuse a loveless marriage with a sexless marriage, but the two aren’t the same thing. There’s no diagnostic criteria for what makes a relationship sexless, and the definition really varies from couple to couple, says licensed clinical psychologist Ramani Durvasula, PhD, author of Should I Stay or Should I Go?
You’re definitely in a sexless marriage if you have sex less than once a year, she says, but some experts think that having sex less than once a month also applies. The key: you truly have to be bothered by it—so if once a month is enough for both you and your partner and you’re happy, you really don’t have anything to worry about.
A loveless relationship, on the other hand, simply means you don’t feel loved or cared for by your partner, says New York City sex therapist Ian Kerner, PhD, a member of the Society for Sex Therapy and Research and author of She Comes First. Ultimately, the way to figure out what your current situation is depends on how you and your partner are feeling about it, Kerner says. If you’re consistently unhappy, pay attention to those feelings.
What are the signs of a loveless marriage?
Every couple goes through rough patches, but if you’re experiencing any of the following issues persistently, you may be in a loveless relationship.
💔 There’s constant distance between you
It’s easy to get bogged down with kids, your job and all of the other things going on in your life. As a result, you or your partner may have pushed your relationship to the back-burner without realising it. “It is easy to be ships passing in the night with a resultant feeling of not being loved,” Durvasula says.
💔 Other parts of your life come first
Work, money stressors, and family obligations have a funny way of sucking the romance out of your relationship. But if you notice this is the case and don’t really care—or don’t care nearly as much as you do about getting that promotion—that may be a problem, Durvasula says.
💔 Your communication is really off
Are you fighting a lot? Or are you just not talking much at all? People can distance themselves from each other due to stress and then check out—and that can make you feel unloved, Durvasula says. Surprisingly, it’s actually more of a concern if you’re not arguing at all since that’s a sign that you just aren’t invested in making things better.
💔 You may or may not be having sex—but it just doesn’t feel right
It’s possible to still be having sex in a loveless relationship. But in that case, you won’t experience it as a form of lovemaking, it’s more of a purely physical release, Kerner says.
💔 You just don’t care, or you sense that your partner doesn’t
Apathy is a strong emotion, and if you don’t really care if your partner does something that would have upset you in the past, that’s a red flag. “It’s really living in an emotionally arid environment,” Kerner says.
💔 Your partner isn’t reciprocating your effort
It’s a tip-off that you’re in a loveless relationship if you’re making attempts to revive your relationship and your partner isn’t responding, Durvasula says. If your partner has a narcissistic personality, they may also feel like they’re not at fault for not trying, she says.
Can you fall in love again—or is your marriage set to fail?
It’s possible to push past being unhappy, but it takes work. First, take some time to think about why your relationship might have changed and what needs to happen to fix it—if you even know, Kerner says. Then, consider the following options:
Communicate with your partner
“Talk to each other about what brought you into your relationship in the first place, dust off those early aspirations and expectations,” Durvasula says. “Are they still what drive you?” Keep in mind that this can be a painful conversation. “It may shed a light on how far you have drifted, but it also may shed light on the fact that those common visions still motivate both of you,” she says.
If it seems like time, lack of effort, and being overwhelmed is behind this, counselling can be an important step and a place where you can work on issues like communication, prioritizing, and mindful awareness of the other, Durvasula says. “This can also lead to techniques such as date nights, afternoon quickies, and tricks for how to communicate during the day,” she adds.
Taking a break from each other may be necessary
“That doesn’t mean weeks away or moving out,” Durvasula says. “It could be that each of you take a week for yourselves, separately, perhaps on separate weeks away from the usual grind and let yourself think without diapers, dishes and commutes in your face.”
This may be easier said than done depending on your personal commitments, but some variation of it is helpful, she says. During that time, think about what that time away feels like. “The opportunity to exhale may make things more clear,” Durvasula says.
Ultimately, you may consider a divorce
If you realise you are genuinely unhappy and don’t think there is a way to mend your relationship, divorce may be in your future. Durvasula recommends going to individual therapy to talk it all out.
“Share your painful and at times forbidden thoughts and feelings in a safe space,” she says, adding that it’s really best to try to avoid doing this with friends who may have their own moralities and agendas around this.
It also may be helpful to speak with an attorney or someone else with expertise in divorce on the realistic fiscal and custody ramifications for your state or region, Durvasula says. If you decide to move forward with a divorce, start to have conversations with your partner about your wishes.
“These conversations may even result in one of you moving out for a while to see how it feels,” Durvasula says. “This may also necessitate couples therapy not to save the relationship, but to create a framework for as civil a divorce as possible.”
This article originally appeared on Prevention US.