Are You Falling Out Of Love? Experts Say This Is What's Happening In Your Brain
“Sometimes I have the urge to just throw him across the room — like, as far away from me as possible. That’s a bad sign, right?” My girlfriend asked me this over 22-ounce Blue Moons, while expressing doubts about her current boo. “Well, it’s not good,” I said. The thing is, falling out of love often isn't nearly as perceptible as falling in love, which can hit you like an unexpected wave crashing right over your head, an all-consuming high you ride for weeks or months at a time. Falling out of love tends to creep over you oh-so-gradually that you may not even notice it’s happening until one day — well, you might just want to throw bae across the room.
Falling out of love can come with a wide range of emotions depending on the individual and the relationship. For some, it may feel like an ever-increasing pit of resentment that's going to overflow at any moment. For others, it may feel like total apathy. Of course, it’s normal for your feelings toward your partner to evolve over the course of your relationship, but losing your physical attraction to them, struggling to envision a future with them, or even fantasizing about your future without them (or someone else) — that’s a different story.
The signs of falling out of love might be clear, but what exactly is going on in your brain while this is happening? According to board-certified psychiatrist Dr. Susan Edelman, there are certain chemicals at play both when you become smitten with someone as well as when your spark starts fizzling out. Those chemicals include dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. Dopamine, which is strongly associated with pleasure, helps control the reward center as the brain — helping us to recognize a prize and take action to achieve it. It’s typically responsible for that giddiness you feel when you’re head over heels. Norepinephrine, which is essentially a stress hormone, acts similarly to adrenaline, and is involved in the nerves and excitement you feel when you’re falling for someone (think racing heart, sweaty palms). While those two hormones are surging, levels of serotonin become lower, thus causing the constant intrusive thoughts you have about bae during the early infatuation stages of love when you can’t stop thinking about them.
But let’s not forget about the chemicals involved in bonding you to your boo. Dr. Edelman notes that oxytocin and vasopressin are major players in attachment, which is a crucial factor for turning mere attraction and lust into a lasting partnership. Oxytocin, which is often called the “cuddle hormone” is released during sex, and makes you feel more connected to your SO. Vasopressin is associated with feelings and behaviors that support monogamous, long-term relationships.
“These hormones create feelings of happiness, comfort, and togetherness,” says Dr. Edelman.
Clearly, our brains play an even bigger role than our hearts in the process of falling in love. And according to a 2015 report published in the Review of General Psychology, just as the brain is involved in falling in love, it’s also hardwired to help you fall out of love. Researchers call this process “mate ejection.” When we’re falling for someone, those chemicals associated with pleasure, reward, and bonding rush to your brain. As Kesha sang about in her 2010 hit “Your Love Is My Drug,” falling in love can feel like forming an addiction. So, in a way, you can consider falling out of love as your recovery. You’re no longer getting a surge of those chemicals in your brain that makes you think about your partner nonstop and crave their companionship. Since you no longer perceive them as a “reward,” you’re no longer motivated to work to impress, delight, or satisfy them. And since you may no longer feel connected to them on a deep level, you may no longer fantasize about your future with them.
There is a vast variety of reasons why you might fall out of love with someone, from poor communication to increasingly conflicting interests or feeling neglected. Regardless of the reason, the levels of those chemicals that flooded your brain when you became attracted to your SO return to normal levels. The good news? All hope is not lost for your relationship.
“Falling out of love might just mean that the honeymoon phase is ending,” says Dr. Edelman. “And that’s OK. How can you focus on work when you're obsessed with your partner?”
In other words, the infatuation you once felt can’t last forever — and that’s a good thing. Instead of focusing on all of the feelings you’ve lost, focus on rebuilding your relationship and finding a new normal.
“Many couples do remain in love over a lifetime,” explains Dr. Edelman. “There are ways to increase dopamine levels to keep the romance alive, such as doing new and exciting things together or giving your partner some space to miss you.”
According to Dr. Edelman, if you find that you’re arguing incessantly, frequently feeling irritated by your partner, or are actively avoiding them, you might be falling out of love. But don’t fret — your relationship is still salvageable, provided you and your SO are willing to do the work to figure out what is negatively impacting your bond. Dr. Edelman advises seeking a couples’ therapist, who can help you get to the bottom of what’s plaguing your relationship.
And in case you needed a little reassurance that your relationship isn’t doomed, consider this: A neurological study conducted at Stony Brook University revealed that the brain activity between couples who had just fallen in love strongly resembled the brain activity between couples who’d been together for 20-plus years. Researchers discovered that “romantic love,” which is characterized by intensity, engagement and sexual interest and is associated with relationship satisfaction/longevity, doesn’t have an expiration date. They concluded that when couples devote energy and effort to maintaining a mental, emotional, and physical connection, they can keep their brains firing off those feel-good chemicals that make them feel in love for decades.
The smallest efforts can go a long way in nurturing your bond. Knowing bae’s love language and making sure they know yours, for example, can help you both feel more appreciated. Openly discussing how you can improve your communication and reaching compromises can ensure that you and your SO are aware of each other’s needs and actively working to meet them. The sooner you can identify the signs that you might be falling out of love with someone, the sooner you can start doing something about it — if that's what you want. That euphoric bliss you experienced at the beginning of the relationship may be over, but guess what? Now you can begin the gratifying journey of rediscovering your love for your partner, or falling in love with someone even more special.