Many divorces begin with the familiar line, “I love you, but I’m not ‘in love’ with you.” Those of us who help marriages in distress have heard these words more times than we care to recall. People who feel “out of love” think they’ve stumbled into some strange and unusual place of relationship failure from which there is no escape.

Some are afraid they married the wrong person. They’re scared their love experiment with this particular person failed. Maybe, since now they understand themselves better, and they know their spouse better, they discover that they are incompatible. Or perhaps there’s no chemistry left between them and the flame is out for good.

There is a tone of finality that usually accompanies this line as if nothing else can be done to revive the dying love. If there were feelings present, there would be hope, no matter how dire the circumstances. However, with no feelings, there is no hope. Time to pull the plug.

Some who say, “I love you, but I’m not ‘in love’ with you,” think they’re the first ones ever to have summarized their emotional turmoil in such a profound and poetic way. The truth is that most couples have felt this way at some point in their relationship. Others think this announcement will help ease the pain of their partner by not making it personal. “I’m not saying that you’re a bad person. I still love you, but I just don’t feel anything for you anymore. It’s not you. It’s me.”

However, for all their philosophizing, this line doesn’t help soften the blow. It’s devastating to hear these words from your spouse. Furthermore, this statement does not provide necessary grounds for separation, and it certainly does not mean the relationship is dead. All this statement does is reveal a person’s confusion over how he or she is feeling about the relationship, uncertainty over their lack of connection, and hopelessness to do anything about it.

What these words mean

When someone tells their partner, “I love you, but I’m not ‘in love’ with you,” what he or she means is that they appreciate their partner, but they no longer feel passion for him or her. She may love his sense of humor. She may enjoy spending time with him. She thinks he is a great dad. There apparently used to be something that she initially found attractive about him.

However, there is no “spark.” The butterflies, the heart throbbing, the fireworks, the romance, the eye-gazing, and the anticipation has faded and disappeared. He or she thinks, “Maybe it was never real in the first place? If it was real, wouldn’t it have lasted? How can we expect to work at maintaining a healthy, long-lasting marriage if we no longer have feelings for one another? Marriage is hard enough. It must be impossible with someone you’re not ‘in love’ with.”

God’s Love Potion

Before we address the emotional and relational dynamics of what this couple is going through, we must take a quick tour of how God made the human body to respond to love potion.

God made us with a desire to connect with others and it’s important to feel connected to your spouse. Connection is what drives the marital relationship. Without it, it can feel hopeless. We are designed to pursue connection, and sometimes it can feel like an insatiable drive.

God not only designed our wills to choose whom we would love, but he also designed our emotions and our bodies so that we would actually “feel” love. So feeling “in love” is not a myth and it is not the fanciful imaginations of poets, the Greeks, or the folks over at Disney Animation. I’m not sure if lions, deer, dogs, and skunks fall “in love” with one another, but I know that people do.

When we connect with someone, our body sends certain hormones out through our bodies to reward us for making a connection. This is the body’s way to encourage such connections. Connections are good for us and for the continuance of the human race.

The brain also plays a vital role. While hormones, like testosterone, move throughout our bodies, neurochemicals stay in the brain and send off chemical signals to the body and tell us how to act and feel. They help us form an emotional and relational bond with the person our hormones connected with.

Of course, this is all going on completely unaware to us. Thank God for neurons or we would never have the common sense to drink enough water, breath enough oxygen, or even put on warm clothes in winter. We’d die of thirst and exposure.

We’d also never form connections, which we need as much as food and water. The same brain that sends out neurons to say, “Our system needs water, and so I’m going to make you feel thirst,” also sends out neurons that say, “Our system needs connection, and so I’m going to make you feel longing and desire for her .”

Research has discovered three different neurotransmitters that play a role in love and romance: norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin. Norepinephrine is a derivative of adrenaline. The other day, I almost pulled out in front of a speeding car at a busy intersection. I saw the vehicle, and I instinctively hit my brakes just in time as he flew by. I instantly felt the side effects of the pure shot of norepinephrine my brain had just given my body nanoseconds earlier.

You see, it wasn’t my catlike reflexes that saved my life. It wasn’t even my willful decision or choice to stop my car. I didn’t even have time to think about it. My reaction to hit the brakes was purely a reaction to the drugs my brain gave me. In the blink of an eye, my brain had given me a powerful dose of a chemical that heightened all of my senses in order to save my life.

After the danger was over, I was still feeling the rush and the excitement for the next several minutes. My heart was pounding. My breath was shallow. My stomach was tight and in my throat. My skin was flushed. My palms were sweaty. I was actually and literally high for a few minutes. These feelings lasted until eventually the chemicals dissipated and my system returned to normal.

Some people get addicted to this high. We call them adrenaline junkies. They dive off cliffs, bungee off bridges, and jump out of airplanes to get this feeling that the body experiences when the brain sends out a shot of norepinephrine. It always goes away and they always have to repeat the experience. No cliff jumper ever expects the feeling to be one and done.

Interestingly enough, norepinephrine is the same neurochemical we get when we’re infatuated with another person. And the side effects are identical to the ones I had after my intersection incident. This is that “love-at-first-sight” feeling we get a surge of that causes us to fall head over heels for someone.

It’s not true love, but it’s important and it’s undeniable. New love can make you high as a kite. However, like my experience at the intersection, the chemicals eventually dissipate and your system returns to normal. It has to. We could not function normally with the continued rate of heightened and intense sensations.

The second, dopamine, is the reward neurochemical. When something we anticipate as being especially amazing is about to happen, dopamine chemicals flood our brains and make us feel excited. It’s the shot we get when the doorbell rings and our friends are here. It’s the rush we feel when we scratch off the winning number or when our name is called for the door prize. Dopamine has revitalizing powers as well. You might be half asleep, but when your phone dings, you jump up with excitement because it might be your new love interest texting you back. All of a sudden, you’re wide awake. Dopamine does what even coffee can’t do.

When we fall in love, our dopamine levels are pushed to higher levels. We eagerly anticipate our next connection because we want to feel that way again. We associate all of the wonderful feelings of excitement we are having with the object of our love. We give him or her the credit for these wonderful feelings we are having. This is exactly what our brains want us to think. However, we should really be giving the credit to our own brains and our own bodies.

When we talk about being “in-love,” most often we are talking about this state of positive emotions we feel about our partner. Again, our brain is rewarding us for making a connection with someone and it is encouraging us to continue in it.

A third neurotransmitter, serotonin, plays an opposite role. When we are “in love” our serotonin levels go down. Serotonin is the soothing, contented, good mood, calm, happy, and serene drug. It is the “life is good” drug. This drug can get in the way of seeking out and bonding with a new partner. It keeps us satisfied with life as it is, so it drops in order to make us needy, clingy, obsessed, and dissatisfied with our current status. This drop in serotonin makes us feel “love-sick” and restless as we pine away for our Romeo or Juliet.

So what does all of this mean?

When two people fall “in love” they find themselves under the influence of a powerful cocktail of chemicals. This is creation’s way of motivating us to form bonds and connections with others. Our serene and content chemicals drop which causes us to crave something new. Our adrenaline and excitement chemicals surge which create bodily feelings of desire and expectation. Our brain rewards higher levels of connection with higher levels of pleasure. Over time, the brain successfully convinces us that we are addicted to this person and that we’ll never be able to live without them. And so we put a ring on their finger and we make them ours for life! Biology won. Humanity will continue for at least one more generation.

First comes love.
Second comes marriage.
Then comes baby in a baby carriage.
Then comes car payments.
Then comes a mortgage.
Then comes student loan payments.
Then comes overtime, and working nights, and weekends.
Then comes school activities, and sports, and band, and 4H, and church….

Then one day, we look at one another and say, “I still love you, but I’m not ‘in love’ with you anymore.”

What happened?

These “in love” feelings always and necessarily fade over time. We are not designed to sustain high levels of norepinephrine, high levels of dopamine, and low levels of serotonin for long. If we did, we’d never get any work done. We’d be making love all day. Our nervous system would overload with stress and fatigue. Our kids would starve to death.

In time, we gradually start to feel comfortable around this person we married. We feel safe. We no longer feel like we’re jumping out of an airplane. We no longer feel the risks and uncertainty that surround new and tentative love. Our body no longer feels like it’s in a fight for its life and our instincts no longer demand that we propagate our species and fulfill our urges. Serotonin returns and life is back to being good.

This is a beneficial thing. It’s a lot healthier for us long term. We are no longer driven to stay up all night talking to one another on the phone. We no longer long in anticipation of when our next rendezvous will be. Our adrenaline drops, we relax, and we move into a new phase of mature and lasting love. This whole journey lasts anywhere from 18 to 24 months.

Does this mean that we’re no longer “in love?”

Yes and no. If we think that “in love” is that heart pounding, skin flushing, shallow breathing, palms sweating, stomach tightening feeling then no, we’re no longer “in love.” However, lest we think that the marriage is over or doomed to drudgery, love in marriage can transition over time to such greater and deeper levels of love that it causes the old adrenaline-spiked love to pale in comparison. There is a very intimate, deep, and emotional connection that is available to couples that can mature over time if those couples will cultivate it and nurture it.

Most of the couples who say they are no longer “in love” have let life, kids, work, and bills get in the way of developing a meaningful connection with one another. Unfortunately, they let the contented, serene, and “life is good” feeling lead to complacency and laziness in their relationship. Year 2 to 7 was filled with extra-curricular activities and career advancement and went by in a blur. Now they don’t even think they want to be around one another anymore and can’t remember why they ever got married in the first place. The chemistry is gone.

A complicating factor can occur when interactions with a friend or a coworker awaken old neurotransmitters that begin to release doses of the “good stuff” again. We start to fall “in love” with someone else. Serotonin drops and our life is no longer serene or good enough anymore as discontentment rises. We experience spikes in adrenaline and we finally think we have finally found our true love. Dopamine rewards our every encounter and connection. We’re “in love.”

By the way, the average length of an affair is 18 to 24 months–the same amount of time it takes for this cycle to run its course. Only 3% of affairs eventually develop into lasting relationships. Don’t throw away something of meaning and lasting value for a drug prescription that runs out in a few short months.

There is still chemistry between the two of you.

Our brains also know that long-term stable relations are good for us. That’s where other hormones and chemicals come into play. The body tries to protect our marriage against the scenario given above. When couples commit to staying together, testosterone levels actually drop. When a child is born, testosterone levels drop again. This is the body’s way of telling hormonal little boys to settle down and be real men now who stick around and take care of the family.

Oxytocin, a hormone made in the hypothalamus, is secreted by the pituitary gland and is often called “the love hormone.” It’s most notable and primary purpose is to help mothers bond with and nurture their infant children. It contracts the uterus and produces milk. It’s also called the cuddle hormone. It helps us feel good about one another.

Oxytocin levels also rise in committed relationships where there are high levels of bonding and intimacy. The feelings and the bonds that can be developed over time between a husband and a wife can be much deeper and meaningful without all of the drama of early love.

This does not mean that we should just resign ourselves to living some kind of a platonic, parent-child, brother-sister, best-friend relationship with our spouse. We can do many things to bring excitement and energy into our marriage so that we not only love each other, but actually feel completely head over heels and “in love” as well.

I’ll write about this next time and also address what true love is: a commitment to act in the best interest of someone else. Remember, unlike crazy new love, when it comes to true love, feelings follow action. Commitment to love comes first. Then comes lasting bonding and connection. I believe sustaining and maintaining “that lovin’ feeling” is possible, but it takes sacrifice, vulnerability, intentionality, and intimacy. Again, we’ll talk about this next time.

For now, I want to address people who have equated love with these chemicals or who are stuck in a “loveless marriage.” I want to explain what I think most people in this situation really mean when they say, “I love you, but I’m not “in love” with you.

What they really mean.

I believe that when someone tells their partner, “I love you, but I’m not in love with you,” what that person really means is that they no longer feel connected with their spouse. I think they’re stuck in the middle and feel lost somewhere between “in love” and true love. They’re in No Man’s Land which feels like No Love Land.

In other words, the love they had between husband and wife never transitioned from the crazy, hormonal, chemically dependent love into the mature, intimate, bonded, and connected love. “In love” is gone, but “mature love” never sprouted. “In love” needs to be replaced with this better love. Unless this happens, a spouse (or both spouses) will certainly struggle to hang on to one another and their marriage.

If you have been on the receiving end of this statement, as devastating as it is to hear these words from your spouse, imagine how devastating it is to actually feel this way and to say it to your spouse. Imagine how hopeless he or she must feel that he or she is willing to tell you.

If your spouse tells you these words, you are going to feel hurt. However, do not respond from a place of hurt. Instead of seeing your spouse as a cold-hearted, unloving, self-absorbed person, rather, try to see him or her as hurting and confused. Interpret his or her words as a desperate last ditch attempt to be extremely vulnerable and transparent about how he or she feels.

People who are contemplating suicide will often find ways to communicate their pain to others, often by speaking indirectly about their intentions. Most of us have been taught to take these “warning signs” seriously and to interpret these words as cries for help. In much the same way, when a spouse says, “I’m not ‘in love’ with you anymore,” whether they’re even consciously aware of it or not, they’re sending out a cry for help. They’re not so much announcing the end as much as they’re saying, “Please take me seriously because I’ve done all I know to do.”

How to respond.

First, if you or your spouse no longer feel “in love,” do not panic. Hopefully, some of the information given earlier in this post has helped you see that the infatuated “in love” feeling is not sustainable and that the bonded/connected “in love” feeling is attainable. So don’t panic. Don’t run after a new infatuation. Love lost can be recovered, rekindled, and renewed.

Second, do not take it personally. Yes, there is likely enough blame to go around on both sides. But this has more to do with the way he or she is feeling about the relationship than it has to do with your lovability, worthiness, or attractiveness. This isn’t about who you are or who you are not. This is not about anything specific that you did or did not do. This is a relational issue that is common, and with the right help and coaching, can be repaired.

Third, don’t try to fix it with “romance.” No amount of chocolates, candlelit dinners, flowers, or sexy lingerie is going to bring “in love” back. At least not yet. It’s not a romance problem; it’s a connection problem. Don’t get desperate and needy, which is very unattractive. You must focus on connecting through intimacy, transparency, and vulnerability.

Fourth, encourage, invite, and reward honesty. Your spouse has already taken a huge step toward you by sharing with you that he or she is no longer ‘in love’ with you. It has probably taken them months or even years to be courageous enough to be this real with you. They are not sharing this with you to reject you, but to reach out to you. Interpret his or her words as, “I’m feeling disconnected. The last time I felt connected was back when we were dating and early in our marriage. I want to feel the same way I felt back then.”

Is it the Goosebumps, heart rate, and butterflies she misses? Or could it be the bond and connection she misses? So focus on the bond and connection first. Goosebumps can and will return, but you can’t manufacture “in love.” Work on creating an environment of acceptance and connectivity and something better than “in love” will be the result. Say something like, “That must have been hard to share with me. Thank you. Obviously, you’ve been struggling with a lot of pain regarding our relationship for a while. Tell me more about how you’re feeling.” Then shut up and listen.

Fifth, choose to act in loving ways. Not feeling the love? Not feeling loved? Doesn’t matter right now. Choose to act in loving, sacrificial ways. Put the needs of your spouse over and above your own. This is the essence of what true love is. Demonstrate covenant love, no-matter-what love, non-contingent love, and unconditional love toward your spouse. We’ll address this more in the next post, but remember that loving feelings are birthed out of loving actions.

There is great hope for couples who love each other, but who are no longer ‘in love’ with each other. Genuine, deep, and abiding love is possible for couples who will work on emotionally bonding through intimacy and vulnerability. Even the dullest and mundane of marriages can be transformed into relationships filled with excitement, anticipation, and eagerness even after some of the novelty has worn off.

I think we can both love our spouse and be “in love” with our spouse. In my next post, we’ll explore the nature of true love and ways to sustain and maintain deep passion and relational intimacy.