Woman sitting by the water alone, back turned to the camera
Illustration by Marta Pucci

Loveless Marriage: When The Love Is Gone

Photo of Dr Katherine Hertlein
Reviewed by Dr Katherine Hertlein,
created by Blueheart
created by Josh Green
created by Sophie Browness
Date published:
7/18/2022
Last updated:
7/25/2022
Photo of Dr Katherine Hertlein
Reviewed by Dr Laura Vowels,
created by Blueheart
created by Josh Green
created by Sophie Browness
Date published:
7/18/2022
Last updated:
7/25/2022

TL;DR

  1. Sometimes you don't notice things are changing in your relationship until the love and affection have gone. 
  2. It's not uncommon for relationships to move into a phase of more conflict and less kindness and positivity. It doesn't have to spell the end.
  3. Sternberg's Triangular Theory of Love suggests three core components that interact to form different types of love. You can use these to identify where something might be missing in your relationship.
  4. The love bucket technique is a useful reminder to be thoughtful and attentive to your partner in order to fulfil their needs and build trust in the relationship.

We know it can feel incredibly sad. You wake up one day and realize you can’t even remember the last time you and your partner showed proper affection for one another, let alone had meaningful, intimate sex.

When you’re both busy day to day, with kids and jobs and all the chores that go along with normal life, it’s easy to not notice that things are changing within your relationship. Where you used to kiss each other good morning and when you got back from work, now you’re lucky if you get a peck on your birthday, let alone any other time. Those kind, loving words have been replaced with little digs and snipes. And you’re not even sure when it happened.

But what does it mean if you feel like you’ve lost the love you once had? Does it signal that it’s all over? Or could there be a way back?  

How can lovers lose the love?

It’s not uncommon. Life takes over, we neglect one another and a previously loving couple finds they’ve become more like friends, roommates even. Or in the worst of cases, strangers.   

Of course, all relationships go through rough patches, but sometimes we know that this time there’s more to it than that.

Some people describe it as the spark fading. There might be more conflict, more negative interactions than positive ones, or so it feels. Depending on your personalities, you might resort to constant nagging or criticism or withdraw from one another if that feels like an easier way to deal with things. It’s not just sex that is lost, but physical touch, nearness, closeness.

In some cases, there may be no arguments at all anymore. Perhaps it’s got to the stage where no-one can be bothered – they just don’t care enough.

Healthy conflict is actually not a bad thing. It is normal and allows us to exercise our communication muscles, learn about one another and prove we care about each other’s point of view. It’s the uncomfortable silence that is more of a problem.

Look at your relationship through Sternberg’s Triangular Theory of Love

Sometimes it can be hard to define love, after all it’s a complex thing that is felt differently by different people.

Sternberg’s theory (1), published in 1986, set out to detail the core components of love. He determined that for a healthy long-term relationship, three components must be in place:

  • Intimacy - closeness, connectedness, and bondedness
  • Passion - feelings and desires, attraction, romance, and sex
  • Decision/commitment – staying with someone and moving toward shared goals

By looking at these components alone and in combination, Sternberg recognized seven different types of love. Consummate love, for example, is seen as the ideal relationship with both partners truly happy and aligned. Where the passion component is missing, however, Sternberg termed it companionate love, seeing intimacy and commitment as passionless - a sexless marriage if you will. And if the intimacy is missing as well? An empty love results in a loveless relationship. The couple have a commitment to one another, but the intimacy and passion are no longer there.

Take a look at your romantic relationship against these three components and see where you think you sit. The importance placed on each component will vary from couple to couple, and indeed individual to individual. But understanding which components need the most work may help you to understand where improvement is required.

Where to start? Learn how to fill your love buckets

When you feel the love is lost, there’s unlikely to be a quick and easy fix to get things back on track. But there are a few easy habits you can add into your everyday to make sure you’re moving in the right direction.

We love to get our clients thinking about their love buckets and what ‘fills’ them and what ‘drains’ them. Sometimes, if we lose touch with our partner, we can forget what’s most important to them. And perhaps forget that we can do a lot to love and support them. Healthy relationships take work and they require us to pay attention to one another. This technique is a great way to do that.

What are love buckets?

Imagine you and your partner each have a love bucket, but each one has a small hole in the bottom. Unless regular deposits are made into each bucket, the contents will slowly drain away to empty. But make deposits into one another’s buckets (and into your own come to that!) and you’ll help one another feel more loved and emotionally secure in the relationship.

There’s one complication though – everyone’s love buckets are filled by different things, and you’ll need to work out what fills your partners before you can start to make deposits.

How to work out what fills your partner’s love bucket?

Love languages are a great place to start when you’re trying to understand what might fill your partner’s love bucket. Be it words of appreciation or acts of service. The article linked above could act as a conversation starter about what helps you and your partner feel loved.

It’s important that you open up to your partner about what you need more of from them and encourage them to do the same for you. Communication is key here, we cannot be expected to read one another’s minds.

Once you know what fills your partner’s love bucket make sure to make regular deposits. And when your partner deposits in yours? Show appreciation, preferably by doing something that will make a deposit straight back into their bucket. Having a full love bucket puts us in a much better position to deal with stressors, minor conflicts or things that don’t go our way.

What’s more, this habit of regularly showing your partner you ‘get them’ and you care really does improve trust and bonding and can begin to repair roadways and build bridges in an unhappy marriage.

Be aware of ‘drainers’

Love buckets don’t just have ‘fillers’, they also have ‘drainers’. These are stressors. They might be things you have to do that make you feel anxious, like presenting in a meeting, talking on the phone, speaking a different language. Or they might be actions from your partner that cause you stress, leaving their shoes in the middle of the floor or not cleaning up after making themself a sandwich for example. You know the kind of thing.

Be mindful of trying to reduce the things that you know cause your partner stress – at least the ones that are under your control - and you’ll have their bucket full up in no time.

Check in at the end of each day to make sure you’ve done something to fill your own love bucket and also deposited into your partner’s. And if the technique is working for you, use the increased focus on one another, and the improved communication, as a springboard for open and honest conversation about what you both need from the relationship going forward.

(1) Sternberg, R., 1986. 'A Triangular Theory of Love', Psychology Review, vol. 93, no. 2, pp. 119-135.
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