The Meaning of I Love You, But I’m Not in Love With You


I received a wonderful comment this weekend from Duane on my 2012 post, One Last Stand Before Divorce.
After 24 years of marriage, his wife left for her mother’s house. She said she loved Duane but was no longer in love with him. He found this blog, Assumed Love, made a bunch of changes, and three months later, he says, “We spent the whole day together and at the end of the day she didn’t go back to her mothers. She stayed, It has been 9 months since that day. My Marriage is BETTER than ever. It has been wonderful. I believe we can have one of those truly special marriages now.”
I LOVE reports like this! They bring me to tears. This is why I write this blog.
Duane added, “I have a question though to ask you Patty….I have one foot stuck in the past though. I’m still very hurt by what happened. I don’t want to bring up the past but I’m still not sure what happened….How does a woman go from ‘not in love’ to ‘I’m madly in love’?”
What a great question. The answer is that it’s the reverse of how she goes from “I love you” to “I’m no longer in love with you.” So let’s take a look at that first.
Love is an Emotion
Love is an emotion, like anger or embarrassment or fear or joy. Like the others, it may seem to stick around. You might continue to be angry for years at the friend who betrayed you. But you’re not angry at that friend every single minute. The anger comes and goes. It might show up for a few seconds, maybe even for 15 minutes, but then it subsides again.
While it’s around, anger and all the other emotions have a particular physical effect on us, a life-preserving effect. Fear is one of the easiest to notice. Adrenalin gets released into your bloodstream. Your brain becomes a lot more alert and a lot more focused. Your muscles tense, ready to fight, flee, or avoid detection.
These effects all come from what’s called your “lizard brain,” but why? Well, sometimes it’s because your amygdala recognizes a threat: a sound or movement or shape that signals danger, like a snake or a tiger or a human shriek. At other times, it results from a belief you hold about something less primitive and pre-programmed that’s happening. For example, your new boss starts to say something in the same tone of voice your fifth grade teacher used to shame you, and fear strikes even before you know what your boss is saying.
In the book Love 2.0, Barbara Frederickson reports on recent research (in her own lab and by others) that show love is an emotion, too, and a rather special one. It causes our pituitary gland to release oxytocin, a hormone known as the cuddle hormone because it lets down our defenses. Love also tones the vagus nerve, which runs from the brainstem to our heart, lungs, digestive system, and other organs, controlling the functions that occur automatically to keep us alive. Most especially, it controls the heart, and stimulating it causes a warm sensation in the chest.
If nerve tone means nothing to you, it means the nerve becomes more effective at what it does. In your heart, what it does is slow your resting heart rate and tie your heart rate to your breathing. It undoes a lot of the effects of the stress of fear, anger, and other negative emotions
Love is in a Class of Its Own as an Emotion
Frederickson tells us, based on watching brains with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while experiencing the emotion of love, that this emotion stands out. It’s different, because it happens only while experiencing another positive emotion in sync with someone else. It lasts only as long as this synchrony between minds lasts. And it happens only when there’s some other positive emotion going on, some form of happiness: joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe, even relief.
She also says we experience love with lots of people. Obviously, many of us experience love not just with our mates, but also with our infants and children, our siblings, our parents, our friends, and even sometimes with someone we just met in a checkout line or on a plane and share our stories.
Lust is not part of this emotion of love. We’re not talking about feeling turned on. We’re talking about feeling in sync with someone because you’re both experiencing the same emotion, the same physical sensations, for this short while, and it feels good. We can feel the emotion of love during sex, but it’s not about sex. It’s about sharing a positive emotion with another human being.
“I Love You” – Not the Same Thing
We can experience this emotion of love with someone many times before we feel moved to say “I love you.” They are not the same.
“I love you” is an expression of caring and longing. We say it to our children, our siblings, our parents, and our close friends as well as our intimate partners.
Love, the emotion, is over and done in a matter of seconds or minutes. “I love you” persists. It can even persist after we decide we’d rather not spend a lot of time with someone like a parent who belittles us, an irresponsible grown child, or a spouse who keeps pushing our buttons.
I believe “I love you” means “I wish you lots of the emotion of love and I long to share that emotion with you.”
“I Am in Love With You” – The Measure of Shared Love Emotion
I believe we feel more or less “in love” with someone when we share the emotion of love with them more or less often. Each of us has our own bottom on how often we need this emotion to feel “in love.” Less than this is painful.
It’s likely we also need to feel it more often in a relationship with more risk: more fighting, less commitment to “for better or for worse,” a greater chance of dying due to illness or occupation.
How often? I don’t believe anyone knows yet, but I’d guess daily, or nearly so, and several times a day.
So now I can give Duane his answer. What made his wife feel in love again? And how can her make sure it won’t happen again?
Things Likely to Lead to a Spouse Who Loves You Feeling More In Love With You

  • Create circumstances likely to produce positive emotions you can share: pull out the photo albums of happy times together, go look at nature or puppies or babies together, put on a movie you’ll both laugh at, create a more serene home or lifestyle.
  • Do new things: interest is a positive emotion, and you can create it by sharing something new you’re learning or doing on your own or by learning something new or going somewhere new together.
  • Play more.
  • Express your gratitude more, not just for your spouse but also about the good things in your life together.
  • Make plans together. Hope is an emotion you can easily share when you have shared goals.
  • Take pride in your children together. Share the work, enjoy the rewards together.
  • Do what you can to help reduce your spouse’s resentment. Any negative emotion makes it much harder to experience love.
  • Make time throughout your day for experiencing this emotion.

Things Likely to Lead to a Spouse Who Loves You Feeling Less In Love With You

  • Avoid each other. You can’t get in sync when you’re not in touch.
  • Avoid looking at each other when something pleasant is happening. The eyes are important to the emotion of love.
  • Fail to Assume Love. Go with your first, fearful reaction to any unexpected behavior from your spouse, instead of looking for explanations that fit better if you assume you are still loved. The fear will make it harder to feel the emotion of love, and the emotion almost always stops well before the love does.
  • Harbor resentment. It makes the emotion of love much harder to happen.
  • Fail to Expect Love. Expect not just love, but some particular sign of love. You’ll grow resentment and kill off gratitude.
  • Ignore a disagreement your spouse feels resentment about. Whether you’re right or wrong, you’re reducing the chances of love happening, when you could almost always Find Third Alternatives to end the disagreement.
  • Fall into a rut. It kills off opportunities for the shared emotion of interest.
  • Avoid having sex together. This builds resentment and cuts off lots of opportunities for a shared positive emotion.
  • Avoid getting help with depression or anxiety or addiction. All of them reduce your chances of a positive emotion you could share with your spouse.
  • Threaten or frighten your spouse. Fear minimizes the chances of a shared positive emotion.
  • Distrust or disrespect your spouse. It will frighten or anger the person you long to share love with.

Once you know what you’re looking for (that warmth in the chest from stimulating your vagus nerve, that reduction in separateness and distrust that marks the release of oxytocin, that sense of shared pleasure), you can more easily pay attention to what’s making your marriage so wonderful when it’s wonderful. You might also notice which sorts of things bring on this emotion for the two of you and what times of day it comes most easily, so you can bring back wonderful quickly.
I don’t believe I’ve ever heard of a husband or wife or life partner saying, “I’m in love with you, but I don’t love you.” It’s always, “I love you but I’m not in love with you.” This is important.
Knowing your spouse is no longer in love with you is a horribly uncomfortable place to be. It’s likely you’ll consider calling it quits many times over the first month, especially if your spouse moves out or has an affair. It’s not unusual for it to take as long as it did for Duane — three months of creating opportunities to share a positive emotion together — before your spouse will come around.
But the love in “I love you” lasts even after the emotion’s showing up so seldom that it’s become horribly painful for your spouse. And now you know how to create the emotion more often.
Even after your spouse says that awful “I’m not in love with you,” if you want your marriage back, continue to Assume Love (and take a second stab at explaining behavior that upsets you), Expect Love (and avoid missing out on lots of it while you wait for some particular way of showing it), and Find Third Alternatives (because disagreements and compromises both lead to anger that blocks the love emotion) while you create opportunities for shared positive emotions.

About the author

Patty Newbold

I am a widow who got it right the second time. I have been sharing here since February 14, 2006 what I learned from that experience and from positive psychology, marriage research, and my training as a marriage educator.


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  • I found your site out of desperation searching for answers. My wife of 16 years became distant recently and there was different behaviour. I knew things has not been 100% happy for a while, but I didn’t realise it was a relationship problem, I thought it was our situation, and I made the situation worse as I beat myself up to not fail. In 2011 I suffered greatly from a bad experience in my job, I fell into deep despression and it took me a couple of years to elevate out of it, but I never really got over it, I was wronged and made to feel like human trash, and I was so scared to fail after that and always expected the worse to ensure I didnt disapoint myself, this gave my an aura of negativity, my wife told me this recently. It also pains me greatly to see my wife get hurt or perhaps get let down, so I became protected of her. She one time injured herself falling down some wet stairs, it affected me so much I would then tell her if the stairs are wet to be careful and have done so for years, as a habitual “hey stares are wet, just be careful”, she feels I am over protecting her. Reason I am mentioning this is because this is one of her reasons for her unhappiness, she felt I became more like a parent figure than a husband. On the job thing, I ended up changing careers, it was a risky path and I asked my wife for support while I got the necessary training and essentially started from the bottom again, she happily said she would and agreed it was the best for a happy future. The fruits of this period was finally ready to pick, I finished my training, I can almost work professionally indepedant in this new career, just waiting on my license which is only 2 months away from this date, and we had plans to move to a new location in Australia because we are not happy where we are because of the stressful things and we wanted a different lifestyle. We saved very hard for this move as well and have saved a lot of money to make this move such a success to allow ourselves to get there and not worry too much about things, even avoiding the pressure of having to find jobs in a hurry.
    Without rambling too much about the situation, I wanted to talk to me wife about things and she didn’t want to talk to me at first, but I calmly tried to get her to talk and she did, I felt her issue was more depression than our relationship. Then I got hit with it. She said she no longer loved me as a husband or partner, she felt nothing, she saw me as house mate, she felt I was controlling and oppressive, she said to my face she didn’t find me funny, the playing or joking we used to do was all one-side and fake and she found it mean. I said that yes with the amount of stress I have been under recently my sense of humor could have been, well, dry.
    But as it turns out, she said to me she felt this way for a while, I asked how long and she said to me since a couple years after we got married, that I gradually pushed her into feeling like this and essentially for the last 13-14 years it was a lie. That’s my interpretation of it, but it felt like that and I think she meant it that way.
    I was so lost, confused and shocked. To give you a picture of myself I am an introvert and get stage fright in social situations, I didn’t have a great childhood and I have trouble connecting with people in more than a professional or work relationship setting. I form great work relationships, but more than that I struggle, its my problem and I know it, I was in the process of working on it, I just felt I needed to get my training done, we could move and we could really open up and be new people, or at least I could do this and fix this problem and get that monkey off my back once and for all. I heard the Tom Waits song ‘walk away’ one day and it talks about looking in the mirror and seeing another face and that’s what I wanted to do, not see another face as such, but look at myself in the mirror and describe a different person and be that new person, the person I couldn’t be in our current location due to the amount of hurt that was caused to me. My wife is very much a people person, she is warm, bubbly, happy and outgoing, we are polar opposites but we also fit each other very well, she supports me in my ‘adventures’ into social situations, but I guess I got so focussed on my new job, working hard to get money saved so we could move, the social situations came at a second and I starved my wife of some of the things she enjoyed. I know this, and I really see it now.
    I have taken full responsibility for the things I know I could have done better, being less negative, being more supportive and after a few days and talking with my wife more, she to my pleasant surprise also talk responsbility for some things, I was thinking that perhaps this was going to be a one sided fix and my needs could be met later.
    We start marriage counselling soon, which is been something suggested years ago in the past for problems which I didnt feel they big enough for such an action and worked on them myself, this was my fault for not seeing perbaps signs of the early problems years ago we are having now, but I supportively worked through things and I felt we always fixed our problems.
    I always felt I found my soulmate, my lifelong partner and no matter what happens, we have each other and could face anything. Its devastating that my wife, my best friend, my soulmate, my lifelong partner no longer wants to be the same, I feel like she wants out of our contract, I feel like I did when I was wronged professionally, I dont feel like life is worth living if she cant be my wife in my life.
    To give you a picture of our life, we are home owners, no kids and animal lovers, we have 3 cats and 2 dogs, 2 cats and 1 dog we have owned since early in our marriage, one of the cats is 16 and one dog is 16. They are nearing the end of their lives and with my wife being distant and spending more time out of the home with friends meeting her social needs, I am left and home tending to our pets, or kids, thats how much they mean to us and I feel like I am on my way to death with our aging cat and dog. We both work, have good paying jobs, ive had much bigger paying jobs in the past, but as mentioned I changed careers and now working my way back up. I am still the higher wage earner but it doesnt mean anything to me, all my money goes into one bank account and I dont care what she spends, I trust her and she is very good with money. And to give you example of how much I trust her, we own 2 cars, 1 house and I have everything in her name, one of this turned out that was because of situation, but I am always happy to give her the experience of when we buy new cars, it excites her, I make it her moment. I know this is another problem, because I think she wants to share in the moment, it was excitement for her early on in our life because I could give her things she didnt have before, it was never about gifts or buying her love, I just loved seeing her happy and as time went on, she wanted us, but just her signing paperwork for a new car, or a house.
    We are both honest with each other, never cheated, I know I havent and she said she hasnt and I believe her, we do care for each other and this whole process is making us both sick. The only difference is I am 100% totally dedicated in making this work, no matter what, I cant see life without her, but she doesnt love me anymore. She says she wants to, this is why we are going to marriage counselling, she said it will take time, but minutes later in the same conversation about things she will tell me shes not sure she will ever get back that happiness even if I do change to be the person she expects. And on saying this, she told me the person she expects is not the same person she expected years ago, she said she grew into a different person and her needs changed, and thats fine, I will support her with this, but I need to know what she is expecting and this is half the problem with trying to work through this, shes not telling me, she is telling me she needs to work out in her mind before talking to me more, she doesnt really know what she wants, but she does know all the things about me that is making her unhappy and even changing those things make not work. I havent listed or shared anything about unhappiness with her, she is listing a lot of specific things like something I said that hurt her from many years ago, I havent said anything in return even though I could, because to me issues arent important, our happiness is, the issues can be talking, worked and habit forming to resolve.
    I have been showing more affection and attention to really show her I care, I didnt ooze this before, but I suspect that perhaps my level before may not been enough, again I blame changing jobs and stress and focusing on the prize of a new life in a new location, I am telling her I love her, she will not say it back because she said outright she doesnt feel love, after having a walk through the park and chatting more to her today I asked her directly does she see any positives, that Im willing to change, im wiling to go to marriage counselling that I ignore before, that I want to work with her to find happiness, she said yes, but all she can offer is one day a time, I said to her my goal is happiness, we can take things one day at a time, but I need to be thinking we are working towards something, I want this to work and I asked her if she really wants the same, she didnt answer it.
    Her mother or my mother-in-law is a good sounding board for me into her feelings, they talk on different levels and I am able to talk to her, my mother-in-law is very suypportive and is saying things to me to support us working through this and explaining some of her hurtful behaviour as frustration and lashing out and that she just needs time. But she has made some comments and my wife has made comments that suggest that its all too late and the intention of the marriage counselling is really getting the support we need to separate, or ultimately the support I need when she tells me she wants to separate and nothing will change it. I know she does care for me. My mother-in-law says things like we can be friends when final decisions are made, and this shocks me, because to me, I dont want her to by my friend, I want her to be my mother-in-law, which is also a friend, but you know what I mean.
    Right now I am so lost, confused. I feel like I am trash, I feel like if I died no one will care. I dont know if I could face life without her. We start marriage counselling in 11 days, I am also working hard to be the good friend, the loving partner and the person that is not like the things she describes that are making her unhappy, but its killing me inside to think it may not work, I will work hard no matter what, but going back to how I feel I never want to fail, I feel like if she tells me she wants to separate then I am truly nothing but a failure. I will be alone, with nothing, and nothing in the world will matter. I am not sure if I could even turn to family anymore because I broke contact with them because my wife and them never really got along, my family made my wife unhappy and I chose my wife, its not that I dont talk to me family, but I decided to never call them, and as such, they no longer call me. I have thoughts now that my hard work in my new career and finally reaching the end was also reaching the end of my marriage, I felt my wife has suffered in pain in silence in support of me to see me through this and now that we are there shes now ready to move on, I know she cares for me, but I would have rather she speak to me years ago about it and we could be emerging happy instead of this. We have worked so hard and im facing an empty life with darkness and no one.
    I’m still searching for the answers, I am reading so much trying to gather as much advice as possible to make this work and turn it around.

  • Kevin, I’m sure the fear of losing your wife of 16 years is overwhelming right now. Try not to over-read her reactions. If she’s asked for counseling, then (1) she’s not yet certain she wants to end it, and (2) she’s run out of ways she can think of to fix things, so it’s going to be very hard for her to believe they’ll be fixed until she hears some.
    If she’s very social and has lots of friends, she might be depressed by the prospect of moving away, while you’re hoping it will free you from your own depression. Maybe staying and going are not your only two options. You’ve got some resources you can use for rebuilding and for handling the situations depressing the two of you in other ways. Stay open to discussing those with her as your counseling proceeds.
    If she’s depressed (about losing friends, about having a social life that no longer includes her husband, about not having a compelling reason to stay or go), it will of course affect her memories of your past. Try pulling out some old photos of times when she was happy in your company. She’s likely forgotten them.
    And give some serious thought to seeing a therapist for your own depression and social anxiety. There’s been so much research into these lately. There are options as simple as diet changes, classes, or low-side-effect pills to release the man you hope moving will bring out. Introversion is not a curse, and resilience, the ability to bounce back from horrible treatment by others or by fate, is a set of learnable skills.
    There are couples who have gone on to long-lasting, healthy marriages after as long as twelve months of one of them insisting it’s over. Don’t give up prematurely. And do try the items in the bullet point list in this blog post, please, several times a day.

  • Patty thank you for the reply.
    Sadly, my marriage broke down today. We are separating, she has found someone else, she told me it was over, she told me that she was telling me it was over but in the end I said to her you never said that, you dangled hope in my face.
    She betrayed my trust, she was dishonest with me. Finding out the truth was the worst feeling I ever had, it turned into anger, then grief, then understanding and that is how we came to the conclusion that perhaps separation is best and we could only be friends. She was confused and suggested trying again as she had doubts but then it didn’t seem was prepared to really make them work, it felt as if she was going to try again while keeping this other relationship going. It was unacceptable to me.
    She finally opened up and became the person I used to know literally only 6 months ago, she openly showed caring for me and suddenly she felt so horrible for lying to me. SHe tried to defend herself to say she was telling me and that the marriage counselling was to fix the communication so she could clearly tell me, I had to flat out say NO, it was not. In the end she agreed, I think deep down she was looking for a third party in the room to pass the message so to speak.
    I am still in shock, but life must go on, I know this wont be the worst of the downs to go forward. Now we have the task of dividing property and assets and money and my ever dedicated and eternal desire to care for her, I want to give most of it to her but I keep telling myself no, we need to walk away evenly. I need to walk away with something to take care of me. After 17 years of giving so much and always doing everything to take care of her, when I’m thinking of myself I feel strange and selfish. Every little thing I did in the past was with her in mind, right down to the food I would buy, I was always, does my wife like this, if she didn’t, sometimes I would buy it, but 9 times out of 10 I would always get the stuff we could share. I am just saying this is a little example of how my mind worked.
    She told me she never really thought about the future or what it meant after me, and even though shes betrayed me and hurt me so bad I promised to live up to my promise when we got married that no matter what I would be there. I had to really say to her, if you find yourself in need of help after we separate, she could ask and I would help, I could see a world of weight lift off her shoulders.
    Sadly, I feel alone in that regard in my future of doubt.
    I spoke with my mother-in-law and told her, she is devastated, she cant believe it, she is so mad and disappointed with her own daughter and did not wish to speak with her after me, which I thought disappointing as I felt my wife needed a bit of support, but my MIL cared so much too and looks like she needs time to deal with this, I feel bad for placing this burden on her. Its comforting to me we will maintain contact in the future, we both want to. I told her no matter what I would always see her as my mother-in-law, I just would, because I didn’t have a great childhood or a connection with my mother, but I did with her.
    So that’s that, I may sound like its really been worked out and we are moving forward, I guess I can say we are. But I know there are hard times ahead.
    I am still in disbelief as well accepting the reality of it.
    Tomorrow I am going to think how to try mend the deep rifts with my greater family. I’m not retreating from past decisions, I just need them to know I will be ok, I know even though we rarely talk they care, as they tell me over the years.
    Sorry my post was one that didn’t say the hours I spent reading your site worked out as a success. I really did believe, I invited my wife to read as well and she did and she even said it really put things in perspective for her, but it didn’t change anything. Deep down I think shes is torn between the other person and me and was confused, I will support her even though its over between us, but it will be hard because when I looked at it, I have been so wronged after being so dedicated and honest.
    Thanks again.

Patty Newbold

I am a widow who got it right the second time. I have been sharing here since February 14, 2006 what I learned from that experience and from positive psychology, marriage research, and my training as a marriage educator.

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