Love is a powerful emotion/feeling, and it can drive us to do incredible (and at times terrible) things.
When people think of “love”, the first thing they think of is usually passion or romance. Well, sex too – but that’s usually a byproduct of passion. Either way, it’s often perceived as an intense emotional response. Butterflies in the stomach, and an overwhelming desire to be with that other person.
Science has shown this “romance” stage of love is just that, a stage. It has a neurochemical basis, and usually only lasts for more than six months to two years.
When we are younger we often mistake the loss of intense feeling for the loss of love, and use that as an excuse/reason to jump to another “new” relationship where everything is exciting and fresh again. But eventually most people realize even after the intense feeling has dissipated, strong feelings can remain. And these new feelings can be even stronger in some ways, because they are a choice and not just a hormonal response.
When we realize this, and still CHOOSE love? Well, that’s when we have a love that can potentially last.
The thing is, even when we are choosing love and have accepted the feelings aren’t as intense, we still expect there to be feelings.
Love is still love, right? So shouldn’t we feel something?
We can continue to choose love, but what do we do if the feeling is gone – and there is no sign that it will ever return?
Looking at this another way, if there is only choice but no feeling, do we still have love?
What do we do when we are not in love?
What if a Loss of Love is Not About Love?
Personally, I don’t understand “not in love”. To me love has always been both an emotion and a choice, and this combination allows me to actively love. To try to show love through my actions, maybe not everyday, but as often as I can. By showing love, and practicing love I know I won’t allow love to die.
It’s not always that simple though.
In a fantastic article on depression in relationships, John Folk-Williams talks about the impacts depression can have on the ability to “feel” love. He writes about psychiatrist Peter Kramer, who believes loss of feeling is often a sign of deeper issues:
Kramer often works with clients who are dissatisfied with their relationships. They want to know if leaving is the best thing to do.
When he encounters someone who is convinced that the marriage is dead, he says that he always suspects depression or another mood disorder.
Mental Illness and Relationships
Here are two statistics for you:
- 50% of marriages fail.
- 25% of people will directly suffer from a mental illness.
At first glance these two statistics appear unrelated. But I wonder, what would the numbers be if you could look at the marriage statistics for people with a mental illness vs. those without?
I’m not sure, but I suspect the failure rates of marriage for those with a mental illness are considerably higher than the norm; simply because they introduce additional pressures and stresses on the relationship.
Mental illness already has a lot of stigma associated with it, and this is by no means an attempt to pile anything further on it. Rather, this is an attempt to help share some understanding for people who may be having doubts and challenges in their relationships that maybe, just maybe its not the relationship that’s at fault here.
I realize saying “don’t worry, maybe it’s not your relationship – maybe you’re actually dealing with a mental illness” isn’t exactly going to make anyone feel better. But it is a possibility; and for those who ARE dealing with a mental illness it may be beneficial to understand that your condition may affect your ability to feel love in ways you may not have considered.
Impacts of Anxiety and Depression on Love
The two most common mental illnesses are Depression and Anxiety disorders; and I’ve written in the past about how anxiety disorders can damage feelings of love (for a different account on anxiety’s impacts on love check the article Daniel Smith wrote for CNN, titled Can anxiety kill your ability to love?).
The Folk-Williams article above talks about a symptom of depression called Anhedonia (although anhedonia is thought of primarily as a symptom of depression it is also found in anxiety).
A common misconception about depression is that it’s characterized be people feeling down, sad, or hopeless (for extended periods of time). This definitely happens, but anhedonia is another characteristic of depression where sufferers often lose interest in things that they used to enjoy – activities, hobbies, spending time with friends, and even sex.
Anhedonia is a state of emotional deadness, where instead of feeling down or sad someone feels nothing. Anhedonia can cause someone to feel as though the love is dead, or they have fallen out of love.
To those who have never experienced it this seems bizarre, but If you do a simple web search for “anhedonia and love” it’s a bit frightening to see how common this seems to be.
An Account of Anhedonia
Folk-Williams describes his own experiences with Anhedonia, and how it can destroy relationships as follows:
there is another dimension of depression that can lead to the idea of escape as the answer.
It’s the one that causes depressed partners to say they’re no longer in love and have never loved their partners. It’s called anhedonia, the inability to feel pleasure or interest in anything.
For me, it was a kind of deadness. Rather than an excess of painful emotion, it was the lack of pain, the lack of feeling, that was the undercurrent of all the surface turmoil. I felt no satisfaction in life.
I believed that the relationship was holding me back, that it had become hollow, empty of the intensity I longed for. I was sure that I could only find happiness and passion with someone else. It was the fantasy of the perfectly passionate mate that was a constant lure.
And later he writes:
Anhedonia is the cause of the desire to leave to find a new, more intense life. The depressed partner’s relationship feels loveless because he can hardly feel at all.
The problem is that the unaware depressive has such a high threshold of feeling that it takes extreme arousal to evoke excitement and passion. He can erupt with anger and rage because these are more violent emotions that stir him as little else does.
Kramer says that these clients often believe that they’re perfectly capable of feeling. After all, they can go out and have fun with friends. They can feel passionate with others who likely have no constraining relationships or might be seeking the same kind of escape.
But they feel good precisely because these experiences offer exceptionally high levels of stimulation. They may also turn to addictive habits like recreational drugs, drinking, gambling or pornography for the same reason.
Fantasies of escaping into a life full of new intensity seem like the perfect answer to their inner emptiness.
The Loss of Feeling
When someone needs intensely high levels of stimulation just to feel, it’s somewhat understandable that people will be willing to engage in risky and destructive behaviors.
One of the things Folk-Williams alludes to (but doesn’t address directly) is that this lack of feeling makes actual intimacy almost impossible. So the type of attachment characteristic of close relationships breaks down, and sufferers often can find no arousal or attachment in their partners. Everything becomes detached and clinical. They know they “should” feel something, and they know they once did. But they don’t, and they can’t change that.
However they can still feel the intense emotions of “new love”, so things like affairs are increasingly likely just as a way to feel. As is sex in casual relationships or one night stands. Those things can be felt physically, even though there is still usually little or no emotional connection. As noted above, people may turn to substance abuse as a way of “coping” with this lack of feeling inside.
When anhedonia isn’t understood, it becomes easy to blame external things. A sufferer is unhappy because of their job, or their weight, or their relationship.
Happiness and hope is replaced by the lure of fantasy. A belief that things will be better IF they can only find the right thing. If they can get the right job, get the right body, or find the right partner.
Spoiler alert here – it doesn’t work. Finding the perfect partner is fantasy, not reality. They don’t exist, and the people who try often end up destroying a lot of the things in their lives that are “good” in the pursuit of this fantasy.
I write about relationships, and I write about love. To me love is a powerful and beautiful thing, and the loss of it is always difficult.
Often love is lost and relationships fail because of little things. We take each other for granted, we focus on the bad instead of the good, we are hurt and we refuse to let go. All these little things often add up to growing resentment and the breakdown of love.
And when that happens, it’s tragic.
None of that however compares to the loss of love not because love is actually gone, but because someone has lost the capacity to feel it.
THAT seems incomprehensibly cruel.
Especially when the sufferer doesn’t realize what is happening, and instead of seeing it as the symptom of a problem they interpret the loss of love as the problem itself.
I don’t know what anhedonia feels like, and I hope I never do. From descriptions of it and from reading others accounts of it, it seems like a terrible soul destroying thing.
But like many other aspects of mental illness, it’s something that’s not understood, and not discussed. And I believe many, many relationships and families are needlessly lost as a result.
So if you have thought “I don’t love you anymore” or heard those words said to you, please stop to consider that maybe there’s something else going on. Especially if you can’t understand or explain why the feeling is gone.
To gain a better understanding of the struggles sufferers face daily check out the following video:
No one wants to talk about or acknowledge mental illness. And people definitely don’t want to be labelled as having one. But when it directly affects 25% of the population, it’s at least something to consider.
When you can’t understand something, you can’t address it. And things can never improve. So understanding why feelings of love may be gone can be the first step in the road to rebuilding it.