When Your Partner Loves You, but They’re Not “In Love” With You

Is there a difference?

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A man I was working with wanted to break up with his partner.

When I asked him why he said he would always love her. But he was not “in love” with her anymore.

The first time I heard this from a client I was puzzled: How does anyone know when they’ve crossed the line, when they’re officially “out” of love?

But it didn’t take long to figure it out. It’s code for “I want to have sex with someone else.” And that someone else is almost always already hovering in the wings.

Over the years I’ve heard this pitch a number of times — from both men and women. It seems to take the presence of Someone Else to make them define their concept of “being in love.” Which is always about sex.

Fair point, but I’ve also seen a number of people bin their solid, if a little dull, relationships for the lure of hot sex only to find they’ve leapt into a firestorm — and realise it wasn’t worth the burn.

Relationships are confusing, changeable beasts. We can never be 100% sure where they’re going or where they’ll land. But it can help to be clear on what “being in love” means to you before you cut the ties.

What Does It Mean to be “In Love”?

“I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”— Martin Luther King, Jr.

The idea of being “in love” wears a golden halo. No wonder: Getting into a promising new relationship is exciting. The feelings are emotionally charged, producing an almost inexplicable desire for someone.

But even if it starts out that way, real or mature love can’t survive in a cauldron of emotion. Infatuation wears off; so does novelty. Love needs time to grow and develop; it needs tolerance and acceptance; it needs to be able to withstand the ordinary stress and sh*t of life. But, if you get it right, it can provide comfort, a sense of safety and much pleasure.

I’ve talked relationships with a lot of people, over a long time. And I’ve come to know that, In the end, being “in love” looks pretty much like plain old love itself. Here’s my take on it.

The 5 Most Important Signs of Love

“The most important thing in life is to learn how to give out love, and to let it come in.” — Morrie Schwartz

1. You’re great friends.

The two of you are genuinely close friends. You have someone you want to download the events of the day to. And who wants to listen to yours. You share a laugh, you’re there for each other on the bad days as well as the good. Yes, you may have squabbles and disagreements, and rough patches, but there’s no-one else you’d rather come home to.

2. You’re open-hearted with each other.

You show each other compassion. You are able to spill your inner most thoughts and feelings with your partner. Okay, not all of them, all the time — that might be a little exhausting for everyone. But you can be vulnerable — physically, sexually and emotionally. And you provide a safe space for your partner to be the same with you.

3. You’re (both) able to let love in.

Ideally you both give and receive love in equal parts, but life (and relationships) is not always a fair and equitable deal.

The easier gig is to give love, to do nice things for someone, because it doesn’t challenge you emotionally. It’s way harder to open yourself up to receiving love — especially if you have trust issues or you’ve been hurt. Some people are naturally good at letting love in but many of us fall into the “could do better” camp. Learning to drop your guard is worth the time and effort — it will enrich your relationships and, more broadly, your life.

4. You share— lots of things.

The sharing of time, of chores, of money, of parenting, of possessions, or (some) interests/activities is important. The flipside of that is if you don’t share, you’re in trouble. One-sided relationships breed hurt and resentment. So does selfishness. So does extreme independence.

Shared experiences are vital; they’re fun or uniquely challenging when you’re young and — if you go the distance — they’re the ones that make you smile when you’re rocking out on the rest home porch.

5. You’re affectionate, physically and emotionally.

Anyone who’s been in a relationship for a long time knows sex fades. Or changes. Even with someone you left the last person for. Just saying.

Genuine affection comes in all sorts of packages, from great sex to cuddling on the couch to a tender touch on the arm to helping your partner onto her walker. As one grinning 80-something woman in a new relationship with an 80-something man put it: “Sex is off the table for us. But I never thought I’d feel so much affection and companionship at my age. We love each other — and we’re very lucky.”

Thanks for reading! Join if you’re interested in practical psychology for everyday life.

Clinical psychologist, writer. Editor of On the Couch: Practical psychology for everyday life.

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