02/24/2016 12:20 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How Couples Begin to 'Uncouple' in Their Marriage


"I love him, but I am not sure if I'm 'in love' with him/her anymore."

"I don't know if I want to be married."

"We don't have anything in common."

Sound familiar? No doubt they do. These are common feelings expressed by people who are in unhappy marriages and who feel adrift and unsure of what they want to do with their marriage. Many couples start to uncouple without realizing it. And, although couples are diverse and individualistic in their own right, the process in which couples become "uncoupled" bares similarities.

How Uncoupling Begins

Couples begin to distance themselves from their partner in ways that are subtle at first, but become much more obvious as time moves on. They find themselves living parallel lives. They spend less energy and time focusing on rebuilding or maintaining the relationship and more time on outside, singular interests.

Several things occur right below the surface -- often on a subconscious level. Someone might say, "We are drifting apart." "I am really not sure what is going on. I just can't put my finger on it." "I have less interest in my spouse and commitment to the marriage. I have more thoughts about life without him/her, and an unwillingness to try and put more effort into the marriage." At this time, many are unsure about what to do about their marriage. They feel stuck in the middle of two paths.

Over a period of months (or even years), the tide changes -- and typically starts with one person. One person in the relationship starts to experience greater inner angst and uncertainty about the future with their partner. The person who is questioning the marriage or relationship is not sure how or when their feelings changed -- they just know that they have. The person attempts to make sense out of their relationship or marriage, which has taken an unfamiliar direction. They are unaware of how they were becoming "uncoupled", how they got here, what to do, or how their relationship has unraveled. They seek answers, direction, insight, and clarity. They realize the feelings they once felt so easily and had such a natural affinity for now feels arduous, uncomfortable, and, for some, painstakingly 'hard.'

In her book, Uncoupling, Diane Vaughan states that the uncoupling process starts with a secret. The person who is unhappy is deemed the "initiator" -- the holder of the secret. Secrets create a power difference, as the person who has the secret holds this information from the partner. They are making the unilateral decision whether or not to share their secret, their feelings, or the ambivalence they are experiencing with the relationship or marriage. They are keeping their partner in the dark. Initially, complaints by the initiator may be looked upon by the partner as small or trivial; however, the initiator interprets these complaints as negative flaws. Even with this, the initiator continues to explore their feelings in an attempt to understand what went wrong and why they feel the way they do.

When the initiator starts to express their discontent, they often do so by focusing on the failings or shortcoming of the other person to the exclusion of anything positive they might be doing. Initially, they may attempt to address this issue with their partner, but words are hard to express. They become increasingly critical. Gone are the days of positive affirmations have disappeared.

This is a tough place for couples. What to do? The path each couple chooses depends on their history, how they interpret and describe their narrative (their story), their commitment level, if they are willing to be honest with their partner about their feelings and where they are at in the marriage, and the investment that each person is willing to make to see if their marriage can be salvaged. Sometimes a couple may feel it can be saved only to discover it cannot.

Uncoupling at this time can be looked at as a bridge -- a bridge that divides the two sides, where the marriage is no longer salvageable OR a bridge that connects the two sides -- where both people make strong attempts to stay together!

It just depends.

The Moment I Knew