10/07/2014 03:05 pm ET Updated Dec 07, 2014

Falling Out of Love

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How does it happen? It's been on my mind a great deal lately as my oldest (and many of her friends) has recently become engaged. Watching my daughter and her fiancee happily, lovingly committing to each other, the momma bear in me wants to freeze this moment in time... and weave a cocoon to protect them from the possibility of painfully falling out of love one day.

In the work I do, I've seen the anguish and torment clients go through facing the reality that their dreams of happily-ever-after are over. It's especially difficult for the spouse, male or female, who can't reconcile the the wonderful person s/he thought s/he married with a partner who has just left, has an insurmountable addiction or mental illness or is abusive. The reality doesn't fit the dream... and it's too painful to acknowledge the dream is gone forever.

For others, such as the "leavers" who've worked hard to dig themselves out of a marriage that just isn't working, it's a different struggle -- especially when friends and extended family comment, "How can you leave? You have kids. It can't be that bad!" With them, I see the pain and guilt they endure as they bravely start the divorce process.

Then there are the people who are paralyzed, trying to decide whether they should leave or stay. Therapists speaking at our SecSat program tell me the timetable is different for everyone, but clients know when it's over for them. For some it happens rather quickly; for others it takes years or never.

So, back to the original question about falling out of love. Looking for answers, I took to the internet. Scrolling through lots of material about the pain of ending a relationship, I eventually found an academic paper, published in 2013, entitled "A Phenomenological Study of Falling Out of Romantic Love" by Joanni Sailor, a couples therapist. She undertook the research because she too was looking for answers for clients asking, "How did I fall out of love with my spouse?"

Ms. Sailor found that, while it happens differently for everyone, the constant is a clear, pivotal, unforgettable moment in time for the spouse who falls out of love. Sailor writes that the pivotal moment of knowing "was a specific, recognizable and definable moment in time in which there is certain, unmistakable awareness of no longer being in romantic love." And it's a whole series of little things happening over time that leads to the pivotal moment in which the spouse clearly sees the romance (and often the marriage) as being over.

What were the themes that led a person to fall out of love? Loss of trust, loss of intimacy and no longer feeling loved by his/her spouse. This led to great emotional pain which made the person feel bad about him/herself, further destroying his/her love for his/her spouse. The rejection was so painful that the rejected spouse had a hard time functioning.

Furthermore, falling out of love happened so gradually that, Sailor says, "...barely visible changes that damage romantic love could not be seen in the moment in which they occurred." Sailor found it's only by looking back, and reflecting, that we are able to see the contrast between the love we once had and our current situation. Unfortunately, by then, the small, unseen daily hurts create such a wedge between couples that there likely is no going back, especially for the partner who has fallen out of love.

So, what do I tell my daughter and future son-in-law to help them protect their love? Sounds like it's gently warning them to pay attention to the little things in their life together, the small, daily aggravations that seem insignificant in the big scheme of things. That way they can take timely action to reverse the hurt before it slowly sniffs out their love. It's the magic that will help their love grow.