Asking for a Friend//

My Relationship Feels Stale — Is That a Reason to Break Up?

A Gottman therapist says there might be ways to reignite the fire before calling it quits.

Hinterhaus Productions/ Getty Images
Hinterhaus Productions/ Getty Images

Editor’s Note: Strong relationships are at the core of a happy life, but sometimes, dealing with the people in our lives is tricky. That’s why Thrive Global partnered with The Gottman Institute on this advice column, Asking for a Friend. Every week, Gottman’s relationship experts will answer your most pressing questions about navigating relationships — with romantic partners, family members, co-workers, friends, and more. Have a question? Send it to [email protected]!

Q: I’ve been dating my boyfriend for almost seven years, and we’ve been living together for almost five. We’ve passed every exciting milestone and sometimes it feels like there’s no spark left — but still, I’ve never thought to call it quits because he was my college sweetheart and my first love. We’ve talked about marriage and starting a family, but we’ve both decided we’re not ready yet. Recently I’ve just been feeling that something about the relationship feels stale and expired. Is that a reason to break up?

A: Thank you for your question. It sounds like you may be thinking, “What do I do if I love my boyfriend, but I’m no longer in love with him?” Perhaps you no longer feel the same excitement and passion that you did early on in the relationship. 

I want to say that your experience is normal. In over 40 years of research with over 3,000 couples, Dr. John Gottman found that there are three natural phases of love in a lifetime (these are explained in Chapter Three of his 2015 book, Principia Amoris). There are also what he calls “choice points” in the life course when love may either progress to a deeper place or deteriorate. Perhaps you and your boyfriend are at one of those choice points.

It sounds like you and your boyfriend have already gone through the first phase of love: limerence, or “falling in love.” This phase is thrilling. This is the phase of initial, intense attraction where we can’t stop thinking about each other, we dream and ruminate about each other and the potential of how great our life together might be, we connect, we have so much in common, we are obsessed with each other, and we long to kiss, hold, touch, and join with each other.

The choice point in this phase is largely governed by a cascade of “in love” hormones and neurotransmitters that is highly selective and multifaceted. There are few and only certain people in the world that can activate that cascade in us. Chief among the hormones that govern this stage is oxytocin, the hormone responsible for attachment. However, oxytocin also shuts down the fear system in the brain, thereby impairing our judgment and enabling us to disregard the “red flags” that may be appearing in the relationship. 

This leads to the second phase of love: building trust. After an initial commitment and after the limerence cascade of hormones wears off, we begin to see the red flags and perhaps to have some buyer’s remorse. We begin to wonder if we made a mistake. According to John Gottman, the big questions of this phase are, “Will you be there for me? Can I trust you? Can I count on you to have my back?” 

The answers to these questions are the basis of developing a secure or insecure attachment to your romantic partner. Since you and your boyfriend have been together for seven years and lived together for five, I suspect that you have already gone through this phase, too. According to John Gottman’s research, the first two years of a new relationship are the years of the most fighting as couples struggle to work out the issue of trust. I do not hear you saying that there is a lot of conflict or negativity in your relationship, only that it feels “stale” and “expired.”

I believe that you are in the third phase of love, which is about building true commitment and loyalty. The choice point here is about either, 1: Cherishing one another and nurturing gratitude for what you have with each other, or 2: Nurturing resentment for what you think is missing. According to John Gottman, “This third phase is about making a deeper love last a lifetime, or slowly nurturing betrayal.”

I don’t hear you saying that you are resentful or that there has been a betrayal, but perhaps you have not been cherishing one another or nurturing gratitude for what you have with each other sufficiently. Given that you have been together for seven years, I would encourage you not to give up too quickly on your love. 

I would encourage you to be more intentional about cherishing one another and nurturing gratitude. You might want to take a look at John Gottman’s best selling book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (or John and Julie Gottman’s latest book, Eight Dates: Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love), and do some of the exercises in them together. You could also use the Gottman Card Decks app, which is available for free on the App Store or Google Play Store. 

I recently saw a couple with a situation similar to yours, only they were married and were deciding whether or not to start a family. Like you, they were college sweethearts and first loves and had doubts about the future of their relationship. After a couple of months of therapy in which we worked on enhancing their friendship and intimacy, modifying their conflict management, and creating shared meaning, they reported significant improvement in their relationship and decided that they were ready to start a family.

If we know anything about good relationships, it is that they take work. It takes work just to maintain a good relationship, and more work to enhance it. I would encourage you to do some of the work of maintaining and enhancing your relationship before you make a decision whether or not to end it. My hope for you is that you will make a deeper love that will last a lifetime. 

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