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Long-Term Relationships: Rebuilding Love After Emotional Damage

A couple having coffee together on a couch.

What’s “falling in love” anyway?

It has two components:

  • Part one: How the other person makes you feel about yourself.
  • Part two: How you feel about the other person.

These two parts are inextricably bound up together, and, as a matter of fact, part two follows from part one. Here’s why:

The “falling in love” kind of love, not the familial love that you have, say, for your parents or children, is about receiving. The other kind of love—the tender feelings for children, or the compassionate love that you have when you’ve been married 50 years—is about giving.

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So what is it you’re receiving when you fall in love?

You get a clear, bright, and shiny message of validation of yourself as a person. Many people can try to give you this message but it doesn’t work with other people. The one person with whom it works proves to you, in the course of being together, that he or she really gets who you are. Only someone who has plunged your depths and finds you amazing, special, and wonderful can offer this level of validation.

There may be people you have dated who feel as though they love you, but in your opinion, they don’t know you. Therefore, it’s impossible for them to validate you. Knowing the other person, genuinely knowing, is the cornerstone of intimacy. So you have allowed one person into your inner world, in the course of being together, and each step of the way you felt understood. This person, in return, continues to be intrigued by that process of knowing you, and wants more.

What could be a better experience than that?

That is part one (how your partner makes you feel). You feel exhilarated because after carefully letting down your guard to someone, this person has appreciated having been given the tremendous gift of you. Part two (how you feel about your partner) flows from this. As you let him or her into your private self, your partner did the same. And what did you find inside your partner’s heart and soul? A self that is very similar to yours!

Although opposites do attract, the fundamental, deep-down attraction comes from a reflection of oneself. Not only is this person validating you, but his very being (because it’s so much like yours) validates you all the more. That’s part two (how you feel about your partner).

(Incidentally, if you don’t see this, you do have to plumb the depths to find it. It is not on the surface. The surface includes a host of differences, but deep down you’ll find the sameness.)

So what’s “falling out of love”? The answer is: betrayal. You have opened up your soul; you’ve been vulnerable, and what did you get for it? You got hurt and betrayed. The betrayal doesn’t have to be as raw as cheating, although it can be that. But even ignoring a spouse when he or she is talking is betrayal. When this continues, the commonalities aren’t so apparent. Your spouse might be hurt, too.

Now, just suppose the two of you want to maintain the marriage. Maybe you’ve been married a long time. You may have had children together. How in the world can you get back to opening yourself up to someone who has hurt you? How can you possibly fall in love with such a person again? You are torn because it would be good to keep the relationship but the feelings just aren’t there. What can you do?

My answer is: Feeling can come back, but the process is backwards from the way it was the first time.

The first time, you just opened yourself up and there it was. You can’t do that this time. Even if you really would like to, your survival instincts won’t let that happen, and you must honor those.

Here are some steps that you both can take:

1. Your partner must prove to you, in every conceivable way, that he or she has changed. He/she must acquire the skill of patience. That is, your partner is so anxious to wish away all the bad in the relationship—which is understandable—that he/she may make you feel like he/she is more concerned with what he/she is getting out of it than what you are being offered. If your partner has truly overcome his/her hurtful behavior, then it must go along with an attitude of patience for your healing—and giving of himself/herself. It has to be about you, not him/her, this time around.

2. You must be patient, too—with your spouse and with yourself. His/her awakening to the fact that you have been deeply wounded in the relationship, and that you need to heal, will dawn on him/her slowly. Your spouse will realize that change goes way beyond no longer being ugly with you. This may take time, and perhaps help from outside sources. And you can allow yourself time to heal from the hurts of the past, because that is a natural process that cannot be rushed.

3. This is a wonderful step. It is akin to noticing how your child is improving in math or picking up a language. There is the dawning awareness that your spouse is growing. Because your guard remains up (that was number one in this list), your powers of observation are keen, and you can see that something new is on the horizon. Expected behaviors don’t happen and new, lovely ones are in their place: consideration, gentleness, sensitivity, generosity of time and effort. From this, respect and trust begin to grow. Allow this step the time it needs to unfold. The more respectworthy observations you make, the stronger your trust will be in your spouse.

4. Respect and trust will allow you to open up, little by little. You won’t have to force it; it, too, will be a natural process. There will be new things in the “you” that has experienced all this pain: guardedness, healing, and newfound respect. These are the new things that you will be able to talk about. Your spouse opens the door to intimacy when you know that he/she has heard you. You become willing to be vulnerable and open more and more.

5. In turn, your spouse will be able to talk about his/her dawning awareness of his/her past selfishness and hurtfulness and any regrets felt over them. In these admissions, he/she too will be vulnerable, and this will open the door wider to falling in love again.

What’s the upside of this difficult process? It’s more than falling in love and even more than preserving a family. It’s something rich and mature that you can’t feel the first time around: It’s a rock-solid knowledge of who this other person really is, leading to a much deeper bond, greater respect, and stronger trust than you could ever have with a new person.

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© Copyright 2011 by Deb Hirschhorn, PhD, therapist in Woodmere, NY. All Rights Reserved.

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  • elena douglas October 13th, 2011 at 2:08 PM #1

    Falling out of love does not always have to mean that there has been a betrayal. It might simply mean that the couple has grown apart and cannot seem to make their way back together again. I actually think that this could be a good thing for some couples, so that they do not waste any time on something that is not right for either one of them.

  • Bradley October 15th, 2011 at 12:42 PM #2

    There are times when I think that this is a possibility and times when it is not. If this is something where the two of you have remained together and do in all honesty still love each other, then I definitely think that it is possible to fall in love with that same person all over again. But for many couples the hurt runs too deep, and there is nothing that is going to bring those feelings back for them, no matter how hard they try. And you have to be on the lookout too, because sometimes they will appear to have changed on the surface but when you start to dig a little deeper you might find that really they have only stayed the same.

  • KM October 15th, 2011 at 2:53 PM #3

    I have been in this situation before and its not easy. When someone you thought is the closest to you goes on to hurt you it becomes very tough to deal with the situation and I even felt like I couldn’t trust myself anymore :(

  • L.Donald October 16th, 2011 at 7:48 AM #4

    Falling in love with someone who hurt you-Not an easy thing by any means but is a lot smoother of a journey when the other person truly recognizes his or her hurtful actions and comes along to comfort or apologize.

    And a no-repeat is a given-repeated hurt is something that even the mot patient person would hate!

  • uy October 3rd, 2012 at 12:32 AM #5

    The process is very well described in detail :) the interesting thing is ‘falling in love again’ takes inputs from both persons and if the other person is not willing to be genuine and do their part to ‘make up’ for the ‘betrayal’ then it leaves one with suffering alternating with numbness which eventually overtakes (ie. not feeling anything not able to feel love and not able to feel suffering either). I think its about abuse – willful, intentional abuse (which you refer to as ‘betrayal’), and not ever making amends for it which is the essential cause of the suffering.

  • james November 27th, 2012 at 6:48 PM #6

    i have the similar problem now with my gf

  • amanda December 26th, 2012 at 10:39 AM #7

    I hate that the one I love hurt me so bad that its hard to love myself. He’s back in my life and I don’t know if I could let him back in my heart , or do I do what he did to me? He seams like he’s sorry but it could all be a act. And why I think that cause he wouldent even talk to me till he seen me with someone else. IDK What to do can someone help me with what I should do?

  • Brittany January 27th, 2013 at 9:46 PM #8

    I was hurt by my ex, I caught him sending sex pics to some random girl that he talked to years before claiming we were broke up. Im falling out of love with him and I don’t think I wanna be with him anymore. I like the thought of being with someone else because I dont wanna be with a liar and a cheat. Someone tell me what to do?? We have a daughter together.

  • Laura March 16th, 2013 at 9:21 AM #9

    Hello everyone, helped me out when i thought my life is lost don’t know where its going……… It all started when the father of my two kids left me and sworn never to have anything to do with me and all effort to get him back prove to be abortive and i decided to let things be the way they are cause i felt my life is lost don’t know where its going. But Priest Andrew came into the picture and things turned out to be how i have ever wanted it to be……….I will forever be grateful to him for the rest of my life, Am so happy!!!!!!!!!! Laura

  • need marriage counseling July 12th, 2013 at 12:01 AM #10

    I ABSOLUTELY think that it’s possible to fall in love with the same person again. I you loved them once, you can surely love them again.

  • Alicia July 19th, 2013 at 4:03 PM #11

    My boyfriend said he fell out of love im 6 months pregnant , the problem was that i treated him really bad and he was the best man in the worlddd he did everything and anything he could for me i was hia princess. When he realized how i treated him he changed he sais he lost respect for me he heard rumors aboute cheating on him and makes everything worst he said he dosent want me anymore or ever want to be with me .. All he said is ” maybe with time , or maybe after you have the baby” but i i dont know out relationshil was deel and we were very comfortable with eachother . I wonder if he can ever fall in love with me again.

  • steve December 15th, 2013 at 9:47 PM #12

    Falling in love is heavenly, falling out is like being in hell. I fell out of love with my baby. She is a wonderful woman. Truly blessed. But by my actions. Betraying my baby. I fell out of love. Our relationship is long distance. Trying to figure out how to bring back that love joy happiness back. I keep ruminating on what I’ve done. Confessed and was forgiven.trying to rebuild is hard. Some days feel normal. Some feel distant. Some are really painful. Feel so lost. My world is up side down.

  • DrDeb December 16th, 2013 at 8:46 AM #13

    Hey Steve, thanks for commenting on my article – and on your sincere remorse. It truly is possible to rebuild. Remember this: Loving is giving. Your actions in betraying were not giving, not even to yourself. To fall back in love, you have to start giving. Too much focus on how rotten you feel about your actions point your attention back to yourself – and that’s not where it belongs. Good luck!

  • Alicia January 12th, 2014 at 7:14 AM #14

    My boyfriend and I didn’t know each other. We had a one night stand and he got me pregnant on purpose!! He admitted it to me and when I said never contact me again he said call me in about a month when your knocked up!! Well I got pregnant and we got together to see if this would work. We have been together now for almost a year and he has treated me like sh** the whole time! Cheating, lying, hiding, ect!! I lost the baby in April of 2013. I got pregnant again in September and lost that on in November:(! We love each other like no other but I feel the love falling on my side. He says he loves me and acts crazy and stuff when I leave. He says he’s sorry but the next day all the lies and fucking up will happen again. How do we both stop the non sense??? I’m giving up on trying!?

  • Vicky Palmer January 13th, 2014 at 1:53 PM #15

    I have been married for 19 years. I have tried to be the strong person in our marriage, I finally had decided that his jealousy and distrust in me has come to an end. I wonder days why I feel this way. I have dealt with his jealousy all these years and it is old I have given him no reason for his actions. So therefore I feel this will never change. I have told him the problem which he feels he has done no wrong in saying things putting me down , just so much he has broke my heart so bad that I don’t know if I even want to still be married. I want that unconditional love, that I see people have and when I have dealt with this jealousy for so long, I have quit talking and keep to myself just to solve the problem with all my friends and family at times it fixed things for awhile but it always came back worse, and now I have a broken heart that I have no idea how to fix it. I want a divorce but I don’t want to hurt him or my kids so then I think maybe, just maybe I can get that unconditional love that I have always wanted. My heart says one thing and my mind says another?

  • DrDeb January 14th, 2014 at 11:27 AM #16

    Vicky, jealousy comes from a person feeling insecure inside himself. But that insecurity is in itself very hard to admit, especially for a man in our society. So your husband isn’t going to get past it without help. Telling him that you did nothing wrong isn’t enough to make changes: He needs to heal and he needs help to do it.

  • Tyler February 21st, 2014 at 1:58 PM #17

    Can you explain what you mean by outside sources? My ex has a crush on some guy who makes her feel better because I unknowingly cut her down. But she wants to love me again and says im the best person ever, and she loves spending time with me. Im special to her, but she seems too hurt. She says shes numb?

  • DrDeb February 22nd, 2014 at 6:06 PM #18

    Tyler, I mean therapy! Not an old flame. You will have to work hard on yourself to be a better person. Follow the steps above and little by little she may stop being numb. But a crush on someone else doesn’t help one bit.

  • Aiden March 16th, 2014 at 6:51 AM #19

    Me and my ex were dating for about 5years and 3 months. We broke up about 3 weeks ago. She said we needed space because we were arguing too much and we were. I nagged at her all the time, I have no clue why? She told me herself “why are you being like this? It’s pushing me away. You weren’t like this before!” I said I’m sorry. I tried controlling myself but it’s so difficult when it seems like she’s doing so well without me. People tell me it’s a front that she puts up. I believe it because I made this girl who she is. I was the only person who truly loved and cared for her. Her own family even neglected her. My family loves her and still don’t know we’re apart. We’ve kept contact here and there but we argue. I acted a bit insane but it’s because every time I try to talk about us, she bring a up old stuff. I tell her I wanna drop everything and start fresh. I can tell she cares because she brings up the past, she says she loves me but doesn’t wanna be with me. We went to dinner about a week ago and we haven’t had a night like that since we were barely dating. We both messed up but she’s the type of girl who knows she’s wrong but won’t admit it. That’s how I use to be but I eventually swallowed my pride and I’d just tell her how I feel. She accepted it at first but later would take advantage of it. That’s how it seemed. I’d get so mad because she’d play games with me and I’d lose my head. I can’t control it but that’s what I’m working on right now. I really want this girl back. She’s been my everything and I know I’ve been her everything. No ones loved her like I have, no one has cared, protected and provided for her like I have. She tells me herself. It makes me feel special. Anyway, by the way I acted I feel like I pushed her away. How can I prove to her that I’m changing because I really am. I don’t know what to do? Give it some time, work on myself, let her work on herself and then try to slowly contact her then? Help!

  • DrDeb March 17th, 2014 at 10:59 AM #20

    Aiden, this is really the kind of situation therapy is for: You don’t know why you argue, you want to control it but you can’t, you love her but the arguing continues, etc. Sometimes we need an outsider to nail what’s going on.

  • Aiden March 17th, 2014 at 2:43 PM #21

    I tried using that. An outside source, another person but she only got mad. It was her friend. My ex doesn’t express her feelings much. She keeps them bottled in. I get irritated by that. I had to go to her friend and her friend said that she went through the same thing that I am going through. Her and her bf have been together for 7 years now. She said my ex would be back if I gave her time but idk if I believe that. Someone told her I cheated on her and it is NOT true. I pretty much talked to her about it and she somehow seemed to believe me but then she threw out “idc if you cheated on me or not. Look how you’re acting. You’re being crazy” all I’ve done is try to talk to her. I haven’t been insane and yelling at her like crazy. Old what’s wrong. She also suffers from depression so I wonder if that’s what’s wrong? It’s difficult for me to give her space because she seems to be doing fine without me. People tell me she does care and misses me because she talks to them about me at times but I don’t feel like she does. She tells me she doesn’t her self yet her friends say she does? I’m confused. She’s rude and I feel like she doesn’t truly believe I didn’t cheat on her. I told her to just trust me because I’ve done so much for her. I wouldn’t jeopardize our relationship. She was the most amazing person to me. I loved her. I guess I just want her to miss me and for her to realize that she should to be pushing me away. All I want is for her to miss me and for her to swallow her pride and at least talk to me. Idk how to get her to do that? If I give her space I feel like she won’t be back. Yet she does have all the stuff I gave her and a bunch of my clothes. Her friends say if she really didn’t want anything to do with me, she would’ve gotten rid of them or gave them back. Its a messy situation.

  • DrDeb March 18th, 2014 at 7:50 AM #22

    Hi Aiden,
    When I said this is what therapy is for – an objective outsider, I will add that a therapist is a competent objective outsider. (Of course, you need to check on the competency and that is a different article.) Your girlfriend’s friend is not the right person. Furthermore, you have not gotten to the root of her behavior – or your own. One thing you do mention is that her bottling things up irritates you. Can I say something here? Your irritation is going to make her bottle things more! Can you see that? That is reason #2 for a therapist to help you. Please check your local listings. The therapists on this blog are amazing and you can see who they are by what they write. Good luck.

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