The dissolution of a relationship can happen in any number of ways. And whether things end with a fiery blowup or a cold shoulder, any breakup can hurt. But sometimes, it can be equally painful when a relationship hasn’t officially ended, but seems to be losing steam. Maybe it feels like a long-term partner is gradually pulling away, or the texts with a new partner start to drop in frequency. In these instances, it’s often tough to know if your relationship is just naturally evolving, or is, in fact, fizzling out.
While both new and long-term relationships can fizzle out, fizzling is more common in the newer ones, according to relationship expert Jess Carbino, PhD, former sociologist at Tinder and Bumble. “In those new relationships, there’s less at stake and fewer obligations and ties to the other individual, which makes fizzling more accessible,” she says. “If, for example, you’ve dated someone for just a couple of months or gone on five or six dates, those ties [aren’t very strong], so you’re able to move back or fizzle the relationship more seamlessly than someone who is more intimately connected to their partner.”
“In new relationships, there’s less at stake and fewer obligations and ties to the other individual, which makes fizzling more accessible.” —Jess Carbino, PhD, relationship expert
In that sense, a casual relationship that’s fizzling out could feel like something on the verge of getting ghosted. Your partner isn’t outright cutting off communication á la ghosting, but they are retreating, perhaps by calling or texting less often or not initiating dates or actively making plans to spend time together. Whereas, in a long-term relationship, fizzling might look more like the creation of distance, says Dr. Carbino, whether physical (perhaps, a live-in partner starts spending more time outside the house) or emotional (for instance, a partner choosing to engage less in conversation).
Why might a relationship start fizzling out in the first place?
Fizzling often happens when one or both people in the relationship don’t fully know what they want—that is, whether to stay in the relationship or go, says dating coach Adelle Kelleher, founder of Coaching Hearts Consulting. So, the unsure person opts for a murky middle ground by halfway checking out of things or choosing to invest only partially, holding onto the chance that someone or something “better” might appear around the corner.
In other cases, a person may be genuinely unhappy in their relationship and yet doesn’t want to have the conversation to actually end it, whether because they feel uncomfortable doing so, struggle with emotional vulnerability, or just think being in any relationship is better than being alone. “They might think, ‘Yes, I’m stuck in this kind of lackluster relationship, but at least when I’m bored, I have someone to do things with,'” says Kelleher. “This is not a healthy approach, but could be a reason someone might just string a relationship along without being fully in it.”
Fizzling can also happen in a long-term relationship when someone in the couple is no longer having their needs met, says psychologist Laura Louis, PhD, founder of Atlanta Couple Therapy. It could be their physical needs or emotional needs that are getting neglected, for example, but in either case, they may choose to just distance themselves from the relationship, rather than bring up the problem outright, says Dr. Louis.
This kind of complacency is almost like quiet quitting the relationship because it typically results in contributing just the bare minimum to keep the relationship going. While quiet quitting can certainly be a strategy for setting boundaries at work, the nature of a romantic relationship is such that it’s only as good as the energy put into it. So, even just one partner pulling back can decrease what both people are getting out of the partnership, eventually leading the other person to distance themselves, too. The end result? No one in the relationship is investing the kind of energy necessary to really keep the fire going.
3 signs your relationship may be fizzling out
1. You feel as if you and a partner are just going through the motions of coexisting
If most of the excitement, energy, or enthusiasm has drained from your relationship, there’s a good chance things are fizzling, according to Kelleher. That might look like either person reducing the amount of effort they’re putting into the relationship or otherwise not really trying to be an active participant in it anymore.
Naturally, this might mean that big, deep conversations are no longer happening; but also, it could just mean that you’ve stopped asking each other about how your days are going—and really listening to the answers, says Kelleher.
While most relationships will transition, at some point, from the honeymoon phase into something a little less lovey-dovey, that’s not the same thing as the kind of disengagement that happens with fizzling. “It might not be hot fire and sparks all the time, but [with a solid relationship], a partner is still showing effort and that they care about you, and that they want to know what’s going on with you,” says Kelleher. Whereas, with fizzling, all of those things start to feel less salient.
2. You and/or your partner are choosing to spend less and less time with each other
Any major changes in behavior that build distance can be a signal that something has changed, says Dr. Louis. Consider, for example, a partner’s decision to spend significantly more time without you, filling their calendar with work events, friend hangouts, or other activities.
To be sure, this isn’t to say your partner shouldn’t have hobbies or close relationships outside of yours (they definitely should), but if it feels like the time their devoting to things outside of your relationship is leaving scarce time for you, that’s a red flag for fizzling.
3. Your level of communication has significantly decreased
If you’re having trouble getting into consistent contact with your partner, or you’re finding that more of your phone calls or text messages are going unanswered, that’s a clear sign that things may be fizzling, says Dr. Louis.
While some communication stumbles are a part of every relationship, the key to deciphering them from the kind of communication gap that could signal fizzling is that a committed partner will want to solve or minimize these lapses, says Kelleher. Whereas, someone who is fizzling things may not seem to notice or care about their reduced communication.
What to do if you suspect your relationship is fizzling out
The first thing to do if you feel your relationship grinding to a slow halt is figure out how you feel about the prospect of it potentially ending.
If your partner is the primary fizzler, you may certainly feel insulted by their disengagement, but that’s not the same thing as wanting to actively continue the relationship. Even if they started the distancing, it’s possible that you’re participating, too, or that you’ve since realized that you’d also rather end the relationship. On the contrary, you might find, upon introspection, that you really want to continue in the partnership—but the fizzling is putting a damper on things.
Once you’re clear on how you feel about the situation and your hopes for the future, all the experts say it’s best to initiate a conversation with your partner, rather than speculating. “You don’t want your mental energy and space to be occupied with wondering if things are fizzling out or why you feel this way,” says Dr. Carbino.
Though it may be tempting to call out a partner for what may seem to be fizzling behaviors, it’s better to approach the conversation by sharing how you feel, instead, using “I” statements (e.g., “I feel uncared for when you don’t respond to my messages for several hours”), and allow them to respond, says Kelleher. Letting the other person to speak to the motivations behind their actions will give you important information on whether your ultimate goals for the relationship are aligned or…not so much.
From there, you can work together to determine an action plan for moving out of the grey area created by fizzling. To do so, Kelleher suggests asking your partner, “Do you see a future for us?” to gauge where they see the relationship headed. Or, if you would like to continue the relationship and see if they feel similarly, Dr. Carbino suggests trying something along the lines of, “I really enjoy spending time with you, but I’ve been sensing some distance between us. How are you feeling?”
Maybe they communicate that they do want to end things, or that there is something else going on in their life, like illness in their family or a busy period at work, that is dominating their attention and focus, but they’d like to continue the relationship. In any case, it’s only with an open conversation where you both share your feelings that you can come to a mutual decision to either break up or forge ahead (in this case, with clear expectations in place to make sure no one feels like things are fizzling).
This way, both people will feel like they have some level of say in and control over what happens. “Even if the outcome is breaking up, you’re still on the same [page] and deciding together,” says Kelleher.
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