The degree of coupling between the social and ecological components of social-ecological systems is seen as fundamental to understanding their functioning, interactions and trajectories. Yet, there is limited work about how to empirically understand the degree of coupling between social and ecological systems, nor the processes by which the degree of coupling could change over time. Here, we introduce a conceptual framework for characterizing trajectories over time of coupling and de-coupling in social-ecological river systems. We analyze two conceptual scenarios describing coupling and de-coupling trajectories in a social-ecological system and define a series of key concepts for understanding social-ecological system trajectories. We tested these coupling and de-coupling trajectories theory by linking these concepts to empirical case examples of two river social-ecological systems in the western United States. Finally, we propose a quantitative approach with the potential for evaluating the level of social-ecological coupling and de-coupling trajectories in other SES contexts. This paper represents an advancing on the identification of specific actions that explain current SES trajectories and immediate actions to reinforce or shift the trajectory.