Facing Marriage Burnout: When the Spark Goes Out, Flames Can Be Rekindled

Times Staff Writer

They have been married 25 years. He has devoted his time and energy to making a success of his business. She has been busy raising their four children.

They both feel good about these aspects of their life, but it suddenly dawns on them that there is nothing between them anymore--no communication, no romance, no spark.

They both feel they're not putting anything into the marriage and they're not getting anything out of it. Their sex life is basically nonexistent, and when they do make love they find it boring.

In fact, just the thought of their relationship makes them tired, and yet they say they still care about each other and don't really want to get a divorce.

This couple is in the throes of what social psychologists call "marriage burnout."

But, according to Berkeley social psychologist Ayala Pines, nothing is "wrong" with this couple: They are merely experiencing a normal response to the stresses that arise out of a long-term romantic relationship.

"They have both been very busy dealing with outside stresses," said Pines. "Those stresses took the priority, the relationship was not No. 1, and all of a sudden they said, 'Hey, there's nothing there anymore.' "

The causes of burnout in marriage and other long-term relationships--and ways to prevent it--was the subject of Pines' daylong UC Irvine Extension workshop last Saturday.

The workshop was aimed at both marriage and family therapists and "couples committed to preventing burnout in their relationships." And, as illustrated by the comments of the 34 participants at the outset of the workshop, marriage burnout is obviously a universal concern.

"I'm starting a new relationship, and I want to keep it alive," one woman explained. "I'm just leaving a relationship where quite frankly I burned out," admitted another woman. "We just want to prevent burnout," said a pair of newlyweds.

Indeed, as one married man aptly put it: "I'm just looking for logs to put on the fire."

Pines, a social psychologist at UC Berkeley and a licensed psychologist in private practice, explained that her interest in marriage burnout grew out of her more than 10-year study of once highly motivated people who were experiencing job burnout.

What she discovered, she said, was that their on-the-job stresses began spilling over into their personal relationships. As a result, she began asking large numbers of couples who had been married many years about their relationships: what makes them work and what doesn't make them work.

Pines said burnout--a chronic feeling of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion--in marriage is caused by a combination of the high expectations a couple brings into the marriage and the day-to-day stresses they have to deal with.

"It is my experience," she said, "that it is not the dramatic experiences that cause burnut, but more the drudgery, the chronic pressures and hassles: jobs, young children, mortgages, financial pressures, time, in-laws . . . . "

And yet, she said, rather than realize they're stressed by these outside factors, the tendency for couples is to say that something is wrong with the relationship.

"They complain the spark is out of the marriage," Pines said, "but they didn't have enough energy for the spark."

Pines said that in order to experience job burnout, a person needs to have once cared about the job. Similarly in romantic relationships, she said, "if you enter a relationship like a business arrangement--for security or something--there is no burnout.

"When does burnout happen? When you enter a relationship freely in love, and you want to live happily ever after. When we don't get everything we expected we feel cheated.

"Normally we ask that romantic love be the basis of a permanent relationship and when you look at what we're asking of relationships, it's ridiculous. We have enormous expectations."

Indeed, breaking into small groups, the workshop participants came up with their own list of the expectations they brought to their romantic relationships. High on their list were: a sense of both security and being able to grow as individuals, love, communication and a feeling of sharing in terms of values, fun and responsibilities.

'Roots and Wings"

For Pines, the ideal relationship is the antithesis of burnout. It is a combination of what she refers to as "roots and wings."

Roots, she explained, "is a sense of security one has in a relationship: knowing that the person loves you and loves you the way you are. It's your haven, your nest, your home, your friends."

But "roots" alone is not enough to maintain a vital relationship: "There's no life to it," she said. "It could be stifling, like a prison."

Couples also need wings, she said. "Wings are the feeling you can grow as a couple and as a person--that you can expand to your fullest potential."

Pines cautioned, however, that couples who have only "wings" in their relationship "are in danger of flying in opposite directions: Each person is doing their own thing and after a while they have nothing in common. They end up flying in their own directions and saying goodby."

But, she emphasized, "when you have the combination you have the sense of security and also the feeling of growth. Burnout starts the minute growth stops. In a good relationship people say, 'My spouse is my best friend.' There's energy and excitement, in addition to the sense of security."

Unlike various forms of therapy that treat people with marital problems based on the assumption that something is "wrong" with them, Pines said the social-psychological approach focuses on situations and on things that are shared by the couple in terms of their hopes and expectations.

Rather than have couples run through their list of all the things that they don't like about each other, Pines asks them at the outset to describe what initially attracted them to each other.

"What happens is you see faces soften," she said. "The reason I value that so much is that in my experience what attracted people originally to each other is the flip side of what is now most stressful."

A woman who loved her husband initially for being the strong silent type, for example, now complains that he is cold, that he doesn't communicate and that he has no friends. Says the wife: "That's just the way he is."

But, said Pines, "The fact that he doesn't communicate is another facet that he is the strong, silent type and the truth is she is attracted to that.

"The point is to help focus couples on the things in the person that they found attractive. You're focusing on the positives, not the negatives of the relationship. We get used to the positive and start taking it for granted. In my work, I say, 'Don't take it for granted."'

To the wife who complains that her husband is cold and noncommunicative, Pines said, "My question is, 'Has he ever been different?' And, as luck may have it, there has been one situation where he's been different.

"And then the question is, what made him behave in a warm and friendly way? What was the situation that brings out the warm quality in him?"

In recalling an instance in which the husband was warm and friendly, Pines said, "the wife can no longer say he is a cold, uncommunicative person because we know there has been at least one situation where he hasn't been that way."

In this case, Pines advised the wife to create situations that will bring out more of her husband's warmth and communicative qualities.

When a couple is experiencing burnout, Pines said, there is a feeling of hopelessness and a sense of being trapped. "This exercise shows couples that the situation is not cast in concrete.

"You want to decide which direction you want to go in terms of the relationship. The way to do it is not by changing yourself or your spouse, but rather the circumstances that will enable you to do that."

She emphasized that couples need to discuss their stresses and expectations and see if there is any relationship between the two and then try to work toward fulfilling these expectations. "If you don't discuss your expectations and stresses, the relationship is going to fall along the wayside," she said.

For couples who want to re-ignite the romantic spark they once had in their relationship, Pines said the first step is to make the relationship a high priority: Take time to focus on the relationship.

Re-creating Romance

She also stressed the importance of re-creating the sense of romance the couple shared at the beginning of their relationship.

Rather than tell couples specific ways to do this, she said, "I tell couples to think about when you were passionately in love." Or if it has been so long they can't remember what it was like, she advises them to use their fantasies.

"If your fantasy is meeting for lunch in a downtown restaurant or having a romantic candlelight dinner, do it with the person you've chosen so closely. Why do it with a stranger when you can do it with the person who is the most important person in your life?"

Through her work with couples, Pines said she has discovered several qualities that separated those who have maintained a good relationship and those who had lost "the spark" after being together the same amount of time.

"The first thing that most differentiated those two groups was the fact that the couples who had good relationships tended to look at the relationship overall in a positive way and look at problems within the context of the overall relationship," she said.

One husband, for example, might complain that his wife never remembers she has left a pot on the stove until the house is full of smoke, or that she spends too much money. But he downplays those irritations, saying "we have such a good relationship, it doesn't matter."

On the other hand, Pines said, some couples constantly harp on such trivial annoyances as eating in bed or squeezing the toothpaste from the middle of the tube.

"The difference," she said, "is in the one case the couple is looking at the relationship overall and saying, 'So what if there are problems, so what if there are disagreements--overall the relationship is good and we love each other and that's the important thing.'

"In the other case, every problem is made into a big thing. I actually had a woman who told me she kept a hate book and every time her husband did something terrible she wrote it down. Similarly, I ask, why not keep a love book? Write down everything nice your spouse is doing so the time there is a problem you can read in your book and say, 'Oh, but he was so sweet when he did such and so.' "

Positive Outlook Important

A couple that has this overall positive outlook is one that sees each other as best friends, said Pines. "And the assumption is best friends try to do things for each other rather than do things to spite."

Pines said she also has discovered that couples in burned-out relationships had a list of things that were taboo subjects: They never talked about politics or how they relate to their in-laws, for example, because that would lead to a fight. In time, she said, their communication shrinks and their relationship erodes.

But with couples whose relationships were alive, she said, nothing was taboo, including subjects that were "very, very touchy."

While acknowledging the difficulty of confronting a spouse with something that is painful or threatening, Pines noted that "what inevitably happened was it was very exciting when they had one of these long, serious talks: It (their relationship) was reaching a deeper level."

Pines left the workshop participants with one last piece of advice.

"One thing that is so important I can not overemphasize it enough is keeping a sense of humor," she said. "As long as we are able to laugh at ourselves--at each other --you'll never burn out. Guaranteed."

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