If you’re dedicated to the idea of romantic love, your marriage may be in danger and you’re a prime candidate for burnout, says psychologist Ayala M. Pines.
Even those who have figured out that love doesn’t conquer all are still prey to some very unrealistic notions about love and marriage, according to Pines, author of “Keeping the Spark Alive” (St. Martin’s Press, $17.95).
“If you want life to be lived on a dream cloud of love, constant intimacy, and magic, if you expect the simple act of marriage to give focus and meaning to your life, to answer all of life’s basic questions, you are going to be disappointed. Hanging on to those notions guarantees burnout,” Pines writes.
True marriage burnout, she says, is a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion caused by long-term, emotionally demanding situations in which a discrepancy between expectations and reality exists. It is different from conflict caused by pathology, such as alcoholism, Pines says.
The Silver Lining
But burnout is not all bad, she says. “It makes people confront the fact that things are really not going as well as they wish. So often people can go on in situations that are not really OK but not bad enough to do anything about.”
But too many couples refuse to change, Pines says, because the marriage is not bad enough.
For many couples, especially those whose conflict is longstanding, consulting a marital therapist is by far the best strategy, she says. She cannot overemphasize the importance of examining the marriage before burnout sets in. If after 30 years of “bitterness, disappointment and hurt” couples begin to address their problems, it’s far harder to resolve them.
In her practice, she emphasizes joint responsibility.
“I always look at the relationship as something two people are creating together,” Pines says. “A couple will come to me, and one is the ‘victim,’ the other the ‘victimizer.’ I don’t buy that. It’s something both of them are doing together.
“They’re all too quick to put labels on things--'He’s such and so, neurotic, narcissistic.’ What’s the point?” Affixing labels may make a person feel more in control of a problem, but it works against open-mindedness, Pines says.
She urges couples to address such questions as “Why did you fall in love with him?” “What was in it for you in this marriage?”
Couples beginning therapy often have lists of gripes about each other. “I don’t let them complain,” she says, so they can concentrate on what went so wrong with something both wanted so much.
Pines always looks at the stress factors. She believes that whatever aspect a spouse finds most stressful in relating to the partner is connected with something that initially was attractive. And couples often need a third party to point out the insidious effects of everyday stress, she says.
Work overload, conflicting demands, boredom, housework, noise, crowded living conditions or constant demands to prove oneself are draining. But often the difficulty in coping is translated as a grievance against the spouse.
Burnout is not inevitable, Pines says, but all is not a romantic fantasy. “While it is definitely true that the person we fall in love with is human, and thus incapable of fulfilling all of our needs, some couples manage to live with this sad reality quite successfully,” she writes.
“That is not to say they never have problems in their marriages or disagreements or disappointments. But it is to say that they choose to take responsibility for those problems, disagreements and disappointments.”
These couples’ success in part “can be attributed to an environment that is supportive, challenging and relatively free of hassles and stresses,” she writes, with a high degree of commitment to the relationship and a sense of control over it.