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."