Challenging relationship burnout and revitalizing your relationship.
Posted June 30, 2013 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
New lovers often promise each other that they will be together forever. Offering glorious promises of enduring intertwinement, they willingly pledge to give up personal independence in exchange for a future of secure belonging.
Unfortunately, the keeping of those promises are subject to many unexpected challenges, even when they are genuinely made. Unexpected crises arise in all intimate relationship that can eradicate blissful expectations, and most new lovers, caught up in the fantasy of indestructible love, don’t anticipate them adequately.
As each couple eventually faces their personal pitfalls and whirlpools, many are unable to maintain their promises of forever-commitment. Others fight valiantly to overcome their challenges and survive, using every available resource to hang on to their connection. Like emotional warriors fighting a never-ending surge of increasing embattlements, they keep trying to make things better despite the greater challenges and lessening rewards.
Sadly, at some point, disillusionment, defeat, and dissatisfaction may overcome any dedicated partnership, and it can deteriorate into relationship burnout, the ultimate outcome of continuing disenchantment. The once mutually-beloved partners may find themselves on the unfortunate path of lessened rewards and diminishing returns. If they cannot regenerate the love they once shared, their relationship may be irreparably damaged.
There are many warning signs that can predict relationship disenchantment if couples are willing to heed them. They can begin early in a relationship but may be too subtle then to easily recognize. Most partners would rather focus on what they love about their relationship. By the time these problems cannot be ignored any longer, it may be too hard to solve them. If they are willing to pay attention to these early warning signs of potential demise, they could more easily reverse their downward course and turn things around before it is too late.
The Warning Signs of Relationship Disenchantment
When a relationship is in a prolonged crisis, both partners tend to lose sight of innovative options. When they most need to overcome destructive patterns and defeating habits, they are more likely to hold on more tenaciously. Even when they know there are better ways to handle the problems, they still seem to fight for their positions in old patterns that don’t work anymore.
This tendency for partners to sharpen their focus rather than adopting a broader perspective and facing what is happening soon spreads out to every facet of their relationship. They lose “peripheral vision,” and cannot see new ways to deal with the broader situation or its underlying meaning. They are in crisis, forced to choose between familiarity and risk. If they do not choose to courageously face changer, they will resort to old solutions and become more frustrated, weary and indifferent. Eventually they will lose patience with each other and their relationship will begin to unravel.
Partners in healthy relationships keep a reservoir of resources to draw from when they are overwhelmed by unexpected disappointments and challenges. Between crises, they nurture their relationship to maintain their resilience and keep those reservoirs full. Like emergency vehicles always ready for the next call, their resources are up-to-date and in good condition.
If a couple relies on unproductive patterns that have ceased to produce results, they put themselves in danger of depleting those resources. Because old habits take less energy and thought, they often slip into them instead of searching for new ways to improve their interactions. Changing habits in the midst of crises are hard for anyone, especially when a relationship is under duress. Just when they need most to be creative in their approach, most couples are likely to continue in the old ways, becoming more disrespectful and indifferent to each other as they lose direction.
Desire to Escape
As their relationship deteriorates, intimate partners search for ways to escape their increasing discomfort and feelings of defeat. Unable to resolve their dilemmas, they begin to feel as prey to the other’s predator. In that role, they are likely to experience stress reactions of flight, fight, or freeze. They can’t live with the situation, cannot see a way to leave, and cannot bear what they are experiencing.
Sometimes, they find themselves unable to leave even when they want to. They may have created many tethers that are still holding them together outside of their personal relationship. There might be established obligations to family, financial burdens, or important, desirable social networks. The loss of those attachments can seem more painful than what they are undergoing. Though exhausted from unproductive skirmishes, the partners may be immobilized in their inability to make the decision to cut those ties.
Some find ways to symbolically escape while staying in the relationship. The most common are to withdraw outwardly and/or inwardly, and to re-direct their energies into more pleasurable, productive, or less painful directions. Unfortunately, those choices are most often made without the consent of the other partner. Addictions, infidelity, commitments to others, plunging into alternate activities, more intense spiritual commitment, or seeking personal therapy are likely occurrences.
As partners spend more time excluding each other, the demise of the relationship is not always obvious. New experiences away from the relationship often bring them pleasure and relief which often makes their existing relationship seems even more dissatisfying. The road back is strewn with boredom and diminishing motivation to continue the struggle.
Blame and Guilt
When intimate partners begin to experience increasing frustration and disappointment, they often resort to finger pointing to determine who “the guiltier” party is. The resulting score-keeping is endless: neither person wants to look into the mirror of fault, and will do and say whatever is necessary to come out from under the guilt assigned by the other. Counter-invalidations replace compassionate listening, and defensiveness reigns. Lurking just under the blame/guilt agenda is the deeper knowledge that the relationship is dying and that loss may be inevitable.
What once was “we are a team,” has now become “if only you were different, then I ...” The potential beauty of a synergistic union is now a rapidly disintegrating array of thrown punches. Both partners may not even be aware of the effect of his or her attacks on the other as “one-upsmanship” prevails.
Blame and guilt never creates a foundation for learning or transformation. They are more than useless responses; they destroy any hope of a relationship’s finding its way back.
Loss of Hope
There can be good outcomes from the challenges of crises if hope is not lost. Intimate partners can learn from their mistakes and create new options for change in the future. But, if hope fades, despair becomes its replacement. The partners lose confidence in what was once a strong and resilient bond.
As hope disappears, so does the loss of trust and of faith follow closely behind. It becomes easier to just stop trying and to give in to what seems to be an inevitable outcome. Some people fall into grief or depression, fearing that they might never find another love. From that place of anticipated loss, they may not be able to bear the powerless heartbreak and give up. When intimacy is replaced with apathy, people don’t hurt as much anymore but are simultaneously less motivated to care about the outcome.
Now each partner must either find new reasons to fight for the relationship, or to somehow bear the anguish of either leaving or being trapped in a no-win situation. If they stay, spiritless and withdrawn, their physical energy will decline, their sexual interest will wane, their emotional risk-taking will sharply dissipate, and their faith in love and intimacy will be severely compromised.
Preventing Relationship Disenchantment
Once relationship partners have become disenchanted, it is a hard and long road back to love again. Preventing their relationship from slipping into that state in the first place requires more conscious awareness and vigilance. Early intervention takes much less energy and time than damage control.
If a couple becomes aware that they are using the same dysfunctional tactics over and over, they can choose to stop those patterns. Awareness helps to go beyond the limitations they have created. Both partners must be willing to recognize them and intentionally stretch them even if it is uncomfortable. It takes the willingness to risk and to look at things in a new way, even when they feel stressed and more self-preservation than caring. It can be done if both partners agree to support each other’s points of view.
Courage is not being unafraid. It is acting heroic in the face of fear. When partners are unhappy in their relationship, but afraid to embrace new options, they are often immobilized in their ability to look at things in a new way. If a couple finds themselves going around and around the same ideas, conflicts, and feelings without new options arising, they may need the advice of a good professional to see beyond their current stress-related emotional limits.
If the partners in an intimate relationship feel overwhelmed and exhausted from their powerless attempts to stave off their failing connection, their fatigue may come from many areas and show in a multitude of ways. Sometimes they have just had too many losses or severe challenges and they no longer see the other as a viable team member. Now separated in their personal distress, they have failed to stay in close communication or consistently check out each other’s pressures and resources. Their prior sense of feeling supported and covered is gone, replaced by lonely internal struggles in the presence of someone who was once their most trusted go-to person.
If the partners are flailing in relationship disenchantment, they will only feel more exhaustion and less motivation if they do not re-commit to each other and give the relationship the energy it needs for them to succeed. Both partners must help the other to get the time and space needed to physically regenerate and emotionally recharge while, at the same time, re-building the closeness that creates synergistic fuel. Energy drains such as non-resolvable conflicts, anxiety, guilt, depression, frustration, martyrdom, resentment, and the like, must be put aside. They burden a relationship that is already fragile.
When partners realize that their resources are low and their demands are high, they must prioritize together what is most important, and let go of everything that is not. They make certain that their relationship is the most important thing to both of them and that teamwork is essential to stop the bleeding.
Desire to Escape
When disenchantment reigns, relationship partners don’t run away. They know that escaping the situation will only make it more likely they will lose eventually lose each other. Sometimes, however, a temporary escape can help reduce the stress as long as both partners agree. Burdened by the past, or fearing the future, is enough to want freedom from those worries. If either partner feels the need to temporarily escape to regenerate, he or she must agree to only do so with the knowledge, acceptance, and participation of the other.
Positive escapes return partners more able to re-commit to the relationship with more renewed energy and hope. Those that bring them back dissipated, more discouraged, and less open to new ways of being are understandably counter-productive.
Escaping together to rest from overwhelming stress is an often prescribed temporary solution to couples who are overloaded. Whether that overload comes from outside influences or from within their interpersonal interactions, regenerating experiences can often bring back the calmness and openness a couple needs to begin a healing process.
As couples lose their ability to empathize and support each other, they often resort to accusations of blame or reactions of guilt. Making a concerted effort to stay away from assigning blame or creating guilt goes a long way towards making partners safe with each other again. Except in cases of clear accountability, it doesn’t really matter who is wrong or right or whose needs should come first. If either partner needs understanding or kindness, deciding who “the bad guy is” will only prolong the antagonism.
Both partners can avoid blame if they simply tell each other what they need, ask if the other has the resources to fulfill that desire, and not feel wronged if the other partner cannot accommodate. Couples who want to regenerate their enchantment with each other allow for all desires but don’t feel entitled to having them fulfilled. Even with the best of intentions, not all people have the resources or inclination to always put their partners first in every situation. If the partner who cannot fulfill that need can instead offer what he or she can give, that can lead to a better outcome. If the one who has the need is able to self-soothe, or modulate that need into smaller requests, the other partner may be able to give something that will help.
Defensiveness in response to blame or invalidation is the core of bitter and unproductive arguments. As soon as one partner feels that the unjust finger of wrong-doing is pointed, he or she will retaliate with what the other has done that is worse. The result will be a continuing negative spiral of accusation, reversal of blame, and defensive self-righteousness.
Leaning into critique is a wonderful ability. When partners can listen to the legitimacy of another’s distress without feeling they must agree or change, they often neutralize the other’s distress or find that the presenting problem was not the issue. It should always be the first response to any upset in the other.
Loss of Hope
When intimate partners lose faith in their relationship’s ability to revive, they also lose motivation, energy, and desire to keep working on it. That loss of hope can happen early on in some relationships or after much disillusionment in others. Hope is the fuel that partners use to keep trying. To keep that hope alive, both partners must hold it sacred and never threaten the other with abandonment unless there are truly no more avenues to walk.
Hope is always possible if transformation is included in the equation. It is required in order to keep the other contributing factors at bay. Without hope, intimate partners will ultimately narrow their focus, lose energy to keep trying, begin looking for escapes, and start blaming their partners for what has gone wrong. They are in anticipatory grief of a loss they do not believe they can endure. They will become physically exhausted, emotionally drained, quick to negative emotions, sexually uninterested, and spiritually without faith that things can change.
This is the time for compassion. People who once loved each other deeply can put their own distresses aside and care for someone who once was their most trusted and treasured companion. Had that partner felt lost or unhappy when the relationship was new, the other would have rushed in to help. Now, both must simultaneously reach back into the past and revive those prior responses to take away the pain the other is experiencing. No one can do that easily when attacks, character assignations, or invalidations are common interchanges. Those must cease for hope to remain alive.
Relationship disenchantment can feel like an irrevocable loss. One-time mutually beloved partners, who were in awe and wonder of each other when they fell in love, have now lost the magical feelings that made them feel so invincible when that love was new. That remarkable connection that seemed irreplaceable and unassailable is now buried in suspicion and anguish.
If partners who are still enchanted with each other could see the warning signs of that heart-breaking potential, they would have a chance to hold on to the wonderment they created together. It only takes the willingness to be consistently vigilant to the warning signs to stop that negative spiral before it begins.