Relationship burnout isn’t something any couple wants to go through but it’s important to know what it is, how to acknowledge it yourself, and how to talk about it with your partner in case it becomes a problem for you.
While we typically associate burnout with workplace and job-related stressors, it’s certainly possible to experience the phenomenon in other areas of your life if enough pressure is applied. Much like job burnout, relationship burnout comes with similar feelings of total exhaustion and it can be equally hard to recover from, especially if you want to save the partnership.
But it is possible to learn how to recover from burnout and prevent chronic stress from turning into habitual burnout. With help from a life coach and relationship psychotherapist, this is what you need to know about relationship burnout, the signs to look out for, the causes, and how to come back from the edge.
What is relationship burnout?
Relationship burnout is a form of exhaustion that stems from a romantic relationship where one or both partners experience symptoms including fatigue, helplessness, loneliness, pessimism, and even depression, explains Michelle Elman (opens in new tab), a five-board accredited life coach, boundaries, and relationship expert. “One of the biggest indicators is when being around each other is hard and starts to feel like work,” she says.
But there’s a big difference between relationship stress vs burnout, with the first being more related to anxieties around your relationship and whether you’re truly compatible, and the latter being more about exhaustion - almost to the point of ambivalence towards a partner.
Signs of relationship burnout
1. You're fighting all the time
This is one of the biggest signs of relationship burnout, says Elman, especially if you don’t normally argue. “If the fights become repetitive and your arguments are no longer about seeking resolution but more so about expressing your frustration at each other, then the fights will continue,” she explains. These fights can be minimal or they can be all-consuming, so it’s important to look at the way you argue and how you feel at the end of it.
“You should feel resolution, a better understanding of each other, and ultimately, closer to each other knowing you’ve worked through a difficult issue together,” says Elman, who is also the author of The Joy of Being Selfish (opens in new tab) and Am I Ugly (opens in new tab).
2. You don't enjoy each other's company
Think about how you feel when they are and aren’t around, suggests Elman, as another big sign of relationship burnout is wanting to spend as much time as possible away from your partner.
“When they walk through the door, you are annoyed and want to spend less and less time together. You like yourself less when you are around them and they bring out the worst in you. When you spend time alone or with friends, you feel relieved to not be in their company and you find it's easier to be yourself when they aren't around,” she says. “You are pleased when they are unable to make events so you can go alone, and likely your friends and family are relieved when you turn up alone as well."
3. You are constantly tired
Tiredness is one of the biggest signs of burnout generally, not just relationship burnout. It’s when something is exhausting you and you're struggling to know how to deal with stress. “It’s easy to blame it on work or general life stress, but it might be your relationship,” says Elman.
“When your relationship isn’t adding to your life and fulfilling your relationship criteria, it could be taking away from your life and draining your energy. You’ve lost interest in your relationship, and this could have transferred to other areas of your life.”
What causes relationship burnout?
Just as every relationship is different, people will respond to stressors in a relationship differently. But there are a couple of common factors that most cases of relationship burnout (and dating burnout) have in common, explains Heather Garbutt (opens in new tab), a love and relationship psychotherapist.
1. Getting stuck in a rut
“Getting stuck in a well-worn groove and taking each other for granted is a primary cause of relationship burnout,” she says. “Lessening communication and a lack of curiosity about each other can also all lead to this exhaustion.”
Researchers from the University of California (opens in new tab) even looked into the idea, examining couples in both reportedly satisfied and distressed relationships. They found that couples who failed to properly communicate their wants and desires were more likely to be distressed in their attachment than those with positive communication patterns.
2. Prolonged relationship stress
One of the main ways to avoid burnout without quitting is to learn how to deal with stress before it becomes burnout in the first place, as feeling stressed out is a prelude to feeling completely burnt out if it lasts for long enough.
“Prolonged stress, worry, and a major distraction from taking care of the relationship become managing stress from the outside,” says Garbutt, “This means there is little left to nourish each other.”
3. Partners trying to change themselves to please the other
“Relationships can burn out when one or each of the partners gives up on themselves, their interests, and what feeds their soul,” Garbutt explains.
Especially if it’s a new relationship, partners will be trying to please the other one and make the relationship work - sometimes against better judgment. “They will probably be making a supreme effort in the relationship at the expense of themselves, but the other person is left wondering who they fell in love with.”
4. Built-up resentments
“When resentments build up and conflicts are not dealt with, couples can dampen their connection with each other and retreat into shaming and blaming each other,” she says. “They become more intimate enemies than loving partners.”
Can you recover from relationship burnout?
Yes, you can recover from relationship burnout if you’re worried that these signs and symptoms sound all too familiar. “Stop, take stock together, and see if you want to go forwards together in a different way,” suggest Garbutt.
“Think about what you like about each other, what you like about your life together, and if you had your way, what would that life look like for you?” she says. “Then gently negotiate from that point to see if it would be possible for you both to get your needs met. You may need to learn new relationship skills around building trust and commitment, how to spice up your relationship, how to draw healthy boundaries, learn to listen and talk effectively, and self-nourishment. Or you may need to work through conflict constructively to deepen your connection rather than break it.”
It's also worth looking at your sex life, if that's been important to your relationship in the past. What's that like now and could you benefit from learning how to have better sex as a couple? You can try to work through these points together or find a therapist who will be able to help you constructively work through your issues.
How do you know when your relationship is over?
Sometimes though, the best thing to do is call it quits. While only you’ll know if your relationship burnout is too far gone to recover from, there are some signs that you might not be suited for one another.
- You turn against each other when fighting: “If you end disagreements out of exhaustion instead of a resolution, your communication styles might not be compatible,” says Elman.
- One/both of you can’t take accountability: “If one party is unwilling to do the work, and that might be seeking professional help as a couple, then this is a sign that you should break up,” she says.
- They dismiss how you feel: “If your partner doesn’t care about how you are feeling or dismisses how you feel, that’s another indication that the relationship is not going to last,” Elman adds.
- You don’t want to rekindle the spark: If feel like there’s nothing left, it’s definitely best to end things. “Consciously uncouple with kindness and respect, taking care of the practical and emotional life of any dependents,” says Garbutt.
But just because you’ve called it quits after experiencing relationship burnout, it doesn’t mean all is lost. “You can mature at the end of a relationship to become a more relationally developed person,” explains Garbutt. “You’ll be ready for your next relationship with new skills and a deeper understanding of what and who you might need going forward.”
A digital health journalist with over five years experience writing and editing for UK publications, Grace has covered the world of health and wellbeing extensively for Cosmopolitan, The i Paper and more.
She started her career writing about the complexities of sex and relationships, before combining personal hobbies with professional and writing about fitness. Everything from the best protein powder to sleep technology, the latest health trend to nutrition essentials, Grace has a huge spectrum of interests in the wellness sphere. Having reported on the coronavirus pandemic since the very first swab, she now also counts public health among them.
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