Understanding Relationship Burnout
Chamin Ajjan is the author of Seeking Soulmate: Ditch the Dating Game and Find Real Connection. A licensed clinical social worker who did her undergrad work at UC Berkeley and attended graduate school at Columbia University, she has been in private practice since 2004. In those years she has come to see that no matter what a patient cites as their reason for engaging in treatment, it usually all comes down to love. Romantic relationships and the attempt to find one continue to be the most talked-about subjects among her single patients. She has blogged extensively about mindful dating, and developed a mindful dating model that she uses in her practice. She lives with her husband and children in Brooklyn, New York.
All relationships go through ups and downs. If we are fortunate enough (and benefit from things like a supportive community, a mindfulness practice, or other stabilizing strategies), we can experience this ebb and flow with some level of comfort. But sometimes we get stuck in a down flow. You may notice there is less sexual chemistry or desire or that the time you spend together is not as enjoyable. You might bicker more or feel irritated by your partner’s every move. Or perhaps your relationship just feels meh … nothing special or exciting. If any of this sounds familiar, you may be experiencing relationship burnout.
Relationship burnout is emotional, physical, spiritual,and social exhaustion due to ongoing and chronic stress in a relationship. This stress can be external, such as work pressure, or internal, such as parenting issues. There is no shortage of potential stressors, and if we are living our lives on auto pilot, as many of us are, it can be challenging to detect when these annoyances become actual problems. When this happens, we can start to turn away from our partners. Our thoughts about them may be more fixed and/or negative. When burnout sets in, you can become detached, disconnected, and disinterested in your partner.
Now more than ever the demands of our lives, our own inner turmoil, and countless other duties can become distractions that impact the connection we have with our partners. Even those of us with minimal stress in our lives can get too comfortable and forget to prioritize our relationships. In time, we can lose sight of the attraction, excitement, and admiration that brought us together. The result can be a partner who feels unappreciated or unseen, which puts your relationship at particular risk for burnout.
This may seem like a bleak forecast, but relationship burnout does not have to mean the end of your relationship. Separation is not inevitable. Relationship burnout can merely be a sign that something needs to be attended to – when the change oil sign lights up in your car, you don’t assume your car is ruined. You attend to your car’s needs. In our relationships, the signals that maintenance is required may not be as clear. You may be aware of the signs, or they may have developed undetected, building until you find yourself in the throes of burnout. You can still love your partner and experience bumps in the road. With mindful presence, a little awareness, an intention to understand your partner, and a commitment to work collaboratively on your relationship, you can grab your seatbelt, buckle up, and get back to enjoying the ride.
10 Signs of Relationship Burnout
- You are unmotivated. You do the things that used to be fun to do together out of obligation or not at all. Instead of looking forward to enjoyable activities with your partner, they feel more like a chore. Over time this can erode a relationship.
- Hopelessness sets in. You are cynical about your relationship and its chances for repair. You might think you are in a never ending negative pattern with no escape. This ”all or nothing” thinking and overgeneralizing can be hard to pinpoint, but if present, it can be challenging to overcome.
- Lack of connection. You are detached from your partner. The lights are on, but nobody’s home when they speak to you. They may be in the same space, but you do not interact with them, and you are distracted when they attempt to connect. Communication is an important part of a healthy relationship. When it starts to deteriorate, you are likely on the path of burnout.
- No sexual chemistry. You feel little to nothing when you are intimate, or you lack desire to engage in sexual activities with your partner. Every couple is different and each person has different sexual needs. Frequency can vary. Sex can be more important to one couple compared to another. However, being turned off by the mere thought of being intimate with your partner is a good indicator that burnout may be present or close by.
- The grass seems greener. You are worried that you made the wrong choice in a partner. Thoughts about there being someone out there who is better suited for you are frequent.
- You daydream about leaving the relationship. More and more, you fantasize about a life without your partner. These thoughts give you a sense of relief and satisfaction you cannot seem to find in your relationship. Mentally you have one foot in the relationship and one foot out.
- They get on your damn nerves. Every little thing they do irritates you. These sources of annoyance can range from your partner not helping enough with the kids to even the way they breathe. What they are doing matters less than the fact that they are doing it, and it irks you.
- You guys are fighting more. Perhaps you are being more critical of each other. Maybe your tone is condescending or aggressive. You possibly blame your partner for your problems. Or your filter may be gone, and you just say whatever comes to mind. This constant stress on your relationship is toxic and can wear it down, leading to burnout.
- You think about sex with others. We are not robots. It is normal to find other people attractive. However, when you are attracted to others more and more and it is getting in the way of your relationship, this could be a sign of burnout.
- Cheating. This one needs little explanation. If you are in a committed relationship and the expectation is that you are monogamous, cheating is a clear violation. There are many reasons why someone cheats, and they are not all related to burnout. For example, someone may be looking for the emotional or physical connection they are no longer getting from their relationship, or they may be wanting to feel desired by someone again. For many, this can seem like an unforgivable act, but investigating the why behind the action can lead to understanding. Couples can heal from this betrayal.
Why Does Relationship Burnout Happen?
There are several reasons burnout might occur, and every couple is different. However, it is important to note that burnout often happens over time and not out of anyone’s intention to hurt their partner.
Couples who grow their families may find that the energy they are pouring into parenthood has replaced the attention they once gave to their partnership. When individuals become parents or caregivers and work to keep the household running smoothly, many things can occur. The division of labor may not feel equal. You may become so involved as a parent and a partner that you lose sight of who you once were and what was once important to you. Perhaps you have a sense that they have lost their independence. Any of these scenarios can lead to feelings of resentment, disappointment, hurt, and more. NOTE: Couples without kids or eldercare duties can also experience these challenges.
Perhaps it is something you are doing or something you are not doing anymore. When the things we do to care for each other are not recognized, we can start to feel undervalued.
Maybe you have stopped complimenting each other or showing signs of appreciation. All of those affectionate little gestures have faded away. Life stressors may be occupying your mind, or you may have gotten too comfortable and familiar with each other.
Speaking of life stressors, there are plenty of them that can get in the way of enjoying your relationship. Work obligations, financial issues, parenting problems, eldercare responsibilities, and health issues are among the most common stressors on relationships. It is important to recognize that burnout in one area of your life, such as work, can affect your relationship’s overall wellness.
Or maybe you are too enmeshed with your partner. Since the pandemic started, in particular, we are seeing more and more couples struggling with too much time spent together. You may be thinking, “How is that possible? I can’t get enough of my love muffin!” But sometimes you can have too much of a good thing. When we do not give ourselves the space we need to attend to our own needs, spend time with others, and reconnect with ourselves, we can start to feel smothered, annoyed, or even resentful.
What’s the Fix?
Approaching relationship burnout mindfully can truly be helpful here. When we are led by our emotions and negative thoughts, we render ourselves illogically to suffering. We limit our success, and we support a fixed outcome. By approaching burnout with openness, curiosity, flexibility, and vulnerability, we can explore a world of new possibilities and experience healing in our relationships. Here are some ways you can work on restoring your flame:
- Speak Up. Talk to each other. If we are stuck in our judgmental minds, letting our thoughts lead us, we become rigid, and there is little room for change or progress. Believe in the possibility of progress and speak up. Share how you have been feeling, what you think is missing, and what you would like to work on to get back on track. Focus on using “I” statements and ditch the blame. Your partner will not be open to this conversation if you say, “You never recognize all of the hard work I put into making our house a home, and I am tired of you not showing me any appreciation.” Instead try: “I have been feeling upset and hurt because I work hard to make our home nice, and I am not sure you notice it.”
- Have a Fighting Spirit. To be a love warrior, consistency and dedication are key. Set an intention to uncover the cause of the burnout. Once you do, commit to making a change that honors this intention. Maybe you need to figure out how to show your partner more appreciation. Or find a way to share your hidden expectations that lead to resentment. Making time for you and your partner to reconnect could be the answer. Whatever the solution, show your partner you are willing to fight for your relationship.
- Take a Break. If the problem is too much time together, plan to spend some time apart. Let your partner know how much you love spending time with them and that this is not a reflection on how you feel about them. Share that it is healthy for you to have time apart from each other. Honor how your partner feels by checking in and validating their feelings. And then move forward with the plan. Spend some time with your friends. Check out that show you have been dying to see. Have a quiet day alone. Or do anything else that works for you. You may come back to your partner refreshed and ready to share your experiences.
- Go Heavy on the Self-Care. We can often place too much responsibility on our partner for our own happiness. We rely on them for support, love, security, companionship, and so much more. Take a glance within and ask yourself, “Am I looking for my partner to give me something that I can give myself?” If the answer is yes, first be kind to yourself. This is not unusual. Show yourself some compassion and understanding. Start prioritizing yourself. Get that mani/pedi you have been putting off. Carve out 30 minutes a day for exercise. Block time off on your calendar to just be. Show yourself some love and appreciation. Do it for yourself.
- Learn How to Talk to Each Other. We can get real comfortable in a relationship and forget our manners. Or maybe we never had the skills to begin with. Words matter. Become more curious about the way you communicate and how it may negatively impact your partner. Add some new tools to your communication tool box, and practice these new skills. Learn how to communicate effectively and respectfully. Coming from a place of openness and curiosity can help you step away from needing a specific outcome. The goal is to understand each other and to strengthen your partnership. A therapist can help you if you are really stuck here.
- Bring Back the Fun! At the start of a relationship, you can’t get enough of each other. You talk on the phone for hours, soak up every detail of your new partner’s life, and have so much fun exploring each other’s worlds. You may think you know everything there is to know about each other, but you are so wrong. Heck, can you even say you truly know everything about yourself? If the fun seems to be lost, it is worth it to devote some time to finding it again. The stressors in your life may be quite heavy, but stress comes at a cost to your relationship. Balance out the stress—do something enjoyable together. Get to know each other again by planning something fun and exciting to reconnect. Maybe you try a new restaurant. Or you go ax throwing. Perhaps you pick up one of those relationship card decks for an intimate night in. Whatever you choose, make sure it is something you are both interested in and something that you will enjoy doing together.
A relationship is a living, breathing connection that needs nurturing, attention, and energy. Without awareness of these needs, a relationship is vulnerable to fissures that, if left unattended, can crack your foundation. Like the rumblings of an unnoticed earthquake, the damage may seem small, but over time, these disturbances can impact the integrity of your partnership. Learn the signs of relationship burnout. This will help you build your tool kit and prevent “The Big One” from causing irreparable damage.
Chamin Ajjan is the author of Seeking Soulmate: Ditch the Dating Game and Find Real Connection. A licensed clinical social worker who did her undergrad work at UC Berkeley and attended graduate school at Columbia University. She has been in private practice since 2004. In those years she has come to see that no matter what a patient cites as their reason for engaging in treatment, it usually all comes down to love. Romantic relationships and the attempt to find one continue to be the most talked-about subjects among her single patients. She has blogged extensively about mindful dating, and developed a mindful dating model that she uses in her practice. She lives with her husband and children in Brooklyn, New York. You can visit her here:https://chaminajjan.com/