Experts talk through common signs – and what you can do about it.
Burnout has become a hot topic in recent years.
Frazzled employees are using ‘quiet quitting’ to minimise stress at work without having to resign, while for many people JOMO (the joy of missing out) has replaced FOMO (the fear) as they say no to unappealing social events.
In an ideal world, your romantic partnership should be a source of support and solace when you’re feeling overwhelmed by life, but did you know it’s also possible to experience relationship burnout?
What is relationship burnout?
“Relationship burnout happens when one or both partners are exhausted,” says chartered psychologist Jess Baker, who coauthored The Super-Helper Syndrome: A Survival Guide For Compassionate People alongside Rod Vincent (jessbaker.co.uk).
“It feels like it’s too much effort to keep trying. You have effectively given up, but are still in the relationship. It might mean it’s time to end things, but there can also be ways to turn it around.”
BACP counsellor Margaret Ward-Martin, founder of The Grace Project (thegraceproject.co.uk), describes relationship burnout as “a bit like buying a house and only noticing the damp patches after you move in”.
Whether you’re married or not, once the honeymoon phase is over, it’s easy to become complacent – or for the stress of daily life to wear you down.
“Being too busy for the other is a significant contributor to relationship burnout,” she says. “The partnership needs to be equitable with each making equal contributions. Uneven energy breeds resentment.”
It’s important to acknowledge this kind of dissatisfaction is not the same as being in an abusive relationship.
“If there is abuse – physical, financial, emotional, psychological, moral or spiritual – it’s important to keep yourself safe and seek help,” Ward-Martin says.
What are some of the common signs?
For some couples, relationship burnout can feel like Groundhog Day, with Ward-Martin saying: “You stay in and watch telly with your dinner on your lap every night. You don’t look forward to spending time with your partner.”
A lack of intimacy is another common sign, Baker suggests. “You lose your desire for physical affection and sex with your partner,” and you may find yourself becoming irritated more easily. “A burnt-out relationship becomes transactional. You tally up everything you do for the other person and notice what they don’t do in return.”
As communication breaks down, you may feel like ‘ships in the night’ who hardly talk, or perhaps you are fighting more. You might think about leaving the relationship or having an affair.
“Some couples end up bickering, [but] for others, it’s a quieter resentment,” says Baker. “Everything the other person does is wrong, but rather than fight, they avoid each other where they can.”
What can you do about it?
If you recognise any of these signs, it doesn’t mean your relationship is automatically doomed.
“You have to decide whether your needs can ever be met in this relationship,” says Baker, who recommends being honest with yourself, then talking to your partner.
She continues: “When a relationship is burnt out, communication is the first thing to turn to ashes. Give each other time to say how you both feel, without judgement, in the spirit of wanting to improve things.”
Ward-Martin says letting go of perfectionism is a good first step: “It’s unhelpful – as humans we are fundamentally flawed.” As is apologising for your role in contributing to the situation, which means three things: “A meaningful apology, an amend, and not repeating the cause of sorrow.”
If you’re struggling to deal with the issues that come up, relationship counselling may help, and there are practical steps you can take to reestablish intimacy.
“Attend to your sex life,” advises Ward-Martin. “If it was exciting once, make it again. If it was never that exciting, take the opportunity to make it so. And when you are too tired for sex, hug and make it last for a long time.”
If, after trying to talk, you conclude it’s time to leave the relationship, be honest about your reasons, while being sensitive to your partner’s feelings.
“Don’t delay,” says Baker. “People in burnt-out relationships stay together long after they should have ended it. It’s unfair to both of you to drag it out.”
While it is possible for exes to remain friends in some situations, it’s usually best to have some time apart while you both heal from the breakup, she adds. “Make a clean break. Don’t keep on seeing them. You are not the person to support them through this."