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How To Recognise and Manage Burnout in Relationships

Posted By Astroglide (Dr Jess)  
29/03/2024

Burnout, which generally refers to the state of emotional, mental, and/or physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress, has traditionally been associated with the workplace. But burnout can appear in every arena — from the boardroom to the living room to the bedroom. Burnout is considered a psychological syndrome that emerges with multiple dimensions, including overwhelming and prolonged exhaustion, cynicism and detachment, and a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of meaning or fulfilment. 

The state of emotional, mental, and/or physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress

Signs of burnout might include:

  • Ongoing stress and/or overwhelm that doesn’t ease over time
  • Physical tension, headaches, body aches, inflammation
  • Sleep issues or changes in appetite
  • Persistent exhaustion and fatigue
  • Feelings of helplessness, overwhelming failure, and self-doubt
  • A lack of motivation, satisfaction, and fulfilment
  • Uncharacteristic frustration, anger, outbursts
  • Changes in behaviour that might include substance use, procrastination, withdrawal, or reduced performance at work

More specifically, signs of burnout in relationships might look like:

Increased Conflict – Burnout can lead to (and be triggered by) heightened stress levels and difficulties managing frustration, making us more prone to arguments and conflicts with partners, family members, or friends. You might find yourself snapping over small issues or blowing up over issues you would typically consider minor or irrelevant.

Reduced Emotional Availability  When you’re burnt out, it can feel like you have limited or no energy, so you may find it challenging to be emotionally available. When a loved one shares how they’re feeling, you may clam up or avoid engaging, as it can feel as though they’re dumping on you or asking too much.

Communication Breakdown – Burnout can affect the way you communicate. You may struggle to express needs, feelings, and boundaries, which can lead to misunderstandings in relationships. You may have no energy to engage in intimate communication and may avoid talking about serious issues altogether (e.g., you might talk about the kids and work, but avoid addressing other topics beyond logistics).

Neglecting Relationships – When experiencing burnout, you may opt to prioritise work or other responsibilities over relationships. This avoidance can lead to a breakdown in communication and connection.

Decreased Intimacy  Burnout can also lead to a decrease in intimacy, both physical and emotional. This can be associated with a loss of sexual desire and/or activity. Research suggests that burnout is associated with sexual symptoms, including erectile dysfunction and lower levels of lubrication, orgasm, and overall satisfaction.

Social Withdrawal – Burnout is associated with pulling back from relationships with coworkers, friends, family, and partners. This can lead to feelings of loneliness, isolation, and ruptures in relationships. If you find yourself exhausted by the mere thought of connections (especially those that previously offered support, fulfilment, and joy), this might be a sign of burnout.

Loss of Interest – Burnout can cause a general loss of interest in activities that were once a source of enjoyment and pleasure, including spending time with loved ones.

Resentment  Over time, burnout can lead to resentment related to a perceived lack of support, interest, and understanding. This resentment can flow in both directions and affect both the person who is feeling burnt out and their partner (or other loved one).

Resentment refers to a persistent feeling of being mistreated and not receiving the respect, appreciation, and consideration due to a relationship. It’s not simply anger or indignation and is often associated with both harm and the belief that the harm caused is intentional. Research suggests that anger can be assuaged when the harm is neutralised, whereas resentment tends to persist (oftentimes with a desire for the offence to be punished). It’s important to note that signs of burnout can show up in a relationship, and the relationship may not be the cause of the burnout. It might be the site of burnout, but burnout can be caused by a range of sources, including work stress (demanding job expectations and pressure, lack of recognition, control, or satisfaction), friends and family (tense relationships or a lack of support), lifestyle factors (lack of sleep or downtime, over-commitment) as well as personality and attitudinal factors (e.g., perfectionism, pessimism, desire for control). Because our intimate/romantic relationships tend to be at the centre of our lives, when burnout shows up in the relationship, we tend to blame the relationship itself. However, when addressing burnout, you likely want to take a more holistic approach.

Burnout can affect the way you communicate.

To address the signs of burnout in relationships, you may want to begin with yourself to address sources of energy depletion and sources of energy replenishment. It can be helpful to ask yourself some questions about sources of support:

  1. What are your sources of support at this time? These sources of support might be practical, emotional, relational or spiritual.
  2. How can you tap into these sources of support?
  3. What do you want your partner to know about these support resources?
  4. How can they be a support resource to minimise stress and burnout?

And then you might consider sources of drain:

  1. What is draining your energy, resources, and feelings of meaning/satisfaction?
  2. How can you preserve some of this energy?
  3. What changes can you make to reduce this resource depletion?

Once you’ve considered these questions, you may want to talk to your partner (or another loved one with whom you feel burnt out) about how you’re feeling. Without laying blame, you may want to let them know how you’re feeling. I’m feeling burnt out.

Tell them what you’ve learned via self-reflection. I realise that this burnout is related to my work, the kids, responsibilities with my parents, the fact that I’m over-committed, and some of the arguments we’ve been having.

Let them know what you have planned. I’m going to cut back on _____. I’m also going to set boundaries related to late-night calls and work emails.

And let them know how they can support you. I’d appreciate it if you could help with ___. And I could use support with ____. Specifically, I’m asking you to ______.

Provide space for how they’re feeling. It’s not uncommon for those closest to us to also feel burnt out. In fact, some data suggests that the vast majority are struggling, with 91% reporting high or extreme levels of pressure or stress in the past year.

blowing up over issues you would typically consider minor or irrelevant.

Eventually, you’ll likely want to consider making a plan together to address the relational signs of burnout. For example, you might:

Set time aside to be alone and recharge. Take turns with the kids or ask for help so that you can enjoy more time alone (solo) and with one another. Be intentional about budgeting for this time on a weekly basis. Research suggests that even brief interventions can reduce stress, heighten connection, and prevent and address burnout.

Invest in other social ties. Data continues to confirm that happy relationships (with friends, family, and coworkers) can reduce stress, improve mental health, boost mood, and even support overall physical health. Reach out to a friend who makes you laugh, puts you at ease, or builds you up, and make a plan to spend some time together. Even a quick coffee or tea can help you recharge.

Schedule fun relationship check-ins over brunch, cocktails or another ritual you enjoy. Short check-ins can help to ease tension and enhance connection. You might start by simply answering a few questions: How are you feeling? How can I support you? What are you most looking forward to this week?

Block time for pleasure. Pleasure comes in many forms beyond the erotic (check out these tips to invite more pleasure into your life), so block 5 mins 3 times per week for physical pleasure. This isn’t about having sex but simply a way to ensure that you’re physically connected. You might offer each other a 60-second massage, take two minutes to spoon and breathe in sync or indulge in an ice cream sundae together. Any form of pleasure will do to offset burnout and improve the relationship. 

Reset in the morning with 60 seconds of mindful breathing. Rather than rushing to check your phone or wake the kids, take one minute (you can spare one minute) to breathe and tune into your bodies. Place your head on your partner’s chest to listen to their heart. Or wake them up with sweet forehead kisses before taking a few deep breaths with your foreheads pressed together. Mindfulness has been shown to support signs of burnout, and you can practice on your own or together without making sweeping changes to your schedules and lifestyle.

Give yourself grace. Pressure can come from both external and internal sources, but we have more influence over the latter, so be kind to yourself — at work, at home, and at play.

Practice gratitude. Whether you fill a gratitude jar, keep a gratitude journal, or simply set calendar reminders to take a moment to feel thankful, the benefits will likely be felt in your work, family, relationship, and beyond. We have a wealth of data linking gratitude to stress reduction, and a recent study found that even 21 days of gratitude journaling can offset signs of burnout for up to three months.[6]

Seek support. If you’re feeling burnt out, a professional (counsellor or therapist) can assist with strategies, support emotional processing, and offer accountability to help you follow through with behavioural changes and commitments.

Though burnout isn’t a formal diagnosis, its symptoms can have significant implications for physical, mental, relational, and overall health. It follows that recognising signs of burnout and taking action to reduce its impact is of paramount importance in all relationships.