Just like with work, our relationships can easily become overwhelmed with stress and exhaustion that eventually lead to feelings of burnout.
In this article, we’re going to walk you through exactly what relationship burnout is, how it manifests, and some approaches you can use to help heal emotional exhaustion and feeling distant from your partner.
What is Relationship Burnout?
The term “burnout” has been used frequently in recent years, but what does it actually mean? In an article from the New York Times, Dr. Lotte Dyrbye, a physician-scientist from the Mayo Clinic who studies burnout defines it as “a manifestation of chronic unmitigated stress.”
When we talk about “relationship burnout”, we’re simply talking about how ongoing stress between two people can overwhelm that relationship and the coping mechanisms within it. One of the trickiest aspects of burnout, in any form, is that we tend to feel it before we see it.
Here are some of the main ways you may be experiencing relationship burnout without realizing it:
10 Signs of Burnout in Your Relationship
You may not be noticing it, or are currently in denial, but there are signs to know if you are experiencing relationship burnout.
1. Are You Fighting All the Time?
One of the first ways unmanaged stress appears in a relationship is through increased arguments. Things that may have been easy to talk through in the past become huge fights that themselves only serve to create more animosity between you.
Communication is such a central pillar in a relationship and as soon as that begins to degrade, whether because of external stress or conflict within the relationship, it’s a sign that the relationship is being overwhelmed.
2. Do You Feel Disconnected from Your Partner?
This can come about in two ways: feeling that you don’t spend as much quality time with your partner as you used to or, when you are together, not feeling true intimacy. It’s hard to slow down and feel present connected with a loved one and when relationship fatigue takes hold.
3. Do You Dread or Avoid Spending Time with Them?
If you keep finding that you’re making excuses not to be with your partner or get a pit in your stomach leading up to things like date nights, that might be your body trying to tell you that something isn’t as it should be.
4. Have You Felt More Critical Towards Your Partner Lately?
Sometimes burnout doesn’t appear through big fights but through daily negative comments and disrespect. Constant criticism toward your partner can quickly spiral into what the Gottman relationship method describes as “contempt” and embodies the low-simmering feeling of disliking your partner or something they do which then eventually blows up into a larger ordeal.
5. Can You Laugh Together Anymore?
Humor and play are integral to maintaining a healthy relationship and mental health. They help create intimacy and easy exhaustion. Chronic stress, however, often gets in the way and causes couples to lose sight of their ability to laugh or have fun together.
6. Do You Feel Emotionally Exhausted All the Time?
The step past arguing and being critical toward your partner is feeling completely drained. That sensation is a classic signal of emotional overwhelm. When our nervous system is burnt out from working overtime, sometimes it can feel like it shuts down entirely. Again though, that’s your body trying to tell you that something needs to change.
7. Have You Lost Interest in Having Sex with Them?
Another way in which disengagement shows up in a couple is in the health of their sex life and feelings around physical intimacy. Losing interest in your partner often points to a larger issue of struggling to connect or relax together.
8. Do You Fantasize About Leaving?
Our natural instinct when things get overwhelming is to escape and while that served us well when we were running from predators, it’s not always easy to handle within the context of a relationship. If you find that you keep daydreaming about leaving your relationship, it may be a sign that you’re simply burnt out. The next question worth asking may be, what are you trying to leave? The relationship or the anxiety?
9. Is There Someone Else?
Sometimes people don’t just fantasize about leaving a relationship but go on to express that desire fully by engaging in a relationship with someone else. Cheating is a form of escape and a classic response to relationship fatigue, for better or worse.
10. Does The Relationship Feel Like More Stress Than It’s Worth?
Stress and anxiety are normal occurrences in any relationship but when they become the main themes, then you know the scales have tipped in an unhealthy direction.
10 Ways How to Deal with Relationship Burnout
The women who literally wrote the book on burnout, Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nogoski, have this piece of wisdom to offer: “Stress isn’t bad for you, getting stuck is”.
Here are some ways to get unstuck from relationship burnout and the chronic stress that likely got you there:
1. Let Go of Perfectionism
When interviewed by Brené Brown on her podcast, Dr. Julie Gottman and Dr. John Gottman, two world-renowned relationship experts, described overcoming perfectionism as key to cutting the inadequacy cycle that often occurs in a relationship overwhelmed by stress.
We may feel like we’re doing everything perfectly and it’s simply our partner who gets it wrong, but’s crucial to take a step back and re-assess why we’re trying to fit the person we love into such a narrow box. Letting go of perfectionism can significantly ease relationship burnout by simply lowering the stress of trying to meet and measure impossible standards.
2. Share Your Needs and Desires
One of the central methods of the Gottman approach, which we’re certified in using at the clinic, is for couples stuck in conflict and stress to learn how to share their needs with each other.
Instead of getting stressed and simply reacting to your partner with criticism all the time, the idea is to make “I” statements that describe to your partner how you feel, and how they might be able to help you. It’s a way to put feelings first and improve communication and intimacy between you.
3. Get Curious
The person you’re with is unlikely to be the same as when you first met. Getting curious again about each other and asking new questions has the potential to not only bring fun back, but help you uncover why your coping mechanisms were overwhelmed to the point of burnout in the first place.
4. Pay Attention to Connection
It’s really hard to slow down, but rest and being present are often the antidote to relationship burnout. Make quality time with your partner a priority again and when you’re together, try to stay present so that connection and intimacy can grow again.
You can do this with date nights, trips away, tennis lessons together, or simply carving out uninterrupted time when you can be together away from the stress of the world.
5. Take Responsibility
When bickering and arguments take over, it’s easy to fall into a victim narrative in which nothing can ever be resolved. On this issue, Dr. Dana McNeil has this to say: “It’s not bad if you have unresolvable issues, it’s how you handle them that says everything about the success of a relationship.”
Taking responsibility for how you handle big issues and stress can completely alter the direction of your relationship.
6. Build a Love Map
Some might suggest paying attention to your love languages, but we’re big fans of the Gottman method (as you can probably already tell), and we’d always recommend building a “Love Map” together to reintroduce yourselves to each other.
7. Tell Each Other What You’re Grateful For
Sharing gratitude actively changes the chemicals in our brain and in a relationship struggling with burnout, it has the added benefit of easing some of the negativity and conflict that’s likely to have collected. Taking the time to acknowledge the ways in which you’re grateful for your partner, even in small ways, can help ease relationship burnout.
It reassures your partner that you appreciate them and lets you practice staying in tune with the good things they bring to your life that go beyond the daily stressors.
8. Take Time for Your Own Self-Care
In a state of overwhelm and relationship burnout, mental health practices often take a dive, but you have to put your own oxygen mask on before you can tend to your relationship.
Journaling, checking in with your community outside the relationship, and simply finding time for yourself are just some of the ways you can inject self-care back into your life so you can show up more fully for yourself and your partner.
9. Take A Break or Just Get Space
Taking some time apart is sometimes the healthiest thing a couple can do when relationship fatigue hits. If it’s anxiety and feelings of overwhelm that have you down, then getting distance might allow you some much-needed calm and perspective.
10. Consider Therapy
One of the most debilitating aspects of relationship burnout is feeling too overwhelmed to change what’s happening – that’s where therapy can be particularly useful because it doesn’t have to be all on you to figure it out anymore.
Here at the Relationship Place, we’ve made sure to create a warm, non-judgmental space to help couples work through whatever may be holding them back. Check out our services if you’re interested in booking couples therapy. To get a better sense of our services, you can also contact us directly.
How the Gottman Method Can Help
The Gottman Method is an effective approach to therapy for couples experiencing struggles and burnout in their relationship. It focuses on improving communication, including learning to manage conflicts effectively. By using “softened startup” techniques and avoiding the “Four Horsemen” (criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling), couples can reduce the intensity of their arguments and foster a more supportive atmosphere.
- When there is emotional withdrawal, the Gottman Method encourages couples to build their “emotional bank account” by regularly turning towards each other and responding to each other’s needs. This helps create a sense of connection and support, even during times of stress.
- A decrease in affectionate gestures, such as hugging, kissing, or holding hands, could indicate relationship burnout. The Gottman Method emphasizes the importance of small, everyday acts of love and kindness. Couples are encouraged to express their appreciation and admiration for each other daily, which can help reignite affection.
- Holding on to grudges and feeling resentful can create emotional distance in your relationship. The Gottman Method teaches couples to practice forgiveness and let go of past hurts. By building a “culture of appreciation,” couples can focus on the positive aspects of their relationship, reducing resentment and fostering gratitude.
- Feeling unappreciated or taken for granted can lead to relationship burnout. The Gottman Method encourages couples to develop a habit of expressing gratitude and appreciation for each other. This helps both partners feel valued and reinforces the positive aspects of the relationship.
- Poor communication can contribute to misunderstandings and frustration. The Gottman Method provides tools and techniques for improving communication, such as active listening and using “I” statements to express feelings. By practicing these skills, couples can enhance their understanding of each other’s needs and perspectives.
- If you both have lost interest in activities you once enjoyed together, it could signal relationship burnout. The Gottman Method encourages couples to create shared meaning by exploring common goals, values, and dreams. By engaging in shared activities and rituals, couples can strengthen their bond and reignite their interest in spending time together.
- A decrease in sexual intimacy can indicate burnout and dissatisfaction within the relationship. The Gottman Method helps couples openly discuss their needs and desires around intimacy. By fostering a safe environment for communication, couples can work together to address any barriers to physical connection and enhance their sexual relationship.
- If you or your partner feel trapped in the relationship, it could be a sign of burnout. The Gottman Method encourages couples to examine their relationship dynamics and explore the factors contributing to feelings of entrapment. By addressing these issues, either through individual or couples therapy, partners can work towards creating a healthier, more satisfying relationship.
- Frequent thoughts about being single or with someone else may indicate relationship burnout. The Gottman Method helps couples identify the root causes of dissatisfaction in their relationship and develop strategies to address them. Through open communication and a commitment to working on the relationship, couples can rekindle their connection and reignite the passion that may have dwindled over time.
Relationship burnout can be a challenging and painful experience. But by recognizing the warning signs and leveraging the Gottman Method’s research-based approach to strengthening relationships, you can work towards rekindling the connection with your partner.
Relationship burnout doesn’t have to be the end of a couple, it can be a chance to get stronger together.