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When Your Burnout Is Coming from Your Relationship

While we tend to think of burnout as something reserved for a professional environment, the work that goes into long-term relationships can have a very similar effect

Gina knew all about burnout in her professional life. As a recruiter, she’d seen employers wrestle with exhausted staff and increased departures. But after months of picking petty fights with her boyfriend over things like what to eat for dinner or how he dressed (a lot of “ill-fitting graphic tees”), the 31-year-old realized her burnout was coming from inside the house. “I just figured things were getting stale maybe,” Gina tells me. “I didn’t think of burnout as a possibility because I always thought of that as a work thing.”

Because romantic relationships take a lot of work to maintain and often have their ups and downs, it’s not unusual to feel exhausted by them. “Relationship burnout can happen to anyone — even people in strong relationships that last,” psychologist Marina Harris confirms. 

There are all sorts of reasons for feeling exhausted by your partner, but more often than not, in otherwise stable long-term relationships, romantic burnout occurs either when a couple hasn’t experienced any new big milestones in a while or if one or both partners are struggling with their mental health, according to Harris.  

Psychotherapist Heather Browne similarly suspects that romantic burnout may be rooted in impractical expectations about “finding the ‘right’ one or the ‘perfect’ one.” In these cases, the pressure for perfection in a relationship becomes both exhausting and depressing when that expectation is continually unfulfilled. 

On the surface, relationship burnout can look like a lot of fighting or complaining about things you wouldn’t normally care about if you weren’t so depleted. Alternatively, it may entail trying to avoid spending more time than you need to with your partner and feeling relieved when you’re alone. But internally, Harris explains, relationship burnout can make you feel “pessimistic about the future, hopeless or not sure about the meaningfulness of the relationship.”

At its worst, relationship burnout can lead to emotional and physical infidelity. “It’s very similar to other types of burnout where you feel you need a break,” Browne says. “But in this regard, you want a break from your partner.”

Because negativity and pessimism can be one of the more common consequences of relationship burnout, it’s important to take stock of the positive aspects of your relationship. “Acknowledge when your partner does something to help out. Pay attention when they look at you with endearment,” Harris suggests. Instead of nitpicking little things about each other, Harris recommends using that mental energy to brainstorm ways to inject novelty into the relationship with more restorative activities. It doesn’t have to be anything elaborate; it just has to deviate from sitting around and wondering what’s wrong with each other. 

If the relationship burnout has gone on for a long time, it’s not a bad idea to talk about it directly. Browne advises asking several important questions about how it happened in the first place, including: how much time each person was taking for themselves to recharge, and how much they may have individually overextended themselves, as well as what needs to change moving forward. “Sometimes one person truly needs or requests more than we feel is right for us to give,” Browne says. “But often this is in our error of not talking about it. If you were happy together before, there’s something that felt good or right that’s now moved into a place of imbalance.”

In the end, Gina wasn’t entirely incorrect in her assessment of her relationship being “stale.” But when she started to look at that stagnation in the same way that she looked at burnout at work, she started to feel better. “I had some idea of what to do about it,” she tells me. After both working from home during quarantine and spending a lot of time together, she and her boyfriend now make a concerted effort to go to coffee shops individually a few days a week to work. They’ve also made it a point to take more time for themselves, so now when they do intentionally spend time together it’s “a nice change of pace.” 

Their flame still might not burn as bright as it did during their first few months of dating, but it’s no longer burning out either.