Anyone in a long-term relationship knows there will be peaks and valleys to your level of happiness. You may have experienced periods of stagnancy during which you observe other couples and wonder “why don’t we interact like that?”
However “relationship burnout” is more severe than a periodic rut. It is when two people in a romantic relationship gradually develop feelings of pessimism, exhaustion, anxiety, or depression regarding their partner. It typically occurs when relationships have passed the honeymoon phase, and if not dealt with can result in serious emotional strain, resentment, or even a breakup.
Red Flags of Relationship Burnout
In my practice, I meet with struggling couples regularly. They can be in various stages of the relationship…in the midst of raising a family or perhaps trying to adjust to an empty nest or being newly retired. Every situation and dynamic is different. However, let’s take a look at some of the common signs.
Blaming the other.
The most noticeable red flag of relationship burnout is increased arguing and bickering. When one partner points the finger at the other therapists call this “the blame game.” This occurs when the couple projects their relationship problems onto each other rather than taking an honest look at themselves, their feelings, behaviors, and emotional health.
Not making future plans.
When couples avoid discussing future plans, whether that is buying a house or simply planning a vacation it can indicate that they’re feeling reluctant and unmotivated to make long-term commitments. This is a sign that they are unsure about the longevity of the relationship.
Decreased communication and quality time.
Another early warning sign of burnout is a decrease in meaningful communication and spending time together. The couple may stop having conversations, actively avoid each other (often to dodge an argument), and reduce physical intimacy.
One partner may feel like they are walking on eggshells. They may feel like nothing they say or do is good enough, and they are always on edge not knowing when the next argument or cold shoulder will spring up. Perhaps they experience frequent crying, trouble sleeping, or difficulty focussing at work. This constant state of anxiety can lead to a host of physical symptoms. It can make a relationship unsustainable.
Loss of motivation to improve.
A couple in the midst of relationship burnout may feel pressure and anxiety but just can’t muster up the emotional energy to do the work, or seek therapy. Unfortunately, this can only make matters worse.
Common Causes of Relationship Burnout
As I mentioned earlier individuals and relationships are all unique and each person will have their own triggers. But let’s examine some of the more well-known root causes of relationship burnout.
Partners may experience burnout due to simple complacency that is inherent in being together for many years. That early excitement eventually wanes and the relationship can start to feel dull and mundane. There may actually be no underlying issues other than a needed renewal of the enthusiasm and energy they once felt.
In many cases, relationship burnout occurs due to difficult circumstances like a health emergency, or sudden unemployment causing prolonged and intense distress to both partners. Excessive worry about those stressors can lead partners to neglect each other emotionally or reduce their motivation to spend quality time together.
If one partner feels like they’re making a much greater effort than the other, feelings of resentment and neglect can grow. If this mismatched energy persists for too long, built-up negative feelings can lead to a lack of motivation to work on the relationship.
How to Overcome Relationship Burnout
So what if anything can be done to restore burnt-out relationships? The good news is most relationships can be saved and even improved upon if both partners are willing to make an effort. There’s no “one size fits all” solution as every individual brings different strengths and limitations to the table. But allow me to share some techniques to combat burnout and rebuild a healthy relationship:
Start the conversation.
Reach out when the timing is right (not in the heat of an argument). Acknowledge that you are on the same team with the shared goal to repair and improve your partnership. The mere act of having a candid conversation about burnout and your willingness to recommit to each other will start to reduce feelings of isolation and tension.
Share your expectations.
Burnout can often be the result of mismatched expectations. When one partner isn’t having their needs met (emotionally or physically), it’s important to vocalize the problem in a kind, non-judgmental manner. These conversations, though not always easy, can allow couples to bring issues to the forefront and develop a relationship game plan together.
Identify possible triggers.
It is essential to identify each person’s unique stressors, insecurities, pain points, and circumstances that have led to avoidance or fighting. Shining light on these issues allows you to communicate with each other in a kinder, gentler, more insightful manner.
Schedule quality time.
I can’t stress this one enough! Having fun together is a major game changer. When you stop having fun and it starts to feel like work that is a sure recipe for relationship burnout. Engage in activities you used to enjoy doing together such as a weekly date night. Consider taking a fun class together, or simply take a walk. The point is to make each other a priority and honor time together on a regular basis.
Respect each other’s alone time.
In some cases relationship burnout can arise out of too much time together, leading to feeling trapped or stifled by a partner. It is important to schedule healthy timeouts for individual interests, friendships, personal self-care, and relaxation. This “me time” will allow you to miss each other and have things to talk about when you reunite.
Rekindle physical intimacy.
Reduced physical intimacy is a common symptom of burnout. It can lead to anxiety or a lack of motivation to engage in sexual or even nonsexual touching like hugs and holding hands. Little gestures like sitting close and cuddling when watching a movie together can bridge the distance and create a feeling of warmth. Couples can also plan a romantic getaway or seek couples therapy to address any barriers.
Meet with a professional.
Couples often benefit from speaking to a licensed clinical psychologist or sex and relationships therapist. Qualified professionals can help couples identify stressors and triggers, facilitate healthy communication, and offer advice. They can also evaluate signs of depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues that may be contributing to the situation.
Strike up interesting conversations.
After a long time together you may feel there is nothing new to learn about each other. But you may be surprised! Turn off your devices and ask some open-ended questions about their day. Discuss something you read, a movie you watched, or what is trending in current events.
Remember the little things.
Thoughtful surprises can really build a bond of affection. Occasionally bring home flowers, a favorite dessert, or leave a playful text. And be sure to show gratitude when you are at the receiving end. Do something romantic for birthdays and anniversaries.
Burnout isn’t something you just bounce back from. Even while working on the relationship couples may find themselves slipping back into old habits such as assigning blame or avoiding communication. It is essential to continue being open and honest about your feelings even when it feels uncomfortable or awkward. Try not to get discouraged when things don’t improve right away. As with anything of value, the process will take time and effort. But the rewards can make it all worthwhile!