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10 Ways to Tell if Your Relationship Suffers From Burnout

New research suggests what may really be going on in a burned-out relationship.

Key points

  • When you think of burnout, you might regard it as a problem people encounter at work, but it can also apply to relationships.
  • New research pinpoints the personality trait of alexithymia as key to understanding relationship burnout.
  • By taking the 10-item relationship burnout measure, you can calculate your relationship's risks for fizzling in the future.

The feeling that your relationship isn’t going the way you expected it to can make you feel emotionally depleted. A couple generally enters into an intimate partnership with the hope that it will grow and flourish over time. When this doesn’t happen, the resulting disappointment can make you question why you ever got involved with this person in the first place.

Certainly, romantic characterizations of relationships emphasize the idea that couples move into a “happily ever after” state once they’ve decided to commit to each other. Even though you may realize that the reality of a relationship is unlikely to live up to this fantasy, you may still be at least somewhat surprised when the reality deviates even farther from that idealistic scenario.

What Is Relationship Burnout?

You’ve undoubtedly heard of burnout in the context of occupational settings. Burned-out employees feel exhausted and unenthusiastic about their day-to-day job routines, but they may also be plagued by the question of why they entered that particular occupation in the first place. According to a new study by Kharazmi University’s Solaleh Zamani and colleagues (2023), the counterpart in relationships of “marital burnout” occurs when couples realize “the reality of their marriage is not what they expected” (p. 1).

For the sake of generalizing beyond marriage, the term “relationship burnout” will be used here instead. As defined by the Iranian authors, this is a condition reflecting a “myriad of factors” including “emotionally life lost function” in which an individual’s coping strategies have become overwhelmed. The individual suffering from this “profound emotional state” may experience a range of physical reactions such as lethargy and headaches, emotional reactions such as feelings of hopelessness, and a sense of frustration with one’s partner.

The 10-Item Couple Burnout Questionnaire

The Zamani et al. study was intended to examine predictors of relationship burnout, but before turning to its findings, you can first test yourself on your own experience of relationship burnout. Rate yourself on these 10 items (0=never, 7=always) from an earlier study by the late University of the Negev Ayala Malach Pines and colleagues (2011):

When you think about your marriage/intimate relationship overall, how often have you felt:

  1. Tired
  2. Disappointed with your spouse/intimate partner
  3. Hopeless
  4. Trapped
  5. Helpless
  6. Depressed
  7. Weak/Sickly
  8. Insecure/Like a failure
  9. Difficulties sleeping
  10. ‘‘I’ve had it’’

Who Is Most Prone to Relationship Burnout?

If you’ve diagnosed yourself or your partner as showing signs of burnout (with scores higher than 5 per item), the next question becomes which “myriad” of factors is leading to this unfortunate condition. Zamani et al. propose that those high in the quality of alexithymia, or “without emotional words,” would be very likely candidates. People who show this particular trait find it difficult if not impossible to relate to their partners or even be responsive to them because their emotional life is so empty. Their “deactivating strategies” (p. 4) lead them to tune out instead of connecting when their partners need them the most.

In addition to being poor communication partners, those high in alexithymia may also be characterized, the Kharazmi U. researchers propose, by an insecure attachment style. The qualities of fearing emotional closeness (avoidant) or being afraid of abandonment (anxious) both can impede their ability to grow within their relationship and, as importantly, facilitate the growth of their partner.

A related deficiency, the inability to regulate one’s emotions, could further contribute to relationship burnout. People high in emotional dysregulation would describe themselves as easily getting out of control when they get upset, and they would also state that they are confused about labeling their feelings.

The 216 adults in the Zamani et al. study were recruited through a family psychiatric clinic on the basis of self-identifying as suffering from relationship burnout, and this was confirmed via their scores on the Couple Burnout Questionnaire. Most were over the age of 30 and the majority (71 percent) identified as female. The analyses were conducted on data gathered prior to their entry into an emotion-oriented couples therapy program.

By statistically modeling the predictors of alexithymia scores, the Iranian authors were able to show that, as expected, attachment styles were not the primary influence on this outcome, but had their effect only through the mediational contributions of emotion dysregulation. In other words, emotion regulation had the effect of reducing secure attachment's effects but increasing the effect of insecure attachment's effects on alexithymia.

If emotion dysregulation is the key factor that predicts the alexithymia underlying burnout, the next question becomes how to help couples strengthen their relationship by focusing on emotions. According to emotion-focused therapy, the framework adopted by the Iranian research team, it may be possible to do just that. In this approach, individuals learn to gain better understanding of their experienced emotions and strengthen their emotion regulation. Such a strategy could, Zamani et al. argue, turn insecure into secure attachment.

Rekindling the Burned-Out Romance in Your Relationship

Because attachment style is so often regarded as fixed in early childhood, it may seem difficult to understand how it could be “adjusted,” as Zamani and colleagues propose. Even more to the point, if alexithymia is a trait, is it reasonable to think that it could be changed through intervention? It may also seem like quite an impossible task to turn the burners back on in a relationship that has become depleting.

The Kharazmi U. research team and the therapy clinic with which it is associated provide hope that all of these positive changes are within reason. The steps toward achieving this goal include developing greater awareness and understanding of emotional experiences that occur in the lives of a couple. As they do so, their emotional resilience becomes strengthened.

Turning this into practical steps, the findings suggest that you begin by working with your partner to stop and examine your emotions as they evolve over the course of your daily experiences. Which deeply held insecurities and anxieties are tapped when you get into an argument? Which similarly deep positive emotions do you feel when you and your partner validate each other’s feelings? If one of you feels uncomfortable talking about your emotions, this can become even more of a reason to take on the challenge.

To sum up, although burnout may seem to be an inevitable result of a relationship that has endured over time, the Iranian study suggests that it can be remedied, if not prevented. As you work on identifying and gaining control over your emotions, you will be on the way toward finding fulfillment in enjoying each other’s inner lives.


Zamani, S., Hasani, J., Hatami, M., & Tadros, E. (2023). Emotion dysregulation and alexithymia within marital burnout through an emotion-focused therapy lens. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy. doi: 10.1080/15332691.2023.2165206

Pines, A. M., Neal, M. B., Hammer, L. B., & Icekson, T. (2011). Job burnout and couple burnout in dual-earner couples in the sandwiched generation. Social Psychology Quarterly, 74(4), 361–386. doi: 10.1177/0190272511422452

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