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Burnout

How Burnout Can Affect Your Relationship

Is work stress affecting your relationship? Here's what to look for how to cope.

Key points

  • Signs of burnout include feeling overwhelmed, feeling emotionally disengaged, and feeling a general sense of cynicism.
  • The moodiness and sense of detachment that come from burnout spill over into people’s relationships.
  • Getting easily annoyed by a partner, losing interest in shared activities, and low libido can all result from work burnout
Milan Popovic/UnSplash
Milan Popovic/UnSplash
Source: Milan Popovic/UnSplash

Burnout occurs when a person experiences prolonged stress either from work or other obligations. Researchers describe it as consisting of three main characteristics; feeling exhausted/overwhelmed, feeling emotionally withdrawn/disengaged, and feeling a general sense of cynicism. This third component is critical: A person who is burnt out at work isn’t just tired. They’re so overwhelmed that they’re beginning to question what it’s all for and if it’s even worth it. They’ve lost motivation.

Historically, burnout has been viewed as problematic because of the toll it takes on an individual’s mental health and because it makes people work less hard at their jobs. More recent research, however, has found that the anxiety, depression, and sense of detachment that come from burnout also spill over into people’s intimate relationships. This makes sense when you consider that our feelings, regardless of their source, travel with us into all aspects of our lives. Although we may aim to compartmentalize work and family, we ultimately are just one person.

The impact that burnout has on our lives is amplified by the limited nature of our time and energy. Obviously, when we invest time and energy in one domain (i.e., work) we have less of it available for other areas, like relationships. This is true even if we love our jobs and derive pleasure from performing them. Work demands energy and energy is finite.

The ebb and flow of emotions between our work and relationships travel bidirectionally. When your partner is stressed at work, they become less pleasant to be around at home. Likewise, when a person is struggling in their relationship, they have less energy and focus to dedicate to work. All of this highlights how we are not robots. We don’t come equipped with unique programming for each area in our lives. Our energy, moods, and motivation all draw from the same reservoir.

The irony, of course, is that when burnout from work spills over into our relationships, it limits the effectiveness of the very thing we need most. The support that comes from a healthy relationship fuels our energy and resilience. It helps us cope with other life stressors. Yet even the best relationships suffer when one or both partners feel burnt out. Therefore, recognizing its signs is critically important.

Here are four major signs that burnout is impacting your relationship.

1. You get irritated by your partner easily. Behaviors that ordinarily seem small (i.e. leaving the cap off of the toothpaste, leaving towels on the floor, chewing loudly) suddenly feel monumentally annoying. Your ability to shrug off or ignore your partner’s minor shortcomings feels impossible.

2. You feel less excited doing things with your partner that you both usually enjoy. Rituals that you typically enjoy together like watching a show, going out to eat, or exercising together, suddenly seem less appealing. You either feel too exhausted to do them or they feel pointless and/or not as fun.

3. You feel emotionally withdrawn and unable to connect. The idea of sharing your thoughts and emotions with your partner feels pointless. You no longer feel that running ideas by them is useful or helpful. You have a sense that they either won’t understand, won’t care enough, or that it just isn’t worth it.

4. You feel less interested in having sex. Burnout increases stress hormones, namely cortisol, which can shut down most sexual feelings. Depression also dampens libido, making it hard to enjoy sex.

If you feel like you or your partner are exhibiting these signs, it’s worth taking a step back to assess. Don’t automatically assume your relationship is suffering because of other underlying challenges and dynamics. Ask if at least part of the cause may be burnout. Although burnout traditionally comes from work, parenting or caring for relatives home because of the pandemic can also lead to burnout. Ironically, feeling under-challenged, either at work or in life, can also lead to burnout: Boredom can be a major source of stress.

If you think that burnout is spilling into your relationship, aim to introduce positive emotions into it. Carve out time just for you and your partner to focus on each other with no distractions. Spend time with friends or enjoy other hobbies. Engage in self-care, whether that means taking a nap, getting a massage, or taking a vacation. Prioritize what matters to you and invite other support systems into your life to help take the load off.

A lot of people are suffering from burnout right now. According to a recent article in the Lancet, worldwide rates of anxiety and depression are up 400% since the beginning of the pandemic. The world is currently a stressful, unpredictable place. But burnout doesn’t need to define your relationship. Recognizing its causes and actively taking steps to repair and replenish can go a long way.

References

Bakker, A. B., & Demerouti, E. (2013). The spillover-crossover model. New frontiers in work and family research, 54-70.

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