Adrien was working 12- to 14-hour days as an engineer on a project that also required a lot of travel when he experienced burnout in 2012.
He dreaded going to work and felt like there was no escape from his job. He was agitated and pessimistic. His appetite diminished. He never felt rested, even after getting a good night’s sleep. And though his friends, family and then-girlfriend were supportive, Adrien could feel the stress of his work taking a toll on those relationships.
“My girlfriend then was a tour guide that had to be up early for morning shifts. Once she had to wake up at 3 a.m. and stay on the phone with me so that I could drive home without falling asleep,” Adrien, who asked not to use his last name to protect his privacy, told HuffPost. “I was feeling detached and not present in the relationship, making the relationship feel strained. We had very little time to spend together.”
Adrien’s experience is not an uncommon one. According to a 2018 Deloitte survey of American professionals, 77% say they’ve experienced burnout at their current job. And 83% say burnout can negatively affect their personal relationships outside of the office, too.
Burnout is a response to excessive and prolonged work-related stress characterized by exhaustion, negative or cynical feelings about one’s work and being less engaged and less effective at the job as a result. While burnout is often associated with overworking, it can also be the result of being underchallenged professionally.
We asked an executive coach and a therapist to explain why occupational burnout can be so damaging to a romantic relationship and what to do about it.
Burnout can slowly ruin your relationship
Sure, you’d like to shake off the stress and exhaustion of work before you walk through the front door at night, but that’s not easy to do.
“We like to think of ourselves as having a professional life and personal life, but the reality is we’re one person and there is no distinction,” said Katharine Agostino, an executive coach in Silicon Valley.
When you’re chronically depleted from work, mustering up energy to connect with your partner — something you once enjoyed — can feel impossible.
“Relationships take energy, and people who are experiencing job burnout are dealing with physical, psychological and emotional fatigue,” said marriage and family therapist Jennifer Chappell Marsh.
One CEO Agostino works with recently told her that at the end of most days, he can barely decide what show to binge on Netflix, so “there’s no bandwidth left to plan the logistics of the next day, much less have an engaging conversation with my wife.”
“I was feeling detached and not present in the relationship, making the relationship feel strained.”
When you’re spending long hours at the office or days or weeks traveling for work, you want to make the most of whatever time you and your partner have together at home. But those who are burned out don’t typically make good company. They can be moody, apathetic, irritable, withdrawn or otherwise unpleasant to be around.
“They do not have a lot to offer their relationship,” Chappell Marsh said. “The negative emotional state combined with lack of energy creates conditions where conflict is easier to arise in the relationship and harder to repair.”
And sex and other forms of physical connection may also take a hit.
“Intimacy also suffers because burnout brings a rise of cortisol, the stress hormone, which effectively shuts down sexuality,” Chappell Marsh said.
It’s possible to turn things around
Once burnout has seeped its way into other areas of your life, you may feel a sense of hopelessness. Even though you may not be able to change your work situation right away, you can make some small but powerful changes to your relationship now.
Don’t assume your partner knows how you’re feeling.
Say what’s on your mind instead of expecting them to read your mind. Opening up about some of the challenges and frustrations you’re dealing with may alleviate some stress and help your partner understand why you’ve been so “off” lately.
“Understand how you cope with chronic stress and then make sure you’re communicating this with your partner so you can be supported,“ Chappell Marsh said. “The most common responses to job burnout are to withdraw and stop communicating or to act out negative emotions by taking your frustrations out on the partner.”
If you need alone time to decompress, that’s OK so long as you let your partner know. And if you’re someone who needs to vent to offload stress, ask your partner to listen without jumping in and offering solutions, Chappell Marsh said.
Plan date nights that feel doable in your current state.
Getting dressed up, hiring a babysitter and going to a big party might require too much effort for someone experiencing burnout. If you can’t handle that right now, find something simple and relaxing that you’ll both enjoy instead.
“When my husband and I are exhausted, it’s pho and a walk around the neighborhood,” Agostino said. “And when we’re not? Well, with three kids and two intense jobs and a new puppy, I can’t actually remember what we do on nonexhausted dates, but we make it happen!”
Ask your partner what they need from you. Then do it.
You’re in the throes of burnout, so chances are you haven’t been a particularly attentive partner lately. To turn things around, Agostino recommended asking your spouse: “What’s the one thing I could do for you daily that would create a meaningful shift in our relationship for you?” Then do that thing every day for a week.
“It creates connection and an instant boost because the partners feel heard,” she said.
Some examples from Agostino’s clients include: going for a walk every night after dinner, kissing “hello” when they walk in the door or putting their phone away during dinner.
“So often we give what we think our partner needs without asking and then feel frustrated that the actions aren’t having the desired impact,” she said. “It is so much more potent to ask what they want, believe them (even if it’s not what you would want) and then deliver.”
Give each other a pass occasionally.
You know those days where your tank is completely empty and you have nothing left to give? When that happens, Agostino and her husband give each other a special “game over” pass. Basically, if one partner is spent, the other will step up and cover their duties for the time being — without getting spiteful about it.
“When I returned home the other night after leading an all-day off-site for a San Francisco startup, I played my ‘game over’ pass,” Agostino said. “I let my 7-year-old tuck me in at 7:08 p.m. and I awoke the next morning replenished by a much-needed night of sleep and a feeling of being cared for by my spouse.”