Yes, Relationships Can Cause Burnout Too — Here's What To Look Out For

Doctor of Clinical Psychology By Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy
Doctor of Clinical Psychology
Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy, is a psychologist and executive coach who received her clinical psychology doctorate from University College London. She has been featured in Elle, Forbes, Business Insider, and elsewhere..

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We often talk about how burnout can affect relationships. Sometimes we acknowledge that relationships themselves can burn us out as well. But the how is often missing: How do relationships cause burnout?

As it is, we normalize burnout. It creeps up gradually before you find that your zest for life has dried up. You've lost focus, you're exhausted all the time, and you have poor sleep quality. With no reference point for what this looks like in terms of relationship burnout, this makes it easier to ignore until too late.

Relationships that cause burnout hover in the gray zone between toxic and nontoxic. And as Shannon Thomas, therapist and author of Healing From Hidden Abuse, proffers, "We don't often equate burnout with a relationship because relationships feel voluntary; we choose to be in them, whereas work demands are placed on us, even as entrepreneurs."

What causes relationship burnout.

Here are some of the invisible ways relationship burnout happens: 

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1. They gaslight you.

Gaslighting is when someone screws with your sense of reality. Think that you're too smart for it to happen? Gaslighting operates in tandem with isolation. A sophisticated toxic person will never say obvious things like, "I don't want you hanging out with [person]." Instead, they wield subtle digs ("They're not very clever, are they?") or lies ("This person said [thing], which really hurt me") or have a paranoid fit every time you go out. Slowly, you learn to associate meeting said person with a bad outcome. Then as you become isolated, the toxic individual starts messing with your head. Jonathan Marshall, Ph.D., a psychologist and friend of mine, states that when gaslit, our brains need to resolve the dissonance between reality as we know it and reality as someone insists it is. This burns up energy—leading to burnout.

2. They deprive you of sleep.

Thomas notes that abusers frequently start fights at bedtime or wake their target up with an argument. I often invite my clients to imagine sleep as recharging their metaphorical batteries; without quality sleep, we wake up on low-battery mode. Imagine functioning this way every day, further drained by the trauma and confusion after each argument. You learn to be on edge at bedtime instead of getting into a relaxed state—whether anticipating another argument, insomnia from a ruminating mind, or dreading the next day's fatigue.

Thomas says that toxic manipulators also up the ante by demanding constant contact, insisting that their communiqués receive immediate attention. Juggling such attentional demands with everyday life tasks, especially on little sleep, accelerates burnout. 

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3. They haunt like ghosts.

Toxic individuals cause burnout even after the relationship is over. Despite negotiating boundaries such as no or low contact, they use excuses like "I was missing you" or favors to worm their way in. They remix this strategy with blaming and shaming, flipping among the roles of savior ("I'm only saying this for your own good!"), persecutor ("You're so stupid/naive, " "It's all your fault") and victim ("See how you've hurt me"). Granted, no one is blameless in a relationship, except that toxic individuals will always hold and inflate some transgression against you. Their targets, on the other hand, often blame themselves because "they recognize their character defects, and their self-reflection skills are exploited," says Thomas.

Marshall adds that in relationships, we open ourselves up, essentially becoming as vulnerable as children. The parent-child power dynamic is replayed, and he says that at some level, we are hypnotized to believe it's our fault.

Why we stick around in relationships when we're burned out.

Despite the pain caused by such toxic relationships, why do we keep going back for more? Before you proclaim yourself masochistic, it's important to understand how the mind works.

In his book Thinking Fast & Slow, Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman describes our two selves—the Remembering Self and the Experiencing Self. 

An experiment, for context: Subjects immersed one hand in ice water, at a temperature causing moderate pain and recorded their level of pain with the other hand. Round I lasted 60 seconds. For Round II, which was 90 seconds, the water was slowly warmed by 1 degree during the last 30 seconds. It still hurt. For Round III, subjects chose to repeat the first or second round. Eighty percent of those who reported less of a decrease in pain during the last 30 seconds of Round II opted to repeat the 90-second experience. They essentially chose to endure an additional 30 seconds of suffering.

In a nutshell:

  • The Experiencing Self is the you who lives through an experience.
  • The Remembering Self is the you who writes history.
  • Both selves are part of you.
  • They don't always agree.
  • Your Remembering Self makes decisions.

We remember the end of experiences and the best and worst moments. And if anyone messes with our memories (or we apply cognitive Photoshop to rationalize), our Remembering Selves make decisions that don't serve us.

Our Remembering Self forgets the actual pain in the moment.

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Now that you know how your memory can work against you, here's what to do:

1. Learn to stop blaming yourself.

You will blame yourself for not seeing the signs, staying, going back, leaving— anything. Thomas comments that deflecting blame is the foundation of toxic relationships, and you're often adept at blaming yourself.

Every time you do that, you become your biggest bully. The times you're angry with yourself are the times you need compassion. It could be as simple as deep breathing to reset your fear center or doing something you enjoy, even if you feel you don't deserve it. Practice giving the kindness you'd give to the toxic partner to yourself instead. You’ve earned it.

2. Reclaim yourself.

Relationships that cause burnout erode our sense of self—our passions, personality, and purpose. Toxic people often sand away these parts of us, claiming it's for our own good. This is especially easy if they claim some form of superiority, whether in age, experience, or how great they allegedly are. Advocate for yourself and indulge in the parts of you that are only yours. 

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3. Trust your gut.

Many people who've dealt with relationship burnout often borrow wisdom from others or from spiritual texts (which can easily be weaponized by toxic types), and I often urge them to follow their own gut instead. One simple way is to allow yourself to make decisions you normally are hesitant about. Experiment with different outcomes. Even if they don't turn out perfect, the world continues to spin. When you give yourself back that power, it becomes easier to trust yourself.  

4. Never forget.

People who overgive are most vulnerable to such relationship burnout. If you're the overgiving type, it's easy to brush over details of how much someone hurt you. But here's the deal: Of course the relationship wasn't 100% bad, of course there were good times, and of course you did bad things too. Years ago when I was teetering on the edge of responding to my ex-abuser, I remembered my diary entries written on those days of abject pain. Reading them helped me access my Experiencing Self. Never forget those moments of clarity.

"There is a place in relationships to fight the good fight, and to say enough is enough," Marshall says. Chances are, if you're reading this, you've fought one too many good fights. It's not a moral failing to exit. 

Or in Seth Godin's words, winners quit earlier.

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