How Burnout Affects Your Relationships

Jul 21, 2020

Dr. Ashley Margeson, ND

Dr. Ashley Margeson, ND


Can chronic stress, otherwise known as burnout, affect your relationships? Of course it can. Stress is very common in relationships because all couples experience stress. Sometimes that stress comes from work, other family members or even friends and that can spill over into our relationship. But before we go blame everything on our partners (I plead the fifth!) – let’s chat a little bit about how to understand when stress is driving a wedge between people.

One of the reasons burnout is so hard on relationships is that the person feeling the burnout (or maybe it’s both of you!) will withdraw from the world around to try and minimize the noise coming in. This makes it difficult for their partners to understand what they are going through and to provide support.

When people are stressed, they become more withdrawn and distracted, and less affectionate. They also have less time for leisure activities, which leads to alienation between partners. Stress also brings out people’s worst traits, which may lead their partners to withdraw as well, because who wants to be around someone when they are acting their worst? Over time, the relationship becomes more superficial (less we-ness and involvement in each other’s lives) and couples become even more withdrawn, experiencing more conflict, distress, and alienation in the relationship. 

And while stress depletes people, sapping their cognitive resources, it also increases vigilance. This means when you are stressed you are more likely to notice negative behaviours and less able to stop yourself from reacting badly to them. It also means that you are less patient and less able to give your partner the benefit of the doubt when they behave badly. Stress also makes people more irritable and hostile, which increases the likelihood of fighting. When fighting, stress may make people less able to listen or show interest and empathy. In short, stress turns non-issues into issues and prevents your ability to deal with the issue constructively.

Sounds nice, eh? 

I call it the stress spillover. The stress you’re experiencing outside of your relationship spills over into the “safe” area of your life. So when you’re going through a stressful time, it’s important to understand that this reaction will happen. You can compensate for this by making time to eat together, to go to bed a little earlier without your phones and spend time together, and for the other partner to recognize that sometimes space does need to be given.


For the win.


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