Yes, relationships can cause burnout too – here’s how and what to do about it

We often talk about burnout affecting relationships, or feeling burnt out in the relationship department; yet, we neglect to talk about how relationships can cause burnout.

As it is, we normalise 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 relationship burnout, this makes it easier to ignore until too late.

Relationships that cause burnout hover in the grey zone between toxic and non-toxic. Questions abound, like “Are they a full-blown narcissist?”, “But they weren’t physically violent” and “But I know their history, they’ve been hurt before!”, can obfuscate reality.

The invisible ways relationship burnout happens

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; and as you become isolated, the toxic individual starts messing with your head 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.

2. They deprive you of sleep

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 everyday, further drained by the trauma and confusion after each argument. You learn to be fearful of bedtime— whether anticipating another argument, insomnia from a ruminating mind, or dreading next day’s fatigue. Toxic manipulators 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.

3. They haunt like ghosts

Toxic individuals cause burnout even after the relationship is over; that is, if they didn’t dump you only to mess with your head. Despite negotiating boundaries such as no or low contact, they use excuses like “I was missing you” or favours to worm their way in. They remix this strategy with blaming and shaming, flipping amongst the roles of saviour (“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.

Here’s why we keep going back for more

Despite the pain caused by such relationships, why do we keep going back for more? Before you proclaim yourself masochistic, here’s 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. Round II, 90-seconds, the water 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. 80% of those who reported less 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.

Meaning, 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 rationalise, our Remembering Selves make decisions that don’t serve us.

The deal is, our Remembering Self forgets the actual pain in the moment.

Moreover, people who overgive are most vulnerable to such relationship burnout.

Additionally, people attracted to abusers are often Type A and empathetic. They work ceaselessly to resuscitate zombie relationships, and their Remembering Selves rewrite history in favour of the other parties’ needs and feelings.

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. Deflecting blame is the foundation of such relationships, and you’re adept at blaming yourself. Except that 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 centre; or doing something you enjoy, even if you feel you don’t deserve it. Practise 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. Remember this, cult leaders also say they’re great, their followers echo the same too. Here’s a time to be defiant and indulge what they’ve quashed.

3. Trust your gut

Many survivors of relationship burnout often borrow wisdom from others or from spiritual texts— which can easily be weaponised 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

If you’re the overgiving type, it’s easy to brush over details of how much someone hurt you. Except, that plays against your favour. Here’s the deal. Of course the relationship wasn’t 100% bad, of course there were good times, and of course you did stupid things. 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’s a time to fight and persevere, and there’s a time to exit for the sake of you.

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