Can Working Too Much Ruin a Relationship?

Emily Starbuck Gerson

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Gone are the days of leaving the office at 5 p.m. and being finished with work until tomorrow. Laptops and smartphones make it all too easy to receive work calls, emails, and Slack messages at all hours, erasing the boundaries of office and home. And with the current COVID-19 pandemic, many more of us are now telecommuting — a trend that may extend past this crisis — further blurring the boundaries of when you’re on and off the clock. 

Some employees are able to find a healthy work/life balance and maintain healthy relationships with their loved ones. But others who are overworked and can’t find balance may begin to experience relationship troubles — especially if they are also suffering from burnout. Can working too much ruin a relationship? Yes, but it doesn’t have to. Here’s what you need to know about how work can impact a romantic relationship and how to find a balance. 

Becoming aware of the problem

When you’re working too much, and particularly if it’s resulting in burnout, the first place it may become apparent is in your closest relationships. 

Burnout is a state of emotional exhaustion and chronic stress, typically caused by poor boundaries and an unhealthy relationship with work. The signs can manifest as physical, mental, and/or emotional, though you may not even realize you’re suffering from it. Your romantic partner, who is attuned to subtle changes in your mood or personality when you’re stressed, may notice before you or anyone else does that something is out of whack. 

Sadly, overwork and burnout is incredibly common: in a Deloitte survey about burnout, 77% of employees say they have experienced burnout in their current job, and 83% of respondents said burnout from work can negatively impact their personal relationships. 

If you’re veering into overwork or burnout territory, your partner may initially notice changes like you being more moody or anxious than usual, or hitting the snooze button increasingly often. But if life remains unbalanced, your partner may begin to feel that their needs aren’t being met. 

It could be that your partner feels they don’t get enough time with you, or enough quality time that’s free from work-related distractions. There may no longer be enough boundaries between work and home, leaving your partner feeling like work is a greater priority than your relationship or family. If there is no communication about when you are and aren’t working, your partner may get stressed out by the uncertainty. 

Silence serves no one 

If you’re working too much and feeling stressed, but you’re not communicating this adequately with your partner, it can drive a wedge between you. If it’s not dealt with soon enough, working too much can ruin a relationship

Say your work stress is manifesting as you being distant or quiet, being quick to anger, or feeling sad. When your partner notices these changes, but you don’t communicate to them what is going on, they may incorrectly assume it’s personal. They might think the sadness or anger is directed at them, or that you’re acting distant because of something they did or didn’t do. If you continue to be withdrawn or unhappy, they may also eventually feel like their needs are no longer being met in the relationship. 

While you may be someone who internalizes stress and doesn’t like discussing feelings, this strategy won’t work forever and can result in damaging misunderstandings with your loved one. 

Learning to communicate

At Flourish, while relationships aren’t our primary focus, we believe that clear communication is the foundation of any strong relationship. As much as we’d love for our partners to be able to read our minds, they can’t. Intentionally communicating what we’re feeling and thinking can help our partner understand what we’re going through. It allows us to share what we need and hear what our partner needs, which helps set expectations and minimize misunderstandings. 

Perhaps your feelings are hurt when your partner takes work calls during dinner. If you don’t communicate that this upsets you, they may have no idea, even if you think you’re giving off strong body language. By telling them how it makes you feel and asking that they put away the phone during dinner to have quality time together, you’re setting clear expectations and boundaries. 

It’s also smart to commit to regular check-ins with your partner. Whatever cadence you decide, plan to sit down and intentionally communicate. Take turns sharing if your needs are being met, if anything is missing, and what actions you can take to course-correct if needed. If you struggle to do this, an experienced couples counselor can help by providing a regular, safe space to check in together.

Other ways to keep your relationship healthy and happy

If you haven’t already learned each other’s Love Languages, it could be worthwhile to take the free online test or read the book by Gary Chapman. This framework identifies which type of loving gesture means the most to your partner, and they you. For example, you may think that by showering your partner in gifts, you’re showing adequate love. But if their primary Love Language is words of affirmation, and you’re not providing much verbal support, your partner may not feel appreciated despite the presents. If your love language is quality time or physical touch, but your busy partner tries to show you love by doing nice deeds (“acts of service”) instead, there may be a disconnect. Understanding how each person feels most loved and appreciated can help set expectations and maximize your time spent together.

Even if quality time isn’t your primary Love Language, it’s still essential for a healthy relationship. If working too much is ruining your relationship, strategize with your partner to find ways to deliberately make time for each other, and stick to it so they feel like a priority. Maybe every Saturday morning you’ll sit outside and enjoy a cup of coffee together with no phones. Perhaps one night a month you’ll have a date night with no interruptions.

If these changes in your home life aren’t enough, it may be time to address the root cause of your troubles: working too much. Consider what’s stressing you out the most and what you could do to tackle it. If you feel like you’re always on the clock, you could talk to your manager about setting boundaries for when you leave each day, or not checking email during vacations. If you’re dealing with a toxic boss or colleague and have avoided doing something about it, maybe it’s time to come up with a plan for improving the situation. 

How We Can Help

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by burnout, you may struggle to identify the root cause of your stress. But here’s the good news: once you do, there’s plenty you can do to alleviate burnout. Flourish specializes in working with individuals to help identify and address their burnout and create a path out of it, which can help restore health and relationships.

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