There was a time when my husband and I were dating where we almost broke it off.
He was in the last few months of his divorce being final. It was the home stretch.
We’d been through a lot together; what’s a few more months of waiting?
But I was tired of waiting.
Tired of feeling like we were in limbo.
Tired of delaying my needs.
It seemed like every conversation would steer into talking about the relationship…where it was going, and when “it” was going to happen.
It was getting old.
And, unfortunately, the relationship started to feel that way, too.
Can you relate?
What is Relationship Burnout?
In the to and fro of dating a recently divorced or divorcing man, it can be easy to lose sight of the spark. The spark that drew you together when you first met.
It’s the thing that makes your heart jump when he smiles at you.
It’s the thing that keeps people together when times are tough, especially when not staying together might be easier.
Your relationship is at risk of burnout when at least one person, but sometimes both people, are giving more to the relationship than they are getting out of it.
You two might have an amazing connection and you might seem to be tailor-made for each other, but on the inside you’re feeling tired, feeling like something is missing—and it doesn’t seem to be getting better.
Why Relationships Burn Out
Burnout at any stage in a relationship happens when unrealistic expectations meet the stress and unpredictability of life circumstances.
In my experience, it’s the “death by a thousand cuts.”
It doesn’t have the explosive sudden end of cheating or dishonesty, but as our illusions about what the relationship is are stripped away and the truth about what it will never be becomes clear, disenchantment and disillusionment can set in.
This is especially true for women who are involved with a man who is separated but not yet divorced.
Dealing with the complications dissolving a marriage, especially one with children, while trying to have a normal relationship with someone new is very, very difficult because his emotional and physical attention is divided–he’s preoccupied with a huge transition–and that can significantly contribute to the stress and burnout of the next relationship.
How Burnout Can Affect You
Not only does burnout feel physically and emotionally tiring, but it can also run the risk of eroding a healthy sense of self.
When we’re trying to change something and it’s just not working or we feel like we’re losing hope, it can take a toll on our self-esteem and our outlook on our love life.
Sometimes we begin to internalize the problem and blame ourselves for things not working, which can often signify an unhealthy attachment in the relationship.
How Burnout Affects Your Relationship
In the early stages of burnout, the effects are minimal, which is why it’s so hard to see.
It is a small disappointment here, a little dissatisfaction there.
But, we let it go; especially if he is a great guy.
We tell ourselves that no one is perfect.
We tell ourselves that we are okay with not being his highest priority.
We convince ourselves that we never really wanted whatever it’s that he isn’t providing.
In other words, we start denying our own needs.
But, as these small things stack one upon the other, they stop being small.
And at some point, we cross a threshold after which the cuts are no longer small enough to overlook.
We get to the point where we feel like we can’t stop the bleeding.
How to Avoid Relationship Burnout
However, it’s possible to stop the bleeding before you get to that point.
If you’re paying attention, you can see the signs as soon as they start to appear.
Seeing the early warning signs and understanding what they are can give you valuable insight into his and your relationship readiness, and might give you the opportunity to change the course of the relationship.
Here are the warning signs and what to do when you see them.
You Feel Like Second Fiddle in His Orchestra
There will always be moments when something else is more important than you or his relationship with you, but if you feel like that more often than not, it’s time to take a look at where those feelings are coming from.
One of the challenges you might face when dating a dad is that you will likely not be his priority.
Especially if his kids are very young, they will depend on him and have certain needs that cannot be compromised.
If you’re feeling second in your relationship, your discontent points to a need that you have that is not being met.
I encourage you to get very clear and specific about what your needs are for your own self-awareness and then communicate them to your partner.
You might be able to negotiate with your partner how those needs get met.
But I encourage you to also manage your expectations.
If spontaneous date nights are part of your vision of an ideal relationship (nothing wrong with that!), then dating a single dad might not be the best fit for you because he won’t likely be able to fulfill that vision.
If you are expecting this relationship to be like relationships with men who don’t have children, aren’t separated, or aren’t divorced, you are setting yourself up for disappointment.
This doesn’t mean you should graciously accept a position as the permanent second chair in his life or that you should expect to never be the highest priority, only that you need to examine your expectations, and make relationship choices based on your vision and whether your needs are being met.
Having awareness of your needs and expectations and knowing whether or not he can meet those needs, you can adjust those expectations so you aren’t consistently feeling disappointed or you may simply decide that you are not willing to be in a relationship where something else, even his kids, always or ever come first.
It’s a choice you have the right to make.
You Start Playing the Blame Game
This can come from either side and it doesn’t really matter which side starts this game, once it starts, you have to nip it in the bud right away.
This is like taking the shortcut on the road to relationship burnout because once you focus on figuring out who to blame, you are no longer focused on finding a solution.
Rather than working as a team, you start playing against each other and defensiveness replaces togetherness.
When blaming starts, the most important thing you can do is try to keep the focus on the need that is not being met and on finding creative solutions to meet that need.
For example, let’s say he has cancelled weekend plans with you four times in the last month because something came up at the last minute with his kids and now you are fighting.
You blame him for always choosing his kids over you.
He blames you for not understanding what it’s like to have kids.
Neither of those stances will help you solve the problem. But once you each take a stand against each other, you can no longer see any solutions that involve working together.
What need is not being met? What creative solutions can you come up with together?
It may be that you need to spend more time together during the week and be more casual about plans on the weekends.
It may be that you have unrealistic expectations of his weekend availability because you don’t know enough about his visitation schedule. Figuring out the need that is not being met and then working together toward a solution is how you keep blame and guilt at bay.
You Lose Sight of the Big Picture
When a relationship begins the downward spiral that leads to burnout, it’s common for one or both people to continuously decrease their field of vision until the only things they see, the only focus they have in the relationship is on what’s not working.
This loss of the big picture means losing sight of the good things about being together and forgetting what it is about him that made you love him in the first place.
Adopting this narrow, problem-centric focus means you cannot see any alternatives to the path you are on.
You lose the ability to find creative solutions or to try different ways of doing things because all you can see is what isn’t working anymore.
This narrowed focus may mean that everything in your relationship with your boyfriend, who is separated, becomes about the fact that he hasn’t finalized his divorce yet.
It can mean that all you think about is what he isn’t doing for you or with you.
It can mean that you start to believe his children are purposely doing things to interrupt your time with him.
The only way to stop this spiral once it starts is to stop, look up, and choose to expand your focus. Have a vision. Better yet, create a vision together.
Think about what brought you together, what you love most about him, and what makes this relationship worth the work. (If it is worth the work)
What is the vision that you have for your life and relationship? And, despite the (maybe temporary) obstacles, are you and he making progress toward fulfilling that vision?
You Only Talk About What is Not Working
Similar to losing sight of the big picture, along the road to relationship burnout there generally comes a point at which the language of the relationship shifts and the only thing you talk about together is the problems.
Every comment comes loaded with all the unspoken words, hurt feelings, and disappointments.
It can feel like you are just having the same conversations again and again because nothing is ever resolved and no one ever feels any better when you stop talking.
You start to lose hope that anything will ever be better or different because every argument seems to start and end in the same place and nothing ever changes.
This can be a difficult pattern to stop and unfortunately, unless it’s stopped soon, it’s likely that these repeated arguments will build resentment between you and be the death knell of your relationship.
In order to change this unhealthy paradigm you will need to step back, take a breather, and turn inward.
Determine what needs of yours are not being met. Communicate those needs and see if there are alternate ways that they can be met.
If your needs are continually not being met and you’re always fighting about it, maybe it’s time to consider that he’s simply not ready to meet your needs, in which case you might have to adjust your expectations, choose to delay your needs…or move on.
You Start Looking for Reasons to Leave
Hopelessness happens near the end of this road.
Convinced that things will never change, unable to see a better future, and unwilling to continue giving and giving when you feel you aren’t getting your needs met, you start looking for reasons to leave.
This is a sure sign that your relationship is on fire and you are barreling towards burnout.
This happens when the previously balanced scales filled with all the reasons the relationship is “too good to leave” and “too bad to stay” shifts toward the latter.
Remaining in the relationship seems untenable.
Energy spent trying to fix things and find solutions is diverted toward developing your escape plan.
You become convinced that the only way your life will ever be better is if you are no longer with this person.
And the first thing you need to do if you find yourself here is to figure out if you are right.
Some relationships are not worth saving, if your needs and relationship requirements are continually going unmet and if you’ve hit a wall in terms of communication with your partner.
Trying to “make things work” in that circumstance – trying to twist the relationship into something that it is not – is not going to get you the life you really want.
If leaving is the right answer for you, the best thing to do is to be really intentional about it.
Make a decision and resolve to follow through.
Don’t wait, don’t negotiate, and don’t ease into it.
If this relationship isn’t serving you and isn’t worth saving, every minute you spend still in it is a minute you could spend being happier.
However, if you do your soul searching and realize that leaving isn’t really the right thing for you, maybe you both need a time out.
Whether it’s separate vacations or exploring new hobbies or whatever you do for self-care, the kind of time out doesn’t matter as much as the mutual agreement that it’s what you both need and agreement on what the “time out” entails.
Taking this kind of break can alleviate some of the stress you are both experiencing and can help give you the kind of clarity you need to start rebuilding…or the clarity you need to choose to let go.