~ SEPTEMBER 2022 ~
Contrary to its name, the term “quiet quitting” isn’t really about quitting anything.
Having emerged as a (controversial) workplace buzzword from a viral TikTok, it really signifies a conscious decision to have boundaries at work—and to not invest effort into work beyond your job description that’ll go unrecognized anyway. As the popularity of quiet quitting skyrockets—or at least the buzz surrounding it— relationship experts fear it could be misinterpreted as a catch-all solution, not just to work burnout but to relationship issues, too.
But there’s a big difference between an employee-employer partnership and a romantic relationship that makes quiet quitting work well in the former and not so much in the latter. While the contributions of an employee and an employer are set by the terms of a contract or agreement (you provide services; your employer pays you money), romantic partnerships work differently. In a relationship, you’re voluntarily contributing time and energy in the hopes that your partner will do the same—and the benefit you draw from the relationship depends on that.
“When you think of romantic partnerships, there is an expectation of reciprocity,” says relationship therapist Elizabeth Earnshaw, LMFT, co-founder of relationship-counseling platform Ours. While putting in additional work at a salaried job typically doesn’t translate into an equivalent amount of additional pay, benefits, or job security, investing “extra” in a partnership can most definitely allow you to get more out of it, while extending that benefit to your partner, too.
All that mutual effort in a relationship helps develop a sense of intimacy and love from which all partners benefit. That’s why experts say “quit quitting” from that effort, and thus from the relationship itself, will only lead to negative effects.
Both the coasting and the passive-aggressive fade will start a downward spiral to disconnection, says DeAlto. When one person invests less effort, the other person often matches that effort level, which could lead both people to disengage. Or, if one person is willing to put in the effort and the other one isn’t, that can lead to frustration and sadness, says DeAlto. “In either case, the relationship is moving toward an end, and it’s just a matter of how long it’ll take to get there.”
What might cause people to quiet quit from a relationship?
When it happens in early relationships, quiet quitting often shows up as the “slow fade” where one person realizes they’re less interested in the other but feels that they shouldn’t actively break up with them to avoid hurting their feelings, says Earnshaw. In other cases, the person might feel like their relationship isn’t ideal but is still better than being alone, she adds, so they decide to stick around but can’t bring themselves to expend much effort or energy on it.
In still other scenarios, the quiet quitting might be less of a decision on the part of the quitter and more of a passive result. That’s typically the case in folks who struggle with vulnerability, emotional availability, or intimacy. “Perhaps they want to stay in the relationship, but they don’t know how to put the effort into it for it to feel close and connected,” says Earnshaw.
In the same way, a person could actively want to end a relationship, but feel that they don’t know how. “If someone is emotionally unavailable, they may not have the energy, language, or ability to break up with someone, so instead, they check out of the relationship and don’t engage, maybe even hoping their partner breaks up with them first for being treated less well than they deserve,” says psychotherapist and relationship expert Christie Kederian, EdD, LMFT.
When it comes to longer-term relationships, there’s also the impact of mere inertia to contend with: “Sometimes, people get complacent because they feel that they’ve invested so much time and energy into this relationship that they just don’t have the desire or drive to find something better,” says Dr. Kederian. “They get comfortable with being uncomfortable, but eventually, this tends to make them resentful or passive-aggressive in their behavior.”
Once one person in a relationship goes down this path of exerting less effort, the other might be tempted to follow their lead and quiet quit the relationship, too, as noted above. This can bring about what’s called the “distance and isolation cascade” in Gottman Method Therapy, says Earnshaw. “For example, if one partner is frequently the person that tries to engage in an emotional conversation or initiate physical intimacy, and they do not believe their partner does the same, after a while, they will likely just stop attempting.”
This distancing often happens unconsciously, as the person increasingly feels like their attempts to connect don’t matter or that their partner doesn’t care enough to reciprocate—so, they just get in the habit of disengaging, says Earnshaw.
But in other situations, the decision to quiet quit the relationship is a conscious form of punishment. The person is angered by their partner’s lack of effort, and as a way to retaliate, they also stop trying, says Earnshaw. “For example, they might think, ‘If my partner doesn’t want to listen to me when I talk, then I will show them how that feels, and I won’t listen to them either!’” To no surprise, this will only worsen their sense of disconnection.
What to consider if you catch yourself wanting to quiet quit a relationship
Your most important step is to figure out your “why,” says Dr. Kederian. This means thinking about the “you” vs. “them” question: Is your complacency being caused by something your partner is or isn’t doing that they might be able to change? Or, have you come to the decision that you need to end the relationship, but there’s something within you that’s stopping you?
From there, consider the losses that quiet quitting your relationship is causing, says Earnshaw. “For example, is it causing you to lose the opportunity to be close to someone or to have a partner you love?” she says. “And remember: Quiet quitting isn’t just unfair to you; it’s also unfair to the person who is stuck alongside you in this holding pattern.”
Understanding these downfalls can help you find the motivation to end the pattern—either by ending the relationship or having a conversation with your partner to figure out what both of you might need to do to feel like the partnership is worth fully investing in again. “It may be that having an open and honest dialogue will also help your partner to be more honest about how they’ve felt,” says Dr. Kederian. “But if this kind of conversation feels too overwhelming to have, working with a therapist can also help facilitate communication, so that it stays effective.”
In the case that you decide to re-invest your full energy, know that this doesn’t have to be a huge burden. Sure, going above and beyond for your partner may not be as natural an impulse as it was when you first started dating them, “but you do need to intentionally put their needs front and center, and consider how you can make them feel important,” says DeAlto.
That doesn’t have to mean making grandiose gestures, so much as it does well thought-out ones that you know they’re going to appreciate, she adds. For example, do they crave physical touch, or do they really love compliments? Are they more into surprise gifts or a well-planned date night?