The Silent Retreat: Quiet Quitting in Relationships

Posted April 15, 2024 by Cristina Vrech

Cristina Vrech - Individual and couples therapist

Cristina Vrech

Founder and Director - Individual & Couple Therapist, Corporate Services

Co-founder and director of Leone Centre, Cristina Vrech, has 20+ years of experience in working and supporting people, 14+ years of extensive experience as a therapist and offers valuable knowledge to individuals and couples. Prior to being a therapist, she worked in the financial sector.

Cristina takes a down-to-earth and direct approach across the landscapes of relationships, communication, stress, infidelity, confidence, loneliness, addiction, separation and divorce, IVF, and anxiety.

Offering Online Counselling and in person counselling.

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Ending relationships is rarely easy and often comes with emotional and mental challenges. But, perhaps even more difficult to come to terms with is when a partner begins acting as if the relationship has ended or is ending, with no explanation.

This type of withdrawal, sometimes called “quiet quitting,” is usually characterised by a gradual reduction in emotional investment, communication, and participation in activities and shared life events. It can be deeply disorienting for the partner experiencing this shift in their relationship without explanation.

Quiet Quitting. A Couple in a relationship stood holding hands, transparent versions of themselves facing away from each other.

What is “quiet quitting” in relationships?

Quiet quitting is when one partner stops investing time and effort into the relationship without officially ending it. This concept was originally attributed to workplace behaviour, stemming from Tiktok creator Zaiad Khan, who defined it as: “not outright quitting your job, but quitting the idea of going above and beyond…You are still performing your duties”, but are no longer taking on extra work, staying late to finish a project or volunteering to help facilitate meetings.

Quitting in relationships shares similarities with its workplace counterpart—one person maintains the basic framework of the partnership but stops working to cultivate and progress it. This retreat unfolds without explanation, and the partner is left wondering why their relationship seems to have changed. If asked, individuals who quit quietly may not fully acknowledge their actions to themselves or their partner.

Recognising that relationship engagement levels can fluctuate for various reasons is essential. If a partner is facing challenges in other areas of life, such as work stress, struggles with mental health, or bereavement, their capacity for investing energy into the relationship may diminish.

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Why do people “quiet quit” in relationships

Quiet quitters often don’t want or feel comfortable ending their relationships because of commitments that keep them tied to them. These commitments may relate to children, a shared mortgage, or a close family/ friend network.

  • They may fear being single.
  • They may be avoidant; instead of addressing issues in the relationship, they avoid discussing them.
  • They may feel they have attempted to address the issues but found that they could not be satisfactorily resolved, so they mentally “check out” instead.
  • It may be a way of “testing” ending the relationship – emotionally distancing themselves in preparation for the breakup.
  • They may be unsure about ending the relationship and are unwilling to discuss this.
  • They may find the early stages of relationships exciting but feel bored by the everyday reality of long-term relationships.
  • They don’t want to be alone.
  • They have become complacent in the relationship and are happy to let it run its course.
  • They may not be conscious of what they are doing.

The signs of quiet quitting

In 2023, a study looking at job satisfaction and burnout (Galanis et al. 2023) introduced a tool to evaluate quiet quitting among employees. They pinpointed three factors that signified signs of quiet quitting:

  • Detachment
  • Lack of initiative
  • Lack of motivation

This can also apply to relationships. If a partner shows a noticeable decline in effort or acts like they don’t see the point in trying, these may be warning signs.

Interracial couple sitting back to back on the bed. Image by Rawpixel.com on Freepik.

  • Some people gradually distance themselves in a phased withdrawal process – they may stop making plans, then stop wanting to spend quality time together, then stop having sex, then stop having meaningful conversations.
  • Doing the bare minimum to keep a partner means doing what is required or overtly asked for but not putting in effort or making plans.
  • Avoiding intimacy, romance, and sex—suddenly, there are no flowers, no goodbye kisses, and no sex. While it’s natural for the frequency of physical intimacy to vary as the relationship progresses, if you’re experiencing a noticeable shift in your relationship towards a dynamic that feels more like a friendship or cohabitation, it may be a sign that your partner is quiet quitting.
  • Diminished care and concern. It’s often said that the opposite of love is not hate; it’s indifference. You may feel that suddenly, your partner isn’t interested in how your day went. They may stop showing concern when you are hurt or upset. Paradoxically, they may argue less with you, choosing to conserve the energy required to resolve disagreements.
  • They stop talking about your happy memories together. This shift may be because they don’t want to evoke sentimental memories and potentially intensify your affectionate feelings towards them out of guilt. They may also feel guilty about wanting to end the relationship in general and, therefore, avoid reflecting on when they were a more engaged and supportive partner.
  • They stop sharing their feelings with you. A deterioration in communication is generally a troubling sign. Still, if your partner no longer tells you how they’re feeling or about things that have happened, it may be because they want to prevent the deepening of emotional closeness.
  • You argue more, especially over trivial things. Concealing true feelings is very difficult. If your partner feels resentful about being in the relationship and isn’t expressing it, this may manifest in increased conflict. Similarly, if you can sense an underlying but can’t get a straight answer from your partner, you may express your frustration through arguments.
  • Your partner avoids spending time together, possibly driven by guilt about not wanting to be in the relationship or resentment for you, stemming from feeling “trapped” despite not having expressed a wish to end the relationship.

Addressing quiet quitting 

Confronting quiet quitting presents challenges due to the subtle and often ambiguous behaviours that characterise it. However, understanding the nuances of the situation is integral to addressing it. Several strategies can be employed to approach quiet quitting, including:

  • Honest communication. Have candid conversations, focusing on gaining clarity. Given the avoidant nature of quiet quitting, gaining straightforward responses may be challenging. Relationship counselling can be very beneficial for enhancing direct communication and active listening in a supportive environment.
  • Decide together whether you feel the relationship is salvageable. If you choose to work on it consciously, it may be a good idea to make solid plans for how it will look. This could include scheduling date nights, making time to talk to each other about how you’re feeling, or shifting priorities so the relationship is of higher importance.
  • Counselling. A professional couples and relationship therapist can work with you and your partner to uncover the reasons behind the reduction in effort and interest in the relationship. By getting to the root of the issue, you can work towards a solution that supports your emotional well-being. Individual therapy can also be valuable in exploring relational issues and anxieties around relationships and separation.
  • Be honest about your feelings—with your partner and yourself. If you are unhappy or feel neglected or overlooked, these are your legitimate experiences. Keeping a journal or speaking to a therapist or counsellor may help you clarify your feelings and track your emotional state over time.
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Young sad woman with headache sitting in the bedroom while her boyfriend is text messaging on mobile phone in the background.

Although this can be an incredibly difficult experience, remember that it is not a reflection of your worth. Quitting a relationship often stems from emotional immaturity, not a deficiency in the partner. Seeking future relationships with partners with strong emotional intelligence and the ability to engage in difficult conversations may reduce the likelihood of this reoccurring. However, the most important aspect is showing up for yourself.