This article is based on the Reimagining Love podcast episode “Disrupting the Over-Functioning / Under-Functioning Dynamic.” To listen to this episode, click here.
Today we are going to discuss something called the Over-Functioning / Under-Functioning dynamic. This is a fancy way of saying that one partner is doing too much and the other partner is not doing enough. There are three parts to this blog post:
- Part I: I am going to define and operationalize this common dynamic.
- Part II: I am going to offer a Relational Self-Awareness-informed framework for thinking about Over-Functioning/Under-Functioning. Whenever we are creating a Relational Self-Awareness framework around any topic, we attend to three realms: the cultural, the interpersonal and the intrapsychic. The cultural realm explores the bigger cultural narratives that shape how people think about and experience this dynamic. The interpersonal realm pertains to what is happening in the space between the two people. And the intrapsychic realm details what is happening inside of each person.
- Part III: I am going to explore how to disrupt this pattern. I will speak directly to the partner who is in the overfunctioning role and give a few self-reflection questions. Then I will direct my attention to the partner who is in the underfunctioning role and give a few self-reflection questions. Lastly, I’ll propose some relationship agreements.
Part I: Defining and Operationalizing
If we are going to unpack the Over-Functioning/Under-Functioning dynamic, we need to define some terms. Let’s start by getting clear on what we mean by “functioning.” What does functioning mean? In doing research for this episode, I found an article by Dr. Will Meek. He says that functioning is, “our ability to manage life (make decisions, manage time and stress, etc); to be responsible for the things we are involved with; and to operate as autonomous beings. When we are functioning optimally we are often keeping a good schedule, staying on top of things, meeting deadlines with work and school, making decisions for ourselves even if some advice is sought, not taking more than our share of responsibility, and successfully fulfilling life roles like parent, employee, and partner.”
So, talking about the Over-Functioning/Under-Functioning dynamic means that we are talking about a cycle, or a perceived cycle, that a couple gets into in which one partner is carrying too much of the load and one partner is not carrying enough of the load. This can happen in any realm of the relationship. For example:
- Domestic labor: one person is doing more chores and caregiving than the other.
- Emotion regulation: one person is doing more work to keep the peace than the other.
- Interfacing with the outside world: one person is more frequently initiating and scheduling plans with family and friends or more frequently checking in on family and friends than the other.
- Sex: one person is initiating more than the other or bringing more creative energy and enthusiasm than the other.
- Finances and ambition around work: one person is more responsible for finances than the other or one person is investing more time and energy in pursuit of career goals than the other.
Those are five realms right there. I wonder what you might add to that list?
The partner in the overfunctioning role does the heavy lifting- emotionally, practically, financially, sexually, and domestically. They also stick all kinds of labels on the partner in the underfunctioning role including but not limited to lazy, belligerent, narcissistic, entitled, etc. Additionally, the partner in the overfunctioning role often feels overwhelmed, lonely, and misunderstood. On the other hand, the partner in the underfunctioning role waits to be told what to do, shirks duties, does not keep their word, and retreats. They may stick all kinds of labels on the partner in the overfunctioning role. They might label their overfunctioning partner as rigid, controlling, or naggy. And lastly, the partner in the underfunctioning role also often feels overwhelmed, lonely, and misunderstood.
Obviously and understandably, when a couple gets stuck in this kind of a pattern, there’s a negative impact on the relationship: conflict, reduced relationship satisfaction, distance, disengagement, and resentment.
A lot of what I am discussing might feel familiar to those of you who have worked on codependence. What I like about this Over-Functioning/Under-Functioning language is that it gives us an avenue to explore it as a relational dynamic or as relational roles, rather than as an individual tendency or trait. The overfunctioning role and the underfunctioning role are inextricably linked, and when we can keep that in mind, it opens up some new avenues for what we can DO about it!! The partner occupying the overfunctioning and underfunctioning roles can change depending on the circumstances or chapter of the relationship that the couple is in. Or, the dynamic may change depending on the realm (like caregiving, sex, or finances). In fact, one of the fastest ways out of feeling resentful about overfunctioning, for example, is to take a broader perspective of the relationship landscape so you can see that there are realms in which you are, in fact, underfunctioning! We tend to be hyper focused about the areas where we are overfunctioning and blinded to the areas where we are underfunctioning. And by talking about these tendencies as roles, we can get curious about why we might get cast into one of these roles or why we might cast ourselves in these roles. It is less about the “capital T truths” about ourselves, our identities, or our personality, and more about the roles we begin to play in intimate relationships.
The last thing I want to do before we wrap up Part I is lay out some caveats.
I want to clarify that I am NOT talking about abusive dynamics in which one partner over functions in order to prevent abuse. I am also not talking about caregiving: It is not overfunctioning to do things for people who cannot do them for themselves.
Finally, my examples are going to be about Over-Functioning/Under-Functioning dynamics in romantic relationships but you are going to find that a lot of this pattern applies to friendship, family relationships, and workplace dynamics. As you read, I invite you to think about the role you take up in different realms of your life.
Perhaps you are the over-functioner at work, but at home you find yourself getting cast as the under-functioner in your intimate partnership. When there are inconsistencies like this, I recommend that you really get curious about what’s different. Because it’s clearly not an essential truth about who you are as a person. It’s something about the part of you that comes forward in one realm that remains hidden in another realm. Or it’s about who you think you need to be in one setting versus another setting.
Perhaps you are the over-functioner across the board. You do this at work, in your love life, with family and friends. This might speak to your competence and ambition. These are traits of yours so they show up everywhere. This might speak to a longer-standing coping strategy in which you find yourself, perhaps unconsciously, drawn to contexts in which you can again and again put on your cape and save the day. More on this later!
Part II: RSA-Informed Framework for Understanding OF/UF
I want to give you some ways of thinking about the Over-Functioning/Under-Functioning dynamic through the lens of Relational Self-Awareness. This means that we are going to widen and tighten our lens. Let’s look at this relational dynamic through the lens of the three realms I mentioned earlier: the cultural, the interpersonal, and the intrapsychic.
Let’s start with the cultural messages that might set a couple up to experience this Over-Functioning/Under-Functioning dynamic. A few moments ago, I read to you a working definition of what functioning means: the ability to meet our responsibilities. Although this seems simple enough, we need to keep a bigger picture in mind, which is that our notions of what it means to function are deeply and forever informed by how we have been socialized.
Our socialization shapes how we think about what counts as overfunctioning and what counts as underfunctioning. How? Because this realm of meeting our responsibilities and getting stuff done is about productivity. And productivity is, at least in part, about capitalism, or participating in a larger system of production, consumption, and accomplishment. Keeping the economy moving. Continuing to participate in a system that is built on problematic ideas about work, whose work matters, and what is good/just/fair/reasonable. All of that shapes a kind of ethos: more is better. We should be achieving, not coasting. Rest can start to feel a lot like laziness or moral failure. This means that the partner who is in the overfunctioning role can feel a bit holier-than-thou, and sometimes that partner has the backing of family and friends who have also been socialized into a sort of “productivity as principled” mindset.
Another big context that matters here is ableism– discrimination in favor of able-bodied people. Ableism exists for all kinds of reasons, one of which is that in a capitalist society, we are at risk of valuing people to the degree that they are able to produce. If and when a disability impacts someone’s ability to produce, that person is at risk of being perceived as less valuable, less worthy.
Although I have tried to be mindful of my assumptions and biases, I have every confidence that my blindspots have shaped how I talk about this topic. I am a white American woman, who has lived in the midwest my whole life, who is highly educated, and who has generational economic privilege. The ways I think about and talk about functioning are shaped by these contexts of whiteness, colonialism, and capitalism.
Cultural narratives around gender have a huge impact on how couples experience the Over-Functioning/Under-Functioning dynamic. There is a lot of public discourse these days about emotional labor. Gemma Hartley wrote an article for Harpar’s Bazaar called, “Women aren’t nags– we’re fed up!” It has been read over two billion times!! In fact, it’s on my Marriage 101 syllabus. She is a journalist who addressed “the frustration and anger of countless women putting in the hidden, underappreciated, and absolutely draining mental work that consists of keeping everyone in their lives comfortable and happy…” She defined the largely invisible but demanding, time-consuming, and exhausting ‘worry work’ that falls disproportionately and unfairly on all women—no matter their economic class or level of education.”
Queer couples certainly deal with the challenges of figuring out how to create divisions of labor that feel fair and that fuel connection rather than resentment. In Trish Bendix’s article in Harper’s Bazaar on the issue of emotional labor in queer couples, she writes that “same-sex couples aren’t immune to the same gendered and social rearing we’ve all received as children” and speaks with queer women who recall receiving both implicit and explicit messaging about silently anticipating and addressing problems, messages that their brothers did not receive by contrast. Bendix explains: “Same-sex relationships (mine included) are not void of these kinds of dynamics completely— the LGBT community often falls prey to its own labels and roles (butch/femme, top/bottom, etc.)—and it is inevitable that there will be expectations of both partners that will remain unspoken until they are discussed.” Queer couples may also find that rather than inequities being mapped on to gender, they become mapped onto another difference, such as earning.
The big picture here is that caregiving in general, because it has long been associated with the feminine, has also long been devalued, held in contempt, and rendered invisible. When a woman is partnered with a man, the force of patriarchal socialization means that they are set up for an Over-Functioning/Under-Functioning dynamic around both domestic and emotional labor. It’s really easy to map onto a straight couple a traditional division of labor in the home, replicating generations of how families have assigned these roles!
The struggle that many men experience around being associated with the feminine is so real. I’ll share a research finding from 2011 from two University of South Florida psychologists Jennifer K. Bosson and Joseph A. Vandello. The paper is published in a journal called Current Directions in Psychological Science. This research team was studying what we call “precarious manhood,” the idea that masculinity needs to be enacted and proven in an ongoing way– defined by achievements, not biology. Male participants were forced to behave in a “feminine” manner, and researchers recorded what happened.
In one study, some men braided hair and other men did the more “masculine” task of braiding rope. All of the men were given the choice after to punch a bag or do a puzzle. The men who braided hair overwhelmingly chose the punching bag. In another study, when one group of men braided hair and the other group of men did not, and then all of the men went on to punch the bag, the men who had braided hair were found to punch harder. In a final study, all of the men braided hair, but only some of the men got to punch afterwards. The men who did not punch showed more anxiety on a subsequent test. Bottom line: When men engage in tasks that are deemed feminine, they need to counteract it with something masculine that feels restorative or restabilizing. This is the fallout of socialization, right? That sense of needing to prove oneself again and again. Through this lens, it makes sense that feminine tasks (laundry, childcare, wrapping gifts) are avoided. This is NOT an excuse. It is a context!
Gender dynamics are incredibly real. Inequitable divisions of labor are real. And they hold the power to erode an intimate relationship! Findings from Natsal-3 (National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles) indicates that 21.2% of married women aged 16–74 reported “not sharing enough housework” as a reason for live-in partnership breakdown, or in other words, divorce.
If the paradigm is going to get subverted, it has to be done consciously and intentionally. And it has to be done with the buy-in of BOTH partners. The person in the culturally-ascribed “one-down” position cannot change the system on their own. Sometimes in a heterosexual relationship, the female partner is in a catch-22. If she asks for “help” that proves right there that the task is hers UNTIL and UNLESS she delegates it. If she doesn’t ask for “help” and does it herself, she replicates traditional divisions of labor, perpetuates the Over-Functioning/Under-Functioning dynamic, and fuels resentment.
The way out is for him to think critically about the power of socialization around how he perceives domestic and emotional labor, examine how his family of origin handled divisions of labor so that he’s clear the perspective he’s coming in with, and to drop the word help from his vocabulary. It’s their home. Together. Finally, he learns to scan, or notice what needs to be done, perhaps by putting alarms in his phone if necessary.
Before we leave this section, I want to recommend a wonderful resource which is Eve Rodsky’s book Fair Play, as well as her card deck. She’s an attorney by training who dove into the research on how much invisible labor women carry in their homes. She went on to write a book and create a card deck that couples can use to protect their relationships from the grind of inequitable distribution of labor.
Let’s look now at the interpersonal dynamics: the space between you and your partner. When a couple comes to therapy and Partner A feels resentful, overburdened, and critical, and Partner B feels defensive, diminishing, and critical, the couples therapist’s first order of business is to help the couple see this as a dynamic! A pattern that is playing out between the two of them. This can be a tough sell, because Partner A is sure the relationship would improve if Partner B would just step up or handle themselves. And Partner B is sure that the relationship would improve if Partner A would stop micromanaging and complaining.
We have to move from pointing fingers to looking together at the choreography. The more Partner A over-functions, the more Partner B under-functions. The more Partner B under-functions, the more Partner A over-functions. These roles are entwined. It becomes a dance. The more I do this, the more you do that. If either one changes up their “dance moves,” the dance cannot continue in the same way.
If we think about this as a dynamic, then we think about each position as a role. This is liberating. If we are thinking about a role, then we are not thinking about a capital T Truth, or something that is essential or identity-based. Rather than thinking about the partner in the underfunctioning role as “an under-functioner,” thinking about it as, it is helpful to think about it from the perspective of “My partner is underfunctioning relative to me, in this domain.”
How would a couples therapist go about creating change?
Does the therapist help the underfunctioning partner step up or try harder? Does the therapist help the overfunctioning partner step back or let go? The answer is: Sure!
Years ago, when I was at a training with Dr. Les Greenberg and Dr. Rhonda Goldman, they were talking about a variation on this theme. They were talking about when there’s a pursuer and a distancer. In other words, one partner is seeking contact and conversation and the other partner is avoiding and retreating. Someone asked, “What do you do first? Do you help the pursuer stop pursuing or do you help the distancer stop distancing?” Dr. Greenberg’s response was to quote a Chinese proverb, that “you dig where the ground is soft.” In other words, the therapist feels out where there is a bit of leverage, knowing that facilitating change in one part of the system changes the system.
What does that mean for our purposes here? Change up your dance moves! If you don’t do what you’ve always done, your partner can’t do what they have always done. The only person you can change is yourself. But remember that changing yourself changes the system, so do not underestimate your power.
If you are the over-functioner, challenge yourself to consider where you might be able to experiment. Where might you be able to back off, let go, and surrender? Even if that means something will fall through the cracks. Even if that means that you experience some anxiety. Even if it means that your partner feels disappointed or struggles a bit. If you are the under-functioner, challenge yourself to consider where you might be able to step up. Where might you be able to anticipate, look ahead, and initiate? Even if that means you have to tolerate the discomfort of worrying that you’ll do it wrong or be rejected. Even if it means that your partner doesn’t like how you do something.
Quick side note: when the person in the underfunctioning role steps up, it is incumbent on the person in the overfunctioning role to resist the urge to critique how their partner does that thing. When our kids were little, I was overfunctioning around morning routines, so Todd agreed to step up. I remember him bringing Courtney down in some crazy ass outfit. And I remember consciously saying to myself, “Do not say a word. Focus on the fact that he stepped up rather than the fact that she is wearing red pants and a purple top.” What we focus on, we get more of.
Let’s tighten our lens all the way and look at the intrapsychic dynamics: the inner world of the person in the overfunctioning role and the inner world of the person in the underfunctioning role. If you are finding yourself identifying with one of these positions more than the other as you read, this suggests that you have a valence or a tendency toward that role. I want to invite you to do a little bit of what I call ghostbusting to look at how experiences from your past might have created that valence in you. What is it about your early experiences that primed you to move into that stance in your intimate relationship? The origin story will be unique to you, but here are a few possibilities.
A tendency to overfunction can come from being a parentified child when you were little. If your parent or parents turned to you as a source of comfort and validation, you had relatively fewer experiences of asking for help, receiving help, or fewer experiences of people accommodating to you. So you might just fill all the space up being helpful, necessary, and in charge. You may also overfunction as a result of growing up in a home with a parent who struggled, for example with untreated mental illness or an addiction. If your parent or parents had a hard time meeting their own responsibilities, you might cope with a fear of not being able to meet your responsibilities by living on overdrive. Busyness can feel like inoculation against a risk of despair/depression.
A tendency to underfunction can come from being a child who acted up when you were little, either as a way to distract parents from the conflict between them or as a way to ensure that parents had to stick together to deal with you. Underfunctioning can also come from growing up in a home with really domineering parents who struggled to give you autonomy, space, and agency. If you were micromanaged as a kid, you might struggle to take charge of your life.
Connecting the dots between your past and present can help you understand yourself more deeply. Connecting the dots between your partner’s past and present can help you understand them more deeply, perhaps reducing criticism and increasing compassion and empathy. History is not an excuse, but it surely is a context.
Now, I want to talk a bit to both the over-functioner and the under-functioner. I will then offer some Relational Self-Awareness Questions to folks who are in each of these roles.
Talking to the Over-Functioning Partner
Stepping back can be hard. Letting go of control can be hard. You may have spent many years creating a sense of safety through order. Allowing for more unpredictability or tolerating how someone does things differently from you can feel really upsetting—not because you are a control freak, but because this is a longstanding coping mechanism. If you decide to try stepping back, it’s OK to cue your partner, like “Hey! Heads up that I’m letting go here!” Not as a threat, like “You better do this the right way!” But as an invitation, an opportunity for your partner to recognize that you’re making an effort to change a pattern.
Stepping back can also be hard because there can be hidden benefits of overfunctioning. Other people might express admiration for how much you do in your relationship and this feels like a self-esteem booster to you. Or you might develop a bit of a martyr situation in which you let people know how hard you are working in the relationship and people express sympathy for you. We all are at risk of these less-than-ideal routes to feelling worthy. Notice if these patterns are developing and remember that you were born fully worthy, with nothing to prove. You don’t need to earn your worth. You don’t need to work to feel worthy of partnership either!
Relational Self-Awareness Questions
- What does overfunctioning protect me from feeling?
- What do I believe to be true about myself when I am overfunctioning?
- What keeps me from letting go of management/leadership/control in this area?
- What am I afraid will happen if I let go of management/leadership/control in this area? What am I dreading? If that dreaded situation were to play out, how would I feel?
- Who do I feel like I become if I let go of management/leadership/control in this area? If I lose my identity or role in this area, how will I feel?
- What does it mean for me if someone else has more management/leadership/control than me?
- Am I perhaps overfunctioning to protect my partner from the anger and disappointment I’d feel and unleash if I let go and they didn’t step up?
- Am I perhaps overfunctioning to protect myself from the anger and disappointment I’d feel and unleash if I let go and they didn’t step up?
Talking to the Under-Functioning Partner
One of the things that can happen to the person in the underfunctioning role is that they can feel nagged, or perpetually criticized. Because you cannot control your partner, see what you might be able to do differently. If you don’t like when your partner follows up with you about an unfinished task, offer them an update. If you don’t like when your partner reminds you, write yourself a note. If you don’t like being given a task, look for ways to take initiative. If you are sensitive to feeling controlled, directed, or micromanaged, flip the dynamic by getting in the driver’s seat.
Keep an eye out for whether you might be doing this thing called Weaponized Incompetence or Strategic Incompetence. A 2008 article in The Guardian defined strategic incompetence as “the art of avoiding undesirable tasks by pretending to be unable to do them.” It is more of a popular “buzzword” at the moment than scientifically backed phenomenon in the current literature. If this lands for you, the goal is for you to feel like the reward you get for stepping up (i.e. your partner’s happiness or relief) is greater than the reward you get for avoiding (i.e. not having to do something that is onerous or stressful).
Sometimes the person in the underfunctioning role can get further stuck because if they start to do the thing their partner wants them to do, they are at risk of feeling weak, or like a doormat. When this happens to a partner I am seeing in couples therapy, I am explicit and loud about the need to feel proud of being who your partner wants you to be, rather than ashamed that you accommodate to your partner’s request.
Stepping up can be hard. You might be afraid of over-promising and under-delivering. If that’s the case, it’s OK to let your partner know that. It’s OK to want to have your efforts at change recognized, even if they are small or imperfect and even if your partner has been asking for a long time. Get clear on the kind of praise or feedback you would like from your partner… and the kind you wouldn’t like. I have had clients who don’t want their partner to acknowledge their efforts because it’s hard for them to feel the difference between being praised and being patronized. So maybe you don’t want your partner to say anything when you step up. But maybe you want words of affirmation. Or a makeout. Maybe you want a happy dance. Maybe you just want a fist bump.
Finally, keep in mind this principle from Cognitive-Behavioral therapy called, “behavioral activation.” Behavioral activation means that rather than waiting until you feel like doing something, just doing it. While it is easier to get motivated to do things that we actually feel like doing, we can motivate ourselves to do things just because we made ourselves a promise, or because we set an alarm, or because we said we would. You don’t have to wait until you feel like doing something to do it.
Relational Self-Awareness Questions.
- What is the origin story for my underfunctioning?
- Am I afraid of over-promising and under-delivering? Why? What does it remind me of?
- What happens inside of me when someone is disappointed in me?
- What hidden benefit might I be getting from my underfunctioning role?
- When I think about stepping up, what emotions come up inside of me? How does my body feel?
- If I was to get really honest with myself, is there a way in which I feel like the realm I am avoiding or underfunctioning in is a realm that is “beneath me”? Like I should not have to do this? Whose story is that?
- When I step up, how do I want my partner to acknowledge my efforts? Why?
- When I step up, how do I NOT want them to acknowledge my efforts? Why not?
The last thing I want to do is talk about some relationship agreements.
Here are some things you can do to create change:
- Talk together about the real that feels inequitable (division of labor, emotion regulation, interfacing with the outside world, sex, finances and ambition)
- Agree to rock the boat. Agree to shake things up.
- If even one of you tries something different, the dance will change.
- If you make agreements from a place of curiosity and data collection, then the stakes are low.
- Get as specific as you can. What will you do differently? For how long? How often? When will you follow up?
Here are some things you can do to create cultivate acceptance:
- Talk together about the realm in which you notice the OF/UF dynamic.
- Agree to radically accept the way things are.
- Agree that neither of you will do anything differently except look for what is beautiful, functional, and uniquely yours about how your partner handles themselves. For example, when your partner takes a nap on Saturday afternoon and this typifies them in their underfunctioning role, you could take a moment to be grateful that they are resting after a long week. Alternatively, you could allow their permission to rest to remind you that you also have permission to rest. Here’s another example: when your partner works late and this typifies them in their overfunctioning role, you could take a moment to be grateful for their work ethic. You could ask them if there’s anything you could bring them as they burn the midnight oil.
- Talk together about how you will share insights and appreciations as you practice radical acceptance. Do you want your partner to let you know when they have noticed you overfunctioning and they are feeling appreciative of your efforts?
We covered a TON of ground. Let all of this good stuff settle. I feel confident that you are coming away from this blog post with some new perspectives on a common and complex relationship dynamic. New perspectives that can help you create meaningful shifts in your relationship that help you feel more connected and more engaged.