How often do you feel burnt out, exhausted, and conversations with your partner involve statements such as “If I don’t do it, it won’t happen!”, “Stop nagging me and treating me like a child!”, “You have so much potential but you’re lazy!”, “I’m doing all the work!”, “When are you going to start looking for a job?”, “What’s on your to do list today?” or “Why don’t you step up and be a parent!”
If you have heard or said something similar, then you might be experiencing a pattern of over functioning and under functioning in your relationship.
Over functioning vs. under functioning in a relationship is simply the act of one partner being actively engaged in managing their life and responsibilities while the other partner is avoiding or passively engaged in their life and responsibilities. A pattern can begin when the actively engaged partner over functions by taking on more of the responsibilities, or micro-managing, the relationship more than their partner. Furthermore, by doing more, the over functioning partner can enable the under functioning partner to become even less responsible and more dependent on others.
The pattern in a relationship can become a self-fulfilling prophecy for both the over functioning and under functioning partner.
If you over function and communicate to your partner “you’re lazy” then you go ahead and do the dishes, laundry, take the kids to school, prepare dinner, and walk the dog you may be considered a motivated individual! On the other hand, you may also be enabling the pattern that is occurring in your relationship.
If you under function and communicate to your partner “stop nagging me” and you fall back in to a pattern of avoiding responsibilities, not keeping your word, and default to others to make decisions for you then you might need to take a self-inventory and ask yourself “why am I doing this?”
A beautiful relationship can quickly become distorted and resentment between both partners can manifest into an adversarial stand-off if one or both partners decides to look at each other as “less than”, “too much”, or “not good enough.”
While it might be intuitive to quickly default to a position that the under functioning partner needs to step up and do more, on the contrary, it involves BOTH partners efforts to balance and transform the relationship into an optimal functioning dynamic.
To do that here are a few suggestions to consider. First and foremost, both partners need to be aware and identify the pattern that is taking place as well as each of their contributions.
Over functioning partners tend to relieve and soothe their anxiety through activities, tasks, and accomplishing things which can make it challenging for them to slow down and be open to others doing it a different way. Therefore, for over functioning partners, step back and don’t push. Ask for help and set mutual expectations around tasks, timing, responsibilities, and workload. Learn to delegate or even outsource the activity or job.
When it comes to interacting with an under functioning partner and you want to break the pattern that has become unhealthy then start by doing the opposite. When you feel like attacking and criticizing, do the opposite, by encouraging and asking "how can I help you?"
Under functioning partners may avoid responsibility or default decision-making to others due to a lack of belief in themselves or a deeper pattern that has occurred across their life-span which has shaped how they interact with the world and others. To initiate change the under functioning partner can benefit from support and encouragement while also building a sense of self-awareness to their situation and begin to establish their own sense of values, beliefs, and goals that they can derive energy from. They need to feel safe and confident that they have a voice in the relationship.
When it comes to interacting with either an over functioning or under functioning partner both must establish a voice and as an equal contributor in the relationship. This can be done through an equitable division of labor, taking responsibility vs. avoiding it, meeting commitments vs. blowing them off, making decisions vs. defaulting to someone else, and most importantly developing a safe environment where both partners can manage their self in a healthy productive way.