How To Stop Overfunctioning in a Relationship - How To Win a Man's Heart

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October 27, 2017

How To Stop Overfunctioning in a Relationship

# 1. Follow the advice below


In my four decades of working with intimate relationships, one of the saddest laments I hear is “My partner won’t come into therapy. Can I change this relationship if I’m the only one trying?”

The question is part of a deeper issue. In many relationships, one partner is trying harder and more often to make a relationship work, or trying to improve it. Most people believe that partner is more likely to be a woman. And, even though women often are more motivated to maintain emotional bonds in an intimate relationship, many men tell me that they are the ones who consistently bring up their disappointed or disillusioned experiences and are the major pushers to get the relationship back on track.

Sometimes there is an obvious imbalance that one or both partners grumble about, but don’t really do anything to significantly change it. They may even feel an underlying comfort in the predictability of their interactions. For instance, I’ve known many relationships where the division of labor not only oscillates, but is different in different areas. Each partner is complaining that he or she is doing all the work, but it’s only in the area that is most important to that partner. Take, for instance, one partner who feels most responsible and concerned about allocation of financial resources. That person might argue for control in that area. Or, one partner has more investment in social networking and takes charge of that schedule. A partner who doesn’t care about that area may gladly turn over the leadership in that area so long as he or she isn’t invested in a different outcome, or may complain about the control issue, but doesn’t really do anything to change it. The underlying problem is that neither partner respects an area if it isn’t as important to that person.

When one partner continuously and consistently complains that he or she feels generally more invested in the relationship’s continuing to thrive, major problems will eventually begin to surface. The person “giving” more than the other is in danger of becoming martyred and resentful and the other partner can feel a creeping sense of feeling guilty and obligated. That is especially true if the “over-giver” has a silent expectation of eventual reciprocity and the “indulged” isn’t keeping that tally. That over-devoted partner is adding up an obligation on an emotional credit card that the other partner does not recognize nor will ever feel obligated to pay.

Many times, partners who describe themselves to me as “doing all the work” in the relationship simply have higher expectations of what a relationship should be like than their partners do. Whether they realize it or not, they are dangerously playing a quid pro quo game. They believe that, if they keep demonstrating more involvement and commitment in the relationship that the other partner will eventually “come up to the plate” and give as much as they are. Unfortunately, that rarely happens in an established relationship where the less involved or motivated partner is comfortable with things the way they are.

Giving to expect reciprocity is most often a fruitless goal, but even when one partner is totally comfortable with that imbalance, it can still have bad results. Many of my patients over the years have been torn between manifesting their true natures of loving to give ends up creating self-serving behaviors in their partners. “Do I just give less so that I don’t create selfishness in my mate even when it’s my nature? If I hold back, just to make sure there is reciprocity, I feel like I’m not myself.” Unless the receiving partner doesn’t feel the need to reciprocate in kind and both are comfortable with that interaction, it can work. But it never works if there is not honest agreement and good communication about how each feels.

If one partner is beginning to feel cumulatively resentful as a relationship matures, he or she must find a way to change the balance of give and take or the relationship will eventually be in trouble. The longer that imbalance has been in place, of course, the harder that is to do. Resentments that have built up are multi-layered and have often spread out to many other areas of the relationship. Some couples actually split up because they can’t right the tilt without bringing up multiple past incidents of accusation and defensive responses. One feels cumulatively under-appreciated and the other feels unfairly depicted as a “taker.”

The sooner these imbalances are created, of course, the better. Any long-standing distressing area of a relationship that has become entrenched will be affecting the entire relationship for both partners. The first step for a partner who feels he or she is the only one holding the relationship together is to explore the depth of that feeling. Here is a good personal questionnaire to help you find those answers.

How Much Do You Feel Taken Advantage of in your Relationship?

Answer the following ten questions with a number from 1 – 5.

1 = Never
2 = Rarely
3 = Sometimes
4 = Often
5 = Most of the time

1. I put more effort into my relationship than my partner does. _____

2. I am the one who makes the compromises that keep us together. ____

3. I go out of my way to make my partner feel valued. ____

4. If we have conflict, I am the one who gives in. ____

5. I think that working hard on a relationship is the right thing to do. ____

6. I believe that my partner appreciates me but just can’t say it. ____

7. I keep my grievances to myself. ____

8. I believe that someday my partner will give more to the relationship if I just keep giving. ____

9. Whatever happens in my relationship, I believe I’m doing the right thing by working hard to make my relationship better even if my partner doesn’t do as much. ____

10. I give more than the other person in many of my relationships. ____

Now score this simple test:

0 – 10 I don’t give myself away in relationships without getting reciprocity from my partner.
11 – 20 I tend to give more than my partner but sometimes he/she does give back.
21 – 30 I’m usually the one who does the compromising and relationship effort and I feel a little taken advantage of but the positives in the relationships overshadow the negative so I’m sort of okay.
31 – 40 I am beginning to feel used and unappreciated in this relationship and I don’t see my partner wanting to change the good deal he/she has.
41 – 50 I am resentful and discouraged but I’m used to not getting fair reciprocity so I will just have to accept things the way they are.

I hope it is obvious that moving towards a high score will not work create long-term success in any relationship. Bitterness and martyrdom show in indirect ways by withholding love and storing up resentment. If you genuinely feel you have co-created a bad deal, it is crucially important that you do two things: the first is to be completely accountable that, though you meant well, you are equally responsible in allowing an imbalanced giving to build up without asking for more.

Second, tell your partner that you would like to renegotiate a more equitable deal. You may be surprised that your partner has no idea of the extent to which you are distressed and will be willing to look at things differently. If you get a strong resistance, you may have unwittingly created a relationship where your partner doesn’t value you as much as you do him or her. Still, bringing that out in the open can start a more authentic dialogue that can help you make a better decision about what kind of relationship you want to be in.

Here are some related articles I’ve written for Psychology Today Internet Blogs.

What Keeps me from Changing?
Selling Out – Compromising Integrity in Intimate Relationships
If we Weren’t Already Married, Would you Choose me Again?
Is Your Partner Driving you Crazy?
Contrasting Expressions of Love
The Myth of Romantic Relationships
Is Lying part of Loving?
When it is time to Let a Relationship Go
Nagging or Avoiding Won’t help you find Love Again
The twelve Most Common Ways Partners Manipulate Each Other
Bitterness – Love’s Poison

Dr. Randi Gunther –

# 2. The root of the problem may stem from childhood experiences

Sally LeBoy

People overfunction because they have learned that if they don’t take care of things, bad things will happen. It’s a fairly automatic control response to anxiety. By the time we are adults, it tends to be a fairly well established.

Overfunctioning begins in childhood. Something in the child’s environment creates anxiety that causes the child to take on too much responsibility for the family. The child may perceive that the parents are underfunctioning. For instance, an alcoholic parent could consume enough of the family’s resources that the children are left less secure than they ideally would be. In that scenario one or more of the children might step up and take on adult responsibilities as a way to stabilize the family. That overfunctioning child will carry that role into adulthood.

On the other side is the underfunctioning counterpart. Underfunctioners dealt with their own childhood anxiety. They often had a critical or perfectionistic parent. They got the message that nothing they did was good enough. In response they stopped trying because they believed their efforts would be futile.

Over and under functioners are like peanut butter and jelly. They just naturally go together. Overfunctioners and underfunctioners need each other. They enter a relationship with equal amounts of anxiety. One manages that anxiety by finding someone who will allow them to be in control; the other finds someone who needs somebody to take care of them. It’s a match made in heaven, except that after a while both usually feel a lot of resentment. Nobody really likes to be controlled, just as nobody is really ok with doing the majority of the work. Inevitably, problems arise.

These roles are unconscious. They are an outgrowth of childhood insecurity that don’t work well in adult relationships. In fact they can be crippling to the growth and happiness of both partners.

This is important: Underfunctioners almost never break the pattern. Although they complain about feeling controlled, they are too comfortable and really too afraid of failure to step up. Almost always, it’s the overfunctioner who gets fed up with doing all of the work. However, when you stop overfunctioning you lose control, and that can be very scary to the overfunctioner.

You can see that this is not an easy pattern to disrupt, as underlying it are some fairly negative and sometimes scary childhood experiences. Basically, we are all trying to find the safety that we didn’t have growing up. But the over/under functioner dynamic ultimately seriously undermines personal and relationship growth and harmony.

Really in this case, therapy can be very helpful. But in any case, change almost always starts with the overfunctioner defining her limits and just not doing more. Think of it as allowing a space for the underfunctioner to step into. There’s no guarantee that the underfunctioner will step up, but if the overfunctioner doesn’t stop, it’s pretty much guaranteed that he won’t.

Sally LeBoy, MFT –

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