While most people understand that balance is key to a fulfilling relationship – romantic or otherwise – it seems that many of us can’t escape the trap of either over-functioning or under-functioning. Perhaps this is because this dynamic is often formed through good intentions and presents itself in small, harmless ways. For example, if the other party becomes anxious when having to make decisions, we might find ourselves taking the pressure off them by shouldering this responsibility. This imbalance, thoughtful as it was originally, can soon become a dysfunction – and it’s one that both parties have (probably unofficially) agreed to.
It wasn’t until I read The Dance of Anger by Dr Harriet Lerner (which I’ve discussed previously here), that I realised I was a chronic over-functioner. In past romantic relationships I have assumed the responsibility for conflict resolution, initiating and organising quality time and social interactions, planning future goals, managing the home and – worst of all – having emotional reactions on behalf of my partner in order to spare them the discomfort of having to feel things for themselves. These were responsibilities I willingly took on, and my partners willingly let me take on. In short, while we were both mature, capable individuals, we had fostered a dysfunctional dynamic in a pretty big way.
Sometimes this only becomes apparent when one party starts to feel trapped; the over-functioner might feel burdened and the under-functioner irrelevant or inferior. But while we might be able to acknowledge a certain dysfunction, actually making change can be hard. As unhealthy as the dynamic has become, it does serve a purpose by helping us to navigate the rhythm of the relationship and our role in it. Essentially, it facilitates an avenue of control for over-functioners and it lets under-functioners off the hook. As Lerner states:
“like a seesaw, it is the under-functioning of one individual that allows for the over-functioning of the other…. Under-functioners and over-functioners provoke and reinforce each other’s behaviour, so that the seesaw becomes increasingly hard to balance over time.”
So, it would seem that both parties have a vested interest in keeping the status quo, even though they may rail against it at times.
Lerner suggests that carefully observing interactions is the key to identifying and breaking established patterns. This is best done when calm and relatively objective, so that facts are not distorted by emotion. Below are some typical traits of both under-functioners and over-functions which may help identify who’s who:
- tend to have several areas where they just can’t get organised;
- become less competent under stress thus inviting others to take over;
- tend to develop physical or emotional symptoms when stress is high;
- may become the focus of family gossip, worry or concern;
- earn such labels as ‘fragile’ or ‘irresponsible’; and
- have difficulty showing their strong, competent side to others.
In contrast, over-functioners:
- know what’s best not only for themselves, but for others;
- move in quickly to advise, rescue and take over when stress hits;
- have difficulty staying out and allowing others to struggle with their own problems;
- avoid worrying about their own personal goals and problems by focussing on others;
- have difficulty sharing their own vulnerable side, especially with those people who they view as having problems; and
- may be labelled as ‘reliable’.
Once this has been established, individuals can work on re-gaining some balance by:
- clarifying their respective positions;
- using this position to inform specific requests;
- participating in reasonable discussion;
- using ‘I’ statements (‘I feel…’ as opposed to ‘You are…’);
- avoiding using third-parties to affect change;
- taking responsibility for feelings and for finding alternative behaviours;
- making small changes and being patient; and
- re-stating respective positions when necessary.
Note that all of these suggested actions can be applied to familial, platonic and working relationships as well as romantic ones. For my part, I have started asking myself if the issue at hand is really mine to deal with, or does it fall within someone else’s responsibility. If the latter, I am now generally able to leave it to them to deal with. I still give a good deal, but I am much more aware of my limits and I think my relationships are far more balanced as a result.
A note of caution though; when we try and shift relational dynamics without the other party’s cooperation, we should be prepared for resistance. As noted above, even dysfunctional patterns serve a purpose and, generally, people need to see the benefit of change in order to embrace it. Still, this doesn’t prevent us from attempting change ourselves, when we recognise the need. After all, as a wise man* once said:
if you always do what you’ve always done, then you’ll always get what you’ve always got.
*amazingly enough, this quote has been attributed to Albert Einstein, Henry Ford and Mark Twain.
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