Do you over-function in your relationships? Many of us do. What do I mean by over-functioning? Before I describe over-functioning, let me describe someone who is functioning optimally. (I found these descriptions in a blog by Dr. Will Meek.)
“Functioning” refers to our ability to manage our 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. Think of an optimally functioning person as having 100% responsibility for his/her life.
This term is used to describe people who are less successful than our optimally functioning person at life management, fulfilling roles, and making decisions. Under-functioners (UFs) often rely on others to manage things for them, have problems maintaining progress on goals, and are often under-employed. UFs are often seen as “having so much potential but wasting it” in the eyes of others, and can be thought of as taking less than 100% responsibility for life (someone else takes the rest, which we will see in a moment).
Some common under-functioning characteristics are relying on others for advice on making decisions, communicating a sense of distress or need to others, self-sabotaging, frequently asking for or alluding to needing help, zoning out to TV or video games, making unwise career, relationship, or parenting decisions, appearing to others as lazy or unmotivated, and being somewhat immature for their age.
Almost always, someone who is under-functioning is paired with, or supported by someone that is over-functioning. This person can be seen as taking more than 100% of responsibility (100% of his/her own life, plus various amount of that from UFs). Over-functioners (OFs) are usually seen as people who “have it together”, are detail oriented, organized, and reliable, and are typically viewed as being reliable workers, partners, and parents.
Classic characteristics of over-functioning include being overly focused on another person’s problems or life situation, offering frequent advice or help to the other person, actually doing things that are part of the other person’s life responsibilities (and believing that “if I don’t do it, then it won’t happen”), feeling anger when help is not “appreciated” or the UF doesn’t change (or even want to), the OF believing he/she knows a better way for a UF to be living, and frequently feeling overwhelmed, stressed, and neglecting self-care. Over-functioning can be seen as a type of “enabling”, even though the intent is the opposite.
Some causes of over-functioning are being placed in that role as a young person or assuming the role as part of a family system, having anxiety related to watching someone else make mistakes or do things that seem unwise, feeling a sense of guilt or obligation to help someone, getting into a relationship when the other person’s under-functioning wasn’t visible or didn’t seem like a big deal, or using the other person’s life and problems as a distraction from one’s own.
Does any of this sound familiar to you? Perhaps you took on the “parent” role in your family of origin. Perhaps you did some/many of the tasks your parents or your under-functioning sibling(s) should have done. When you found your mate, perhaps some part of you felt they needed you. Perhaps you felt sorry for the way they were raised, or for the pain their former partner put them through. I know this was true of me. My first husband was abused as a child. He had difficulty trusting people. I wanted to prove that I was trustworthy, and that he was worthy of being loved. When an over-functioner partners with someone who is apt to be an under-functioner, this is not typically obvious at first. The OF feels loved, needed and wanted, and this feels great. OFs love helping others.
An over-functioner may over-function in many ways. They may take on more of the household responsibilities (cleaning, yard work, maintenance, childcare), or they may take on more of the emotional responsibilities. This might look like working hard to make sure the UF is always happy. The OF might take on all the relationship work for the couple’s children. The UF worries about his own needs, and the OF worries about the UFs needs, and the needs of all the children. This begs the question, who is taking care of the OFs needs? Usually, the answer is no one. Dr. Meek points out that in a relationship where one person is doing 95% and the other 105%, there is usually no problem. It is when the balance tips to the UF doing less and less, maybe 50% and the OF doing more, say 150% that things begin going very badly.
Your best friend from college only calls you when she is upset about something. You go to meet her, hoping she will actually listen to YOU for a change. When you arrive, she is in a tizzy. Her latest boyfriend is treating her badly, her parents are controlling, and her boss doesn’t understand her. She spends an hour telling you all her troubles, but never once asks how you are doing. After you meet, she feels better, but you feel upset and used. What is wrong with this relationship?
Your boss likes you to work in teams. He seems to prefer pairing you with “Sharon.” Sharon is a classic under-functioner. She has many physical issues that require her to leave the office regularly. Her home life is a mess, so she must also leave work to take care of those. In order for you to get the projects done on time, you end up staying late and working weekends in order to complete the work you are supposed to be working on together. After all, if you don’t do it, who will?
With Extended Family
Your sister seems to have trouble getting and keeping a good job. She is always being misunderstood by her coworkers, and must leave because she is not appreciated. Then, she finds a job that is “perfect.” The only problem is the job requires many late night and early morning hours. Because she is a single-mom and day care centers are only open during business hours, she needs someone to watch her child overnight. Of course, she cannot afford to pay anyone. You worry about who your sister might ask to watch your little niece. The latest “boyfriend?” The sketchy neighbor in the apartment down the hall? You offer to do it, and later wonder why you feel resentful.
With Your Kids
Your middle-school aged kids have a hard time waking up for school in the morning. You set an alarm for them each night. When it goes off in the morning, they turn it off, roll over and go back to sleep. You are up and dressed each morning early, making their lunches. Five minutes after their alarms go off, you begin to feel stressed. You don’t hear any movement from their rooms. You try to ignore it. Ten more minutes go by. At this point you are beginning to sweat. You just know they will miss their school bus again. You go upstairs and wake them from a deep sleep. They appear to be awake, so you return to the kitchen. Ten more minutes pass. By now, they really will be late. You return to their rooms, wake them again, this time, raising your voice and telling them to get up NOW. They roll out of bed, whining and complaining. They get dressed, slouch into the kitchen, looking for you to give them breakfast. There is no time for that. You hand them each a protein bar, their lunches, and rush them out the door, just as the bus arrives. You wonder why mornings are so stressful? Why won’t your kids get up like they should?
With Your Intimate Partner
You get frustrated with your husband. Though you both work outside the home, he does very little around the house or with the kids. If one of your kids needs to go to the doctor during a work day, you do it. You sign the kids up for their after-school activities, set up carpools and leave work early when it is your turn to drive. You do all the meal planning, grocery shopping, cooking and dishes. You do the laundry, help the kids with their homework, listen to their problems, and tuck them in at night. If a repair needs doing in the house, you stay home and wait for the repair person. You take care of the yard, put out the trash, and shovel the snow. What is your husband doing while you are doing all these things? He makes sure he gets to the gym 4 times a week, meets friends for a beer after work and watches a lot of football on TV. When he is doing none of those things, he plays video games. You are exhausted and cranky. When do you get to do some self-care?