Table of Contents
What is Overfunctioning-underfunctioning codependency in a relationship?
- Overfunctioning and Underfunctioning are patterns people manifest in a relationship. The underfunctioner is often anxious, dependent, and do not feel confident in doing things for themselves and on their own.
- The overfunctioner feels the urge to manage, help and change their partner. They feel they are always ‘doing everything’ in the relationship.
- The dynamic is unconscious and it is often difficult for people to notice it and change it.
In relationships, it is normal for two people to oscillate between being the person who takes care and the one who is taken care of.
However, when there is a constant imbalance or when two people get locked into particular ‘roles’ in the dynamic, the relationship would deteriorate. The overfunctioning-underfunctioning codependency relationship has an unhealthy dynamic. Because of the principle of habituation, we may not notice when the balance between ourselves and our partners becomes increasingly lopsided.
What Does ‘Functioning’ Mean?
‘Functioning’ as a person may be defined as the ability to make everyday decisions, take responsibility for one’s behaviours and handle tasks in life autonomously. It also means being able to manage one’s emotions, at least to the degree where one can sustain employment and friendships.
Functioning does not mean complete self-reliance. As a human, it is natural for us to have emotional needs, and want some of those needs to be met by others. From cradle to grave, we do need connection, friendship and community. As a species we are interdependent. However, having emotional needs is different from being overly dependent.
Functioning is not overfunctioning. Functioning optimally also does not mean complete control, someone who functions well is by and large in control of their states and behaviours, but also knows when to step back, reveal vulnerability and allow themselves to be taken care of by others.
“Loss of a relationship is painful, but if you lose yourself in a relationship, when it ends, it’s devastating, because you are lost.”
― Darlene Lancer
Who is an Underfunctioning Partner?
For the sake of exploring an underfunctioning and overfunctioning codependency in relationships, we will assume and define someone who is underfunctioning as someone that is more dependent on the overfunctioning partner— this dependence can take two forms, one is more practical whilst the other emotional. They may take obvious or subtle, invisible forms.
On the practical front, the underfunctioning person may be developmentally lagging when compared to their peers. They do not sufficiently fulfil their developmental task of gaining independence. They may be unemployed or underemployed. However much they try, the underfunctioning partner cannot act effectively, efficiently, and assertively in the world. On a day to day level, they are not able to handle basic tasks. They don’t believe in their own ability to make decisions or solve problems or are so insecure that they require constant validation.
Whether or not someone functions does not have much to do with their intelligence. Many underfunctioners are extremely bright and creative. Many of them are referred to by their family and loved ones as ‘having potential but not fulfilling it.’ The underfunctioning person’s need for someone to rely on can plant the seeds for codependency in relationships.
Emotional dependency is more complex than practical dependency. The underfunctioning person may be emotionally immature or struggle with emotional dysregulation. They have little awareness of their emotional changes and allow things to boil over, lash out, and later regret it. If the underfunctioner has low-self esteem and are plagued with toxic shame, they may act defensively, or use other unhealthy ways to cope. For example, they may overindulge in pleasures, are impulsive in their actions or have some form of addiction. As their partner, you may feel that you cannot do or say things right, or that no matter how careful and sensitive you are, you still seem to trigger intense and unpredictable reactions.
For some people, underfunctioning is an unconscious attempt to gain love. They may be compensating for a traumatic childhood in which they were left alone or were pushed to grow up too fast. Or, perhaps when they attempted to gain independence in their teen years, they were punished by overcontrolling parents. Therefore, they have learned from experience that to be loved they must become dependent and needy. If they do well, act independently, deep down they fear they will be abandoned or punished.
It is tiring and frustrating to be with someone who is underfunctioning, but please bear in mind that they are not consciously doing something to manipulate you. Very likely, there is a healthy part inside of them that yearns to function, but is held back by deeply ingrained attachment patterns and trauma.
Overfunctioning in Relationships – Meaning
The overfunctioning partner is usually seen as the one who is responsible and reliable. They are usually good leaders, employees, parents, and siblings to those around them. Many overfunctioning people are intelligent and competent people who have been ‘parentified’ by their parents from a young age. This means even as a child, they were their parents and siblings’ caretaker, counsellor, confidant. They were deprived of an innocent, carefree childhood too soon in their lives. Because of their childhood conditioning, even as grown-ups the overfunctioning partner feels compelled to solve other people’s problems, encourage them, motivate them, give them solutions or even organise their things for them. They find it hard to tolerate witnessing other people making mistakes or not performing optimally. They can’t help but offer the ‘better way’, thus find it hard to not absorb other people’s emotions or let things go. When it comes to chores, they often feel is easier and better if they just take care of everything rather than delegating. Unfortunately, though well-meaning at first, the overfunctioning person’s efficiency, independence and reluctance to let go can be the start of a loop of codependency in relationships.
Within psychological literature, whether or not people get drawn into underfunctioning overfunctioning codependency relationship is determined by the degree to which people achieve ‘Differentiation of Self, which is a concept coined by psychologist Murray Bowen. In essence, Differentiation of self (DoS) consists of both intra- and interpersonal dimensions and concerns a person’s ability to regulate their emotions while negotiating relational separateness and togetherness (Jankowski &Hooper, 2012). A person who is interpersonally differentiated can remain empathic, whilst separating their experience from the experience of people close to them. Their emotions are not immediately merged with others, thus they are not pulled into reactivity when those around them. They can act autonomously and be responsible for the outcome of their behaviours, without needing to control others.
In contrast, people with a poorly differentiated ‘self’ show two kinds of behaviours. Either they are inclined to seek the approval of others and are willing to change the way they speak, think, and behave to please others; or they demonstrate controlling behaviours, trying to have others agree with them and do things their way. Research has found that less differentiated people have a higher risk of having social anxiety (Peleg-Popko, 2002). The less self-differentiated a person is, the greater the chances of being drawn to codependency in relationships.
“To be fully seen by somebody, then, and be loved anyhow – this is a human offering that can border on miraculous.”
― Elizabeth Gilbert
Underfunctioning in Relationships: Anxieties and Behaviors
- Takes on unreasonably lesser responsibility in the relationship.
- Constantly require validation, consolation and emotional support.
- Finds it difficult to trust themselves and thus rely on their partner for day to day tasks and decisions.
- Are clumsy or incompetent when assigned a task.
- Are plagued with toxic shame, low self-esteem.
- Easily feels insecure and envious towards their peers.
- Are lagging in terms of their career or life goals.
- Maybe prone to feeling jealous and suspicious in a relationship.
- Tends to get anxious or paranoid, are extremely sensitive to threats.
- May set goals but have difficulties achieving them. May start and not finish.
- Have little self-awareness and have difficulties managing their emotional reactions.
Overfunctioning in Relationships: Signs and Behaviours
- Acts as the ‘responsible one’ in most relationships, including those with friends and at work.
- Are constantly doing things, completing tasks, taking care of errands in the household.
- Feel that they can never relax, or cannot afford to play and be spontaneous.
- Were parentified as a child and have a tendency to feel overly responsible for others.
- Tend to be more ‘stoic’ and keep their problems to themselves.
- Not usually emotionally expressive or tell others what they need or want.
- Finds that if they were to delegate a task to their partner, it may end up becoming more problematic than if they were to do things themselves.
- Feel that things will not get done unless they do it.
- Feel responsible for their partners, constantly thinking of ways to help, improve or motivate them.
- Deep down, they may feel resentful towards the imbalance in the relationship.
Why the Ones Overfunctioning in Relationships Attract Underfunctioners
Strangely enough, due to unconscious psychodynamic reasons, we may initially be attracted to someone who is on the opposite end of the functioning spectrum. This is often the beginning of codependency in a relationship.
Someone who tends to underfunctions in relationships has a longing for someone strong and powerful to help them, console them, and make life decisions for them. They live in the constant anxiety of ‘getting things wrong’, which makes the idea of being with someone they perceive as competent highly attractive. They also tend to, especially in the beginning, idealise their partner.
On the other hand, someone who is often overfunctioning in relationships is unconsciously attracted to the caretaker or counsellor role as that is a role that feels familiar. As a child, they might gave been their vulnerable family members’ counsellor, helper, caretaker. It feels natural and ‘at home’ to be in that role. They enjoy being needed and be indispensable to their partner. They do not intentionally want to create codependency but might have inadvertently contributed to the dynamic.
Consequences of Overfunctioning and Underfunctioning Codependency
All relationships consist of two parties, who form a mutually reinforcing loop. This means that despite what it looks like on the surface or society’s judgement, it is not one person’s ‘fault’ that the relationship has become imbalanced.
Once we have gotten into a loop, we become habituated to what’s happening and may not notice how bad things have become. The overfunctioning partner becomes increasingly controlling and resentful, whilst the underfunctioning partner is more and more dependent and self-doubting. Dr Murray Bowen considers this a mutually reinforcing trap. Once the loop begins, it can be self-perpetuating. The underfunctioner needs the overfunctioner, or else they feel that their life would fall apart, and the overfunctioner feels an unshakable sense of responsibility for the underfunctioner, and are close to burning out.
Unfortunately, this dynamic, especially when polarised and intensified, is not sustainable. Difficulties such as the following eventually emerge:
1. For the underfunctioning person: deteriorated functioning
When trapped in codependency in a relationship, the underfunctioning partner can become increasingly dependent and eventually lose the ability to care for themselves. They are used to having someone take care of big and small decisions for them, so when left on their own they become extremely anxious. It is also not uncommon for the underfunctioning person to get physically and emotionally ill. This is not a conscious manoeuvre, but unconsciously, they have allowed themselves to take on the ‘sick role’ so they can continue their role as an underfunctioner, or stick to the ‘life script’ or schema that feel familiar.
In some situations, friends, families, and those who support the overfunctioning partner may be critical of the underfunctioner, rendering them irresponsible and a liability. This reinforces the shame the underfunctioning partner already has, magnifying the sense of inadequacy, and ironically, increases their dependency. Criticism is rarely the solution to unhealthy dynamics, so even well-intentioned intervention may make the situation worse.
2. For the overfunctioning partner; emotional exhaustion and resentment
For the person overfunctioning in relationships, the mental focus is often on others rather than themselves. They are highly aware of what is expected of them; at work, they are diligent and efficient. At home, they are the responsible and ‘strong’ ones. Even at the beginning, they take on extra mental and physical responsibilities willingly, as time goes by the fatigue and burn-out can cause resentment.
They may be a strong and resilient person, but no one is without needs. Eventually, the ones overfunctioning in relationships often find themselves feeling emotionally alone. Or that their relationships begin to look like that of parent-child rather than romantic equals.
Because of their rather stoic nature, people who tend to overfunction in relationships may not be aware of the bottled-up anger, and may not admit to themselves how resentful they feel. Sometimes, they may even feel envious of how ‘easy’ it seems for the underfunctioner to carry so few responsibilities.
If they are not aware of their resentment and let it fester, they may subtly critical and punish the underfunctioning partner in unconscious and passive aggressive ways.
3. Decline in sexual desire for each other.
Sexual intimacy involves the willingness to be vulnerable with each other. In an unbalanced relationship, the underfunctioning partner may have body-image issues that are stemmed from chronic shame and feel defensive when the situation requires them to be vulnerable and open. The overfunctioning person is so focused on ‘taking care’ of their partner they cannot imagine expressing their sexual needs and desires or asking their partners to fulfil their sexual fantasies.
As the gap in functioning between two partners widens, the two persons cease to feel like they’re in an equal partnership. Instead of romantic partners who can afford playfulness and sexual fantasies between them, the relationship may begin to feel like that of carer-patient, teacher-student, or parent-child.
4. Overfunctioining parenting and triangulation
Usually, the overfunctioning underfunctioning codependency in a relationship affects not just one’s romantic relationship but also their parenting behaviours. The polarity of the parenting styles and the ongoing emotional conflict between the parents are likely to interfere with their child’s development in many ways. Some examples may be:
- One of the partners forming an ‘alliance’ with the child and criticise or alienate the other partner.
- The underfunctioning partner may inadvertently become emotionally dependent on the child, treating them as a confidant or someone to go to when they feel lonely.
- People who tend to be overfunctioning in relationships also tend to act as an overfunctioning parent, stripping their child of the opportunities to try things, make mistakes, live and learn for themselves.
- An overfunctioning parent may also become overly strict or demanding of their child as they bear most of the disciplining responsibilities. They may also be extra strict as they fear the child will become like the underfunctioning partner.
“You Can’t Lose Something You Never Had”
― Kate G. Hudson
Getting Out of the Loop of Co-dependency in a Relationship
When stuck in an overfunctioning- underfunctioning dynamic loop, it can become very difficult for the two to get out of the over-controlling or over-dependent patterns. As years go by, it can become increasingly hard to imagine how things could be any otherwise.
Underfunctioining and overfunctioning in relationships both originally start as coping mechanisms. The overfunctioner learned as a child that if they don’t become independent and do things for themselves, no one will. The underfunctioner learned as a child that the only way to get love and attention is to become dependent, or that they were once punished for their need for autonomy. On the flip side, they might also be over-compensating for a traumatic childhood in which they were pushed to grow up too fast.
To get out of codependency in a relationship, both sides need can start with having insight and awareness about what is happening. Then, potentially through couple’s therapy or the guidance of a professional, they can conduct behavioural experiments and try to alter the pattern of their behaviours. As humans, we are most comfortable with the equilibrium, so unless something drastic happens or there is an external intervention, change can be extremely challenging.
If you are someone who overfunctions in relationships, relinquishing the need for control is one of the most important steps. You are used to getting things done and achieving goals, but changing the other person should not be something on your ‘to-do list’. Your values as a person lie not in how much you do or how needed you are. If you can step back, do less, and let things be what they are, your partner may eventually learn to step up and do what needs to be done. This will be challenging at first as it may require things to ‘fall apart’ for a while. But ultimately, it is liberating and can help you live a more pleasurable and fulfilling life.
If you are someone who underfunctions in relationship, learning to trust yourself is the biggest step ahead. You can leverage your potential by making decisions and participating in novel activities. It may help if you sit down with your partner to discuss the daily/ monthly chores in the household and other familial responsibilities. Then decide amongst the two of you who can do what and agree on a weekly schedule. With a structure, and doing things in a step-by-step way, you may gradually learn you are indeed capable of doing things and the meeting goes. With actions and results come self-esteem.
Steps To Take Towards a Healthier Family/ Couple System
— Becoming aware of any ‘triangulation’ (e.g. one partner venting to the child or forming a strong ally with the child to alienate their partner), or scapegoating.
— For both partners to learn about ‘Self-differentiation’ (according to Murray Bowen), and become less emotionally enmeshed with each other.
— Potentially with the help of a couple’s counsellor, learn to communicate to each other in ways that honour the needs and desires of both partners.
— Look deeper into the meaning of each partner’s behaviours. Learn to spot any help-seeking, subtly punitive or passive-aggressive behaviours, and find ways to express needs, anger and disappointment in healthy and direct ways instead.
— Conduct small, doable experiments together to see if you can do things differently. For example, change how you do family rituals, allocation of household chores and share responsibilities.
— Use tools such as a genogram to work out factors from each of your family-of-origin that might have impacted you today. Learn to become sympathetic towards each others’ pain points and emotional needs.
If you are reading this and identify with being in codependency in your relationship, you are at a point of choice. Either you allow the unhealthy pattern to continue and sabotage the love you have with your partner, or you make a start to change the dynamic. A relationship involves two people and it is not easy to make a one-sided change, but with sincere efforts and patience, it is possible to engage your partner. Many couples have reversed their lopsided relationship and preserve their love. If you have a strong bond and foundation to your relationship, saving it from deteriorating might be the most worthwhile endeavour of your life.
Love one another, but make not a bond
Let it rather be a moving sea between
the shores of your souls.
Kahlil Gibran, On Marriage
Imi Lo is a consultant and published author with extensive and international experience in mental health and psychotherapy. Her books Emotional Sensitivity and Intensity and The Gift of Intensity are available worldwide and in multiple languages. Imi has two Master’s degrees; one in Mental Health and one in Buddhist Studies. She works holistically, combining psychological insights with Eastern and Western philosophies such as Buddhism and Stoicism.