There are two kinds of people in any relationship — an overfunctioner (OF) and an underfunctioner (UF).
A basic understanding of this difference and how it plays in your relationships with other people is the first step in being able to make larger, important changes, according to Dr. Will Meek, a counseling psychologist, and the Director of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) at Brown University.
An imbalance in power is common in many relationships in life and at work.
Murray Bowen(1931–1990) was the first psychologist to study the family in a live-in setting and described specific details about how families function as systems. Michael E. Kerr wrote about Bowen’s systems in his book, Bowen Theory’s Secrets: Revealing the Hidden Life of Families.
According to Bowen, OFs and UFs get stuck in a mutually reinforcing trap. In any situation, you either quickly switch into fixing mode or pull back and hope others will take responsibility.
Awareness is the key to changing this pattern in your home and work life.
Overfunctioners are quick to act. They enjoy taking control. Sometimes unconscious without realizing it. They want to attack the to-do list at home and at work.
“The OF takes on more than his or her fair share of responsibility for (say) housework, parenting, or finances because otherwise they don’t get done,” Oliver Burkeman explains.
They easily burnout, because they want to fix everything and everybody, and they have too much to do every day. They don’t know how to take a break. OF’s are frequently overwhelmed, and neglect self-care.
As “effective” as they may be, overfunctioners can be overpowering, especially if you want to take control of your life at your own pace. An OF believes he/she knows a better way for a UF.
In a relationship or family system, they can easily create tension and conflict, even though they think they are handling the issues and solving problems everyone is ignoring.
Underfunctioners on the other hand, tend to hold back or zone out. They wait for others to manage things for them. Sometimes they have problems meeting deadlines and making real progress. They frequently rely on others to make decisions for them.
Underfunctioners are laid back and make improvement at a slower pace. They tend to zone out to TV quickly and can easily appear to others as unmotivated.
“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),” writes Meek.
Are you over-functioning for your partner, grown children, co-workers or friends? If you do 90% of the work at home or at work, you are an overfunctioner.
It’s important to note that, people become OF’s and UF’s because of their past experiences. Sometimes patterns of overfunctioning and underfunctioning are often learned and passed on through generations. The earlier part of your life can better explain how you behave today.
Over-functioners were are often expose to practical life responsibilities early in life. They assumed the role as part of a family system.
Under-functioners are often over-protected in early life. “…they often get a disproportionate amount of attention and resources directed their way (even if a good amount of it is negative),” says Meek.
Aim for an optimal functioning life
When we are functioning optimally, we are often not taking more than our share of responsibility, or leaving our duties for others to do.
Think of an optimally functioning person as having 100% responsibility for his/her life. This is the goal for most people in any relationship. Everyone should be playing their part in a successful relationship.
Breaking the pattern can be tough, but not impossible.
It starts with noticing this imbalance in power in your relationships with family members and others at work.
OF’s need to step back and engage UF’s when things are not getting done or when bad things happen in a relationship. This can create anxiety and stress for OF’s because they can’t stand the mess, and the long to-do list.
It will take time for both of you to get used to the new balance.
You can begin the process of creating more balance in your relationships, leaving you happier and healthier.
You can notice and make a list of where you can stop over-functioning, and start a conversation with your partner or colleague to resolve the emotional balance.
Changing the power dynamics of any relationship can be complicated.
Intimate relationships can be the hardest one to balance because we are most invested in our relationships at home, but you can redistribute responsibility for completing tasks if you first become aware of the power struggle.
Once you are aware of them, start a conversation with your partner, colleague or friend talk about your discovery. Together, sit down and set priorities.
If you consistently overstepped your boundaries or pull back from your responsibilities, you can still pursue a healthy, balanced relationship with your partner, colleagues or friends.