Jul 022012

Half a dozen times in as many weeks I’ve bumped into this dynamic:

High functioning, amazing woman plus really smart and interesting but emotionally dysfunctional man equals high functioning woman becoming and OVERfunctiong woman.

Overfunctioning is when one unit in a system begins to work harder, to compensate for the malfunction, dysfunction, or failure of another unit in the system. I discussed it on the blog, in last year’s relationship talk and in my relationship guide, precisely because of this phenomenon of women compensating for men.

(I couldn’t tell you why I see this gender split so often – I think it’s because the overfunctioning men of the world are just less likely to talk about it with me (or anyone else), and I’m willing to bet that in reality it’s a 50/50 thing; both sexes are just as likely to overfunction or underfunction.)

I want to see if I can offer a quick rubric for how to tell the difference between “overfunctioning” and “supporting,” which is something folks ALWAYS ask about when I teach this concept.

SUPPORTING your partner when they’re in distress is the healthy, functional thing to do. All of us have times in our lives when we’re not at our best – we might be sick, physically or mentally, we might be overwhelmed by work or other obligations, or we might simply opt for a time out, to renew our emotional resources. At all those times, there is a natural shifting of emotional responsibility from one person to the other and back again. I think of it as “emotional recycling;” what you get from your partner, you will eventually give back, and what you give to your partner, you will eventually receive from them in turn. We support our partners in times of distress because that’s how healthy relationships work. We provide temporary scaffolding to support each other through times of transition and repair.

And you might support a partner with chronic illness or chronic family stress (say, an elderly or sick parent) or other long-term struggles. In these cases, you are committing to long-term investment of emotional and other resources into that chronic issue, because that’s a stable feature of that person’s life. Your partner COULD manage it without you, at least in theory, but gosh it is lots and lots easier because you’re there to help.

OVERFUNCTIONING happens when your partner LACKS THE SKILLS (usually emotional skills) to manage without you; they’re only functional within the context of the relationship; in the absence of the relationship, they spiral down the drain.

Crucial distinction: it’s not overfunctioning to support your partner as they die – that’s not “lack of skill,” or “spiraling down the drain,” that’s just, like, the Circle of Life, ya know.

Does that distinction make sense? Can you feel the difference between helping and overfunctioning?

The willingness of the underfunctioning person to ask for help is not a differentiating characteristic. Some people who need help feel uncomfortable asking for it, but are able to accept it when they need it and live without it when they don’t; people vary. And some people who can’t function without the help, they too may have trouble asking for help and trouble accepting it, even when it keeps them afloat – indeed sometimes they have a hard time accepting help BECAUSE it keeps them afloat. Other underfunctioners may have no trouble at all asking for help, and may even believe that it’s the overfunctioner’s JOB to help them.

(It’s never your JOB to help; it’s always an opportunity, never an obligation.)

Overfunctioning is bad for the overfunctioner – it leaves that person feeling burnt out and under-appreciated – but it’s ALSO bad for the underfunctioner, who never has the opportunity to challenge themselves to gain the skills and inner resources that prevent them from moving forward.

Many of the folks I’ve talked to about this are reluctant to STOP overfunctioning because, they say, they’re worried that the partner won’t be able to make it without them, will get worse, will possibly even die, quite literally.

And I don’t know what it might take to persuade them that, while that worry MIGHT be justified, it’s probably MORE true that they can’t stop overfunctioning because there is an emotional part of them that feels fulfilled by being NEEDED. They’re actually fulfilling their own maladaptive need to be needed AT THE EXPENSE of the underfunctioning partner, who will not be able to become fully functioning as long as the overfunctioner is in the way.

Emily Nagoski

  11 Responses to “Am I helping? Am I helping?”

Comments (11)
  1. Definitely becoming a visible problem these days. Some other possible contributing factors:
    - Baby boomers had a tendency to helicopter parent, leaving their children emotionally hobbled and dependent. A child who’s taught that he can’t tie his own shoes is going to expect his partner to do it for him.
    - The recession has created many new single income households
    - Society has become more accepting of stay-at-home dads and women financially supporting men. Not that this is a problem – I just think that it makes dependency issues more visible and gives us new social rules of engagement to wonder over.

    I’ve been in a long relationship with a hobbled guy. Honestly, I wasn’t much better, myself. We were both coddled, sheltered egg heads without many life skills. He was an only child, though, whereas I was the oldest of 3 raised in a family business, so I had just an ounce more anxiety and responsibility. But it’s actually gotten better, slowly.

    The solution for me? Practicing the fine art of not giving a shit. Is it an emergency? Will he cause serious harm to himself or expensive property if he screws it up? No? Then don’t swoop in and do it for him. Calm your tits. Leave the room if you can’t stand to watch him fumble. We all learn by doing. Let him figure it out.

    Remember that scene from Ray where little baby Ray was losing his eyesight, he fell down and started crying, and Mama Ray stopped herself from coming to help him, just stood in the door and watched as Ray slowly stopped crying, felt around, and picked himself up? That’s something all mamas should do for their kids, but if they haven’t, you’ve got to do it, for your sake and his.

  2. thanks for posting this. i’m an overfunctioner who’s trying very hard to reform, and i need insight and reminding sometimes. it’s so easy to fall into thinking that what you’re doing is good and helpful, and it’s difficult to get perspective. this sort of thing can help.

  3. Great, wise post. I have been there..and am getting out.

  4. One of my favorite books is an autobiographical choose-your-own-adventure (yes) called Love Is Not Constantly Wondering If You Are Making The Biggest Mistake Of Your Life. I didn’t know the term until I read your post, but it’s very much a story of a relationship between a woman and an overfunctioning man (and it hurt to read, having fallen for that self-made trap before).

  5. Emily, I’d like to hear your thoughts on how chronic illness or disability (physical or mental) fits into this picture. I was thinking about it on my commute home this evening, because in my own relationship I’ve had to wrestle with my own tendency to overcompensate in relation to my partner when she is debilitated by depression or anxiety — and she also wrestled with this in a previous relationship where she was the more able partner much of the time, and suffered severe burn-out as a result.

    Since becoming involved with someone who has chronic health issues — stuff that will never be temporary, and does impair her ability to contribute in some ways to our relational life. In the early years of our relationship, I operated as if some of these chronic issues were temporary. That is, if she was having a day or a week where she was running at 75% then I’d run at 125% so we could maintain full functionality as we’d defined it. Obviously, that doesn’t work when someone is at 75% more often then not.

    So my revised strategy became suggesting better co-management of our collective expectations. That is, at times when our collective capacity is at 150% then we figure out what can and can’t happen, and adjust our expectations of what fully-functional looks like to match.

    In material terms, this might look like this: My partner will likely never be able to work a full-time job due to a variety of circumstances. Rather than my response being, “Oh, well then, I’ll have to work a job and a half to make up for the salary we aren’t getting!” my response is, “Okay, we’ll look at our finances and figure out what’s possible on our pooled income.”

    Our society is set up on a model that assumes that each person WILL be able to function at the same level throughout life, and give back to society at the same level in exchange for citizenship or full personhood. All of us will go through phases when we are not able to be fully “independent” — childhood, elderhood — and some of us will never be able to meet the high standard of self-sufficiency American culture demands of its citizens. We don’t have a very good vocabulary for understanding how those differently-abled people can function as full persons in relationship with other persons (intimate partnerships or otherwise).

    Anyway. tl;dr … but I just wondered how you incorporate this sort of chronic issue in the overcompensating/supporting paradigm.

    • In the past I’ve talked about managing chronic issues like working with a limited financial budget – sometimes there’s stuff you just can’t have. Each person brings 100% of what they have on any particular day, and you call that 100%. You have to make ends meet with what there is. When there’s not enough to get by in the relationship, you get outside help – friends, family, professionals, whatever it takes to fill the gap between needs and resources.

      I’m not sure I like this metaphor, since an overfunctioner can easily say, “Well I just happen to have a stable and comfortable income – I can spend as much as is called for!” which is just never true emotionally. Burnout is SO typical because people think their ability to mine limitless emotional resources TODAY won’t cost them tomorrow. But it’s the best I’ve got for now. Healthy people NEED an emotional savings account, not “just in case,” but always, in order to STAY emotionally healthy.

      • I was actually writing in the literal, not metaphorical, sense in that my partner is literally unable to work fulltime. So I’m the full-time earner and we pool our resources and work with what we have.

        But I agree on the emotional front that we all need “emotional savings accounts,” and that it’s important even when your partner is struggling — perhaps particularly important when they’re struggling in an ongoing sense — to ensure that the healthier partner stays healthy rather than neglecting their needs to be a full-time emotional and otherwise care-giver.

    • The post is powerful – I think the question of disability is an important one. I do a lot of anti-ableism work and the act of giving and receiving help can be collaborative and mutually empowering. The question is not the amount or type of help needed, it is instead who is in charge of getting that need met? (hint: the person having the need is responsible for getting it met) It is possible to be entirely in charge of how to get your own needs met and to orchestrate through collaborating with those around you. Needs do not have to be transient to be valid Functioning happens -for everyone- collaboratively.

      • AndreA, I really like how you articulate this — the orchestration and collaboration framing.

        Perhaps another way of differentiating between overfunctioning and supporting someone with chronic issues (be they emotional or physical or both) is to look at who is in the driver’s seat, so to speak. Is the person with the disability ultimately calling the shots on how to identify their needs and address them, or is the partner the one identifying/addressing? I see the potential for a lot of exploitation and abuse in the second scenario.

        It’s not my responsibility or really even my place to identify my partners needs — only my responsibility to say what I need for our partnership to function and then be one half of the brainstorming team to figure out how to get both sets of needs (hers and mine) met. Often with the help of additional support people (including therapists — hers, mine, and ours).

        So yes. Affirming what you said about “who’s in charge?” being a crucial question.

  6. I have definitely been way, way overfunctioning in some of my previous relationships. I think I am finally past that now and have a much healthier approach to relationships. I appreciate your very direct and clear discussion of this painful topic.

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