These little known concepts are huge in understanding relationship and family dynamics. Being able to see how these may be at play in your relationships and family system is the first step in being able to make larger, important changes.
Before we discuss problematic levels of functioning, it is important to know what an optimally functioning person is like. By ‘functioning’ I am referring to our ability to manage 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. For the rest of the article, 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” or “under-achieving” 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, significant procrastinating and missing deadlines, 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, being very forgetful, appearing to others as lazy or unmotivated, and being somewhat immature for their age.
There are a lot of causes of under-functioning that cover the spectrum from people being over-protective, too permissive, or doing things for the person too much during earlier parts of life (or today); the UF having a substance abuse (usually marijuana, alcohol, or opiates) or other mental health issue like ADHD; or it being a long standing and important role in keeping families together. UFs are often viewed in families as being the “problem person,” although they often get a disproportionate amount of attention and resources directed their way (even if a good amount of it is negative).
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 (usually unsolicited), 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 an 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 (sometimes due to a parent’s absence, illness, or other problems), 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.
Clearly, OFs and UFs often find themselves in relationships and families together. Usually, small degrees of these (say an UF that does 95% of life and an OF that does 105%) are tolerable. But as the gap increases, larger amount of stress and problems enter. OFs are usually the people that seek counseling and would love for the UF in their life to do the same. When couples come in with these issues, the UF usually complains that the OF is “nagging” and “never satisfied” and the OF just wants the UF to have more motivation.
One effect that under and over-functioning has on romantic relationships is that it keeps the people bound together by more than choice. Two people that take care of 100% of their responsibilities are more free to choose their partners. In contrast, UFs and OFs often report there being a “need” to be together. The UF “needs” the OF or else his/her life would ‘fall apart,’ and the OF “needs” to be there for the UF so this doesn’t happen and the guilt of it happening can be avoided. In that sense both people can feel important and “needed”. This has historically been referred to as “co-dependence”, although classic co-dependence almost always involves an addiction problem with the UF.
At much deeper levels (and beyond the scope of this article) may be urges toward dependence and dominance, or long-standing multi-generational family patterns, which can be worked through in counseling.
Balancing & Change
The route to change for OFs is often in returning responsibility for life back to the UF. That may mean not bailing the person out for the 20th time, not reminding them of key things that other people seem to be able to remember, not asserting opinions or managing the other person’s life, and tolerating the natural consequences of what will happen in the UFs life.
For many OFs, there is a large amount of guilt that must be tolerated while potential negative outcomes happen for the UF. This is extra hard because in close relationships, big consequences for one person (like losing a job) will also impact the other person greatly. Furthermore, the UF will often try to pressure or manipulate the OF to remain in the OF role. I often encourage OFs that are making this type of change to communicate this to their partner, but if you are going to do this, it is very important to stick to the new boundaries you are setting. Counseling can be very helpful with this.
The route to change for UFs ironically often comes at the hand of an OF doing the above, which forces the UF to change and deal with the new consequences. This ultimately would lead to an increase in responsibility. However, UFs will often find a new person to over-function for them. For real lasting change to occur, there simply must be a movement of personal energy toward greater responsibility, which often comes when negative consequences and problems begin to mount.
Unfortunately for many couples with this dynamic, if the levels of over-functioning and under-functioning are too great, resentment usually take hold on both sides and it results in a break up.
On a final note, it is important to point out that the optimal functioning person is an ideal that is not typically achieved by someone for an on-going period of time. There can also be inconsistencies in under and overfunctioning, where people are optimally or overfunctioning at work, and underfunctioning at home or in their relationship. Many people also drift into low levels of UF or OF based on what is happening in life. We all struggle to make everything work at times, and we need help from people in our lives that care about us. However, these issues get bigger when they become fixed patterns, or when larger life and relationship problems emerge as a result. When that is the case, counseling can be very helpful.
Published 03/22/21, Previous version 10/03/10.