Healthy Relationships 1.20: Operating Styles, Part 3

Over- and Under-Functioning

We’ve addressed the behavioral operating styles of the emotional pursuer and the emotional distancer (see last two posts). Another behavioral operating pattern can develop between an over-functioner and an under-functioner.

Over time, partners can come to depend on the strengths of their partner to fill in places where one is less developed. In times of low-stress, this presents little problem, but in times of tension—times when it’s important to be able to come to one’s own aid—it may become clear that the ability to perform some function has so atrophied (or never developed) that the void becomes painfully obvious, causing increased tension and stress.

Reciprocal Functioning

Such increasing interdependence can build and become reciprocal: when one partner functions well, the other functions poorly. The reciprocity can see-saw back and forth, or it can become relatively fixed. Fixed states produce emotional dysfunction.

The clearest examples are the extreme ones, such as where addiction is present. Often the non-addict partner over-functions in many areas—parenting, household maintenance, economic tasks—while the addict under-functions in most or all of these areas. When the addict stops using and begins to raise his or her level of functioning and wellness, the over-functioning partner often becomes depressed or otherwise reactive. The reciprocity then shifts, and the former addict then becomes the over-functioning partner to make up for the deficit in the formerly over-functioning partner.

Too Helpful is Unhelpful

Understanding the way reciprocal functioning swings back and forth over time can validate the experience of both partners, and can motivate an attempt to change this behavioral operating pattern. It is the over-functioner who typically has the easiest time changing his or her part in this process.

When a couple in this pattern seeks counseling, the over-functioner usually presents the partner as the sole problem, without realizing over-functioning itself is part of the problem. Any addiction issues do need to be addressed first, but not to the exclusion of the interpersonal relationship dynamics of reciprocal functioning. When these dynamics are addressed, the contribution of the over-functioner must be presented delicately lest it seem insensitive to the overwhelming burden he or she carries and to the heroic feat of holding up a mini-world every day, virtually alone.

Managing Reactivity

While the addict focuses on recovery, the over-functioning partner can focus on his or her role in the reciprocal functioning pattern, starting with lowering his or her reactivity to the addict’s symptoms. This requires relating to the partner without talking about the symptoms, making a connection on something else.

Also, the over-functioning partner must begin communicating more openly about his or her own vulnerability in order to restore some sense of balance in the relationship. This usually surfaces a preexisting pattern in which his or her emotional demands were unmet and emotional upset invalidated.

With help, the addict can come to understand and validate the partner’s vulnerability, which can provide some energy toward his or her own recovery process. In turn, this often surfaces a common triangle—one between the addict, a parent of the addict, and the partner of the addict.

These patterns can change when both partners are focused and committed to making them change. While this change may not occur exactly simultaneously, it does need to happen at similar times and at a similar rate, or the growth process itself can overtax the system beyond repair. Still, the only way out is to give the effort one’s whole heart.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at how the (conscious and unconscious) expectations a person brings into relationship can alienate partners from one another over time.



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