Am I helping? Am I helping?

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 5050 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.