In most relationships, people don’t keep score. So, it’s easy to miss it when a relationship becomes lopsided, with one partner putting in all of the work, or “overfunctioning,” while the other is dependent on their partner for financial or emotional support, or “underfunctioning.”
Functioning in a relationship means one’s ability to make decisions, take responsibility for their actions and otherwise handle life on their own. The individual’s ability to sustain employment and manage emotions are also impacted by functioning.
Underfunctioning and overfunctioning can happen in some subtle and not-so-subtle ways, but in most cases, these roles establish themselves subconsciously. That’s why, for people in them, lopsided relationships aren’t always easy to spot.
Understanding the Underfunctioning Partner
Sometimes, signs of codependency in a relationship are obvious, while others are more subtle. Maybe your partner is dependent on you financially because they don’t have a job or don’t make as much money as you do. Maybe there’s an emotional dependence because they have trouble making or sustaining friendships, or they don’t have the same level of maturity or stability.
None of this means that the underfunctioning partner is underfunctioning on purpose or that they don’t want to have a more equitable relationship. Most people want to be healthy and stable emotionally as well as independent. But, they may not have the capacity, or they may have past trauma that’s preventing them from making a greater contribution to the relationship.
Underfunctioning can be a vicious cycle, where the underfunctioner becomes more and more insecure over time. The underfunctioner may be plagued by shame or doubt, which leads them to seek even more validation and reassurance and ultimately results in them feeling like they have even less control. This can cause them to lash out emotionally at even the smallest of triggers, leaving their partner to feel like they’re constantly walking on eggshells.
Understanding the Overfunctioning Partner
Relationships are two-sided. While it’s easy to place all of the blame on the underfunctioning partner for the unblanace in lopsided relationships, it’s important to realize that the overfunctioning partner plays just as big of a role in the relationship dynamic as the underfunctioning partner.
The overfunctioning partner reinforces the underfunctioning partner’s co-dependence by offering them the support they seek by taking on a caretaking role. Sometimes, this role comes so naturally to the overfunctioning partner that they don’t even realize they’re slipping into it.
Often, the overfunctioning partner has certain things from their background or psyche that contribute to the role they play in the relationship. For example, they may have been forced to take on responsibilities that weren’t appropriate for their age as a child. They may have had to take up the mantle as caretaker for a parent who was sick or struggled with addiction. Or they may have had to care for younger siblings.
The Impacts of a Lopsided Dynamic on the Relationship
People who naturally slip into overfunctioning and underfunctioning roles in relationships are drawn to one another. The overfunctioning partner is often subconsciously looking for someone who will make them feel needed, because it provides them with confidence and a sense of security. On the other hand, the underfunctioning partner is often looking for someone who can reassure them and console them.
Once the honeymoon phase of the relationship has ended, the full effects of the lopsided dynamic will start to be felt. Here are some of the ways that dynamic is felt:
The underfunctioning partner becomes more anxious and dependent
The more the underfunctioning partner depends on the overfunctioning partner, the more anxious they feel when left alone and the more they lean on their partner. Over time, they become so dependent on their partner that they may have trouble functioning in society and can no longer make even small decisions without additional input.
The overfunctioning partner becomes resentful
After a while, the overfunctioning partner may start to feel burnout in their role. Without a partner who can provide them with the emotional and intellectual support they need in return, they can start to feel lonely. They may start to withdraw from their partner or act passive-aggressively.
One or both partners may lose their sex drive
Rather than feeling like partnerships, lopsided relationships often feel more like parent-child relationships, or even caregiver-patient relationships. This lopsided power dynamic can impact sexual arousal or attraction, and the underfunctioning partner may also suffer from shame or body image issues that detract from their sex drive.
Parenting issues may arise
Not only does a lopsided relationship impact each of the romantic partners, but it also impacts their children and entire family system. The overfunctioning partner may become the disciplinarian while the underfunctioning partner confides in the child and treats them more like a friend.
How to Save a Lopsided Relationship
Whether you’re the overfunctioning partner or the underfunctioning partner, when you’re in a lopsided relationship, it can often feel like there’s no real solution. The overfunctioner feels like they are only worthy of love if they are useful or dependable, and may find it difficult to step back. Whereas, the underfunctioning partner may feel too insecure to seek more independence.
There is hope for the lopsided relationship, and it starts with having compassion for both the underfunctioning partner and the overfunctioning partner.
From there, the underfunctioning partner can start to make small decisions for themselves and take steps toward greater independence, and the overfunctioning partner can start letting go the reins little by little.
None of this happens overnight. Changing the way each partner functions in the relationship will take collaboration, communication and time. And, breaking the cycle of codependency can be incredibly difficult to do without outside help.
Dr. Cassidy Blair of Blair Wellness Group is a licensed clinical psychologist with experience in codependency treatment who can help recognize codependent behaviors, overcome feelings of inadequacy and create an effective plan for building a more equitable relationship with your partner.
If you’re interested in learning more about treatment for codependency, schedule your appointment today. We serve clients in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Brentwood, West Hollywood, and the surrounding areas.