“Overfunctioning” in Relationships

This week on our podcast, we had the wonderful opportunity to hear from Rhonda Farr, a marriage coach. Rhonda told her story about being an “overfunctioner” and how it has affected her marriage. We learned all about what it means to be an “overfunctioner” and how to overcome the negative effects it may be causing in your marriage. Let’s dive in!

What is an “Overfunctioner”? 

An “overfunctioner” is a person who is very good at seeing an issue to be solved, setting their sights on the desired outcome, and working with single-minded determination toward that goal. “Overfunctioners” tend to do really well in business contexts, and have often developed these qualities in the workplace. However, “overfunctioning” does not work well in a relationship. An “overfunctioner” in a relationship is the person who feels like the way to solve problems is to, “call it all out, fix all the problems, [and] run 1,000 miles an hour toward my solution”.

“Overfunctioners” are really good at seeing what they want, then pushing for it. They are used to working hard and achieving, which can often work really well in the workplace. However,  they get used to the pattern of seeing something and being able to get it. In relationships, you can’t say “I want you to want me” and then work really hard and get it. You can’t force your partner to want you or agree with you, because that is their choice. When they are unable to get what they want by pushing harder, an “overfunctioner” will feel out of control and stuck.

When the “overfunctioner” can’t change the relationship, they experience a lot of anxiety. They sometimes use their success in other areas to prop up their self-worth/self-image. Now that they aren’t finding success, they may start to subconsciously (or consciously) question their worth. They can’t understand or process that they seem to have “checked all the boxes” but are still not happy.

“Overfunctioning” creates a cycle of validation seeking. The “overfunctioner” will take on decision making and difficult things in the relationship trying to make the relationship function better. Their spouse can often feel like this is devaluing their part, and may start to pull away. The “overfunctioner” will then want more intimacy and “reward” in the relationship and will push for this result. Pushing, however, will only push their spouse further away. Neither party is getting what they want, and both feel undervalued. 

Even if “overfunctioning” isn’t a huge problem in your marriage, it’s something we can all experience at some point. Let’s take a closer look at the qualities of an overfunctioner and how those qualities show up in the workplace vs. in a marriage. 

Qualities of an “Overfunctioner”

  • Good at delegating: an “overfunctioner” is good at handing out assignments and checking on their progress. This is a great quality in a boss, but it creates an unbalanced power dynamic in a marriage. 
  • Single focus: “Overfunctioners” are able to single in on one problem and work on it until it’s solved. They often will even push aside emotion to get things done. Although this works in the office, marital problems can’t be solved in one go. They often resurface many times. A spouse needs to be able to see the marriage as a whole (not just focus on a single problem) and be aware of the emotions involved (both their emotions and their spouse’s).
  • Critiquing: A person who “overfunctions” typically is able to pick out little things that can be improved. This may help foster growth in the workplace, but not in a marriage. What usually ends up happening is that the “overfunctioner” will call out everything that’s wrong with what their spouse has to say. This leaves the “overfunctioner’s” partner feeling like they can’t ever express their side of the story for fear of it being pulled apart. 
  • Taking charge/ leading: “Overfunctioners” are typically leaders in the workplace. They are the ones in the group project that take charge, decide on a strategy, and give out jobs. In a marriage, this may create a hierarchy and an imbalance in power.  
  • First to show up and last to leave: A successful business person is often the one in the office who works the hardest and takes on all the projects. At work and at home, this leads the “overfunctioner” to feel like they are the ones keeping everything and everyone together. When they don’t get the response they expect (i.e. if their spouse isn’t as grateful as they think they should be) they feel frustrated.  

How to Break the Habit

A lot of people “overfunction” without realizing it. I myself have seen a few of these “overfunctioning” qualities in my own behavior! If you have recognized yourself as an  “overfunctioner”, or even just see a few of the qualities in yourself, here are a few suggestions to help you break your habit of “overfunctioning” in your marriage.

Taking Charge of Our Emotions

The first step is to take responsibility for your own emotions. Although it may seem like your partner is the one who needs to be “fixed”, in reality it isn’t ever their job to be responsible for how you feel. You can’t rely on your spouse to calm your anxiety about yourself. Try asking yourself, “Can I feel what I feel without the need to control every aspect of the situation?”.

You will know you have mastered this step when you can put yourself  in a vulnerable place, and then deal with whatever rejection might result on your own. For example, an “overfunctioning” husband may be excited to come home and receive a warm welcome from his spouse (open to vulnerability). When he gets home, his wife may not be in the mood to give or receive affection. As a recovering “overfunctioner”, he would then examine his own emotions. He may feel sad and disappointed. Instead of trying to “fix the problem” by pulling away or telling his wife she did something wrong, the first step is for him to sit in that emotion and find a way to calm himself. 

Another great step is if we “overfunctioners” ask ourselves, “what might happen if I stop overfunctioning? What am I afraid will happen?”. Feel whatever feelings come up from these questions and take on the responsibility for your own emotional healing and development. 

Offering Our Genuine Self

Once you become more aware of your emotions, you discover a more genuine “self”. When conflict arises, take a moment before getting defensive. Allow yourself to feel your emotions, and even present them to your spouse. For example, if an “overfunctioning” wife felt like her husband was criticizing her, her gut reaction may be to defend herself by criticizing him. Instead, she may take a moment to pause and question what she is feeling. She might say, “When you say that, it makes me feel defensive. It’s not your fault, but I need a moment to figure out why I’m feeling this way.” 

Act like an outside observer of yourself and get curious. What is the deeper problem going on? Are you feeling insecure for some reason? Once you get acquainted with our genuine self, you can now ask questions and be curious about the whole situation.

Get Curious

Along with discovering your true self, taking space from the situation can also give you time to be curious about the situation. You can ask yourself questions like, “How was this dynamic created?”,  “What has my partner been feeling?”, “How have I contributed to that feeling?”, and “Was it a good idea for them to approach/ not approach me about that?”.

Most of us are familiar with the analogy of an iceberg where only a tiny portion of it is seen above the water. We as “overfunctioners” may spend a lot of time and effort trying to fix the tip of the iceberg without ever realizing the bigger problems under the water. 

Being an observer allows us choice and agency. Instead of just reacting to our spouse and trying to get them to change, take space to observe the situation like an outsider. G. S. Youngblood talked a lot about this concept when he came on our podcast. Listen here for more details!

Keep at It, Even When Frustrated

Making this change can be difficult and frustrating! Your partner may not always react to your changes in the way you want. Stay in control. Ask yourself, “Am I making these changes to be a better version of me, or so that my partner will change?”. Seek to better yourself for your own sake, because you deserve to be the best you can be. 

The Partner of an “Overfunctioner”

Many of you reading this will see qualities of an “overfunctioner” in your spouse. You may feel rejection, like your spouse sees you as a disappointment, or that what you have to say isn’t valuable. As the partner of an “overfunctioner”, you may actually be functioning a lot in the household. However, you and your spouse have created a dynamic where they feel like they have to lead and take everything on, and you feel like your part is not valued. The partner of an “overfunctioner” often stays quiet, doesn’t make a lot of decisions, and will feel that if they present their true self they will be criticized for it. 

Usually, the partner of an “overfunctioner” has been conditioned to shut down in the moment of conflict. This is a knee-jerk reaction, and can be hard to stop doing. When you are out of the moment, take some time to consider your relationship. What things have you given up that are important to you? Where have you not been yourself? Determine where you can stand up for yourself more, and make a plan of action. 

Tips for Both Spouses

Whether you are the over functioner or the partner, it can help to question yourself and the situation. Try asking yourself,  “what is my responsibility?” and “what am I contributing to [this thing I don’t like]?”.  Take responsibility for your part, and let go of responsibility for your spouse’s decisions and reactions. Dig into your roots, or get in touch with your genuine self so others perceived criticism can’t push you into a dysregulated, flooded place.

Seek for empathy with your spouse. Ask yourself, “What would it be like to be on the other side of this confrontation?” and “How would it feel to be talked to this way, to never have control of decisions, etc?”. 

When things get heated, and one or both of you is feeling activated/defensive, create a space for each of you to share your feelings. Let each partner answer honestly. When we can listen to our partner’s honest answer without judgment and get to share our genuine self in return, that is the definition of intimacy.

Conclusion

“Overfunctioning” usually doesn’t come from a person wanting to take power or control away from their spouse. It’s a habit learned as a person tries to be successful, commonly trying to support their spouse and family. However, when these habits are brought into a marriage they can cause harmful patterns. Learn to be aware of your emotions, seek to present your genuine self, and leave room for your spouse’s opinions and experience. 

Written by Amanda Severson at Get Your Marriage On!

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<h3>Amanda Severson</h3>

Amanda Severson

Hi, I'm Amanda! I'm a grad student on her way to becoming a Marriage and Family Therapist. I'm a wife and a sex enthusiast. I am a psychology nerd whose life goal is to help every couple find the absolute joy of sharing your life with someone else.

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