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Are Your Working Too Hard in Your Relationship?

The over-functioner is stuck on the proverbial hamster wheel.

Key points

  • To over-function is to take on too much responsibility for other people and to hold yourself to unrealistic expectations.
  • Over-functioners are often surrounded by under-functioners.
  • Over-functioning is about anxiety,not achievement.
Source: Shvets/Pexels

To over-function is to take too much responsibility for other people, to hold yourself to unrealistic expectations, and to believe that if every part of your life isn’t running optimally, then you are a failure. The over-functioner is stuck on the proverbial hamster wheel. She runs and runs, checking off to-do lists, squeezing in one last task before bed, and constantly thinking ahead to make sure nothing falls between the cracks. The over-functioner also believes that no one else can do a better job than she can, and if everything has to be done perfectly, then she needs to do everything.

Naturally, the over-functioner is surrounded by under-functioners. This dynamic is inevitable, partly because many people are more than willing to do less than their share and partly because the over-functioner micromanages every task.

Women are often in this “over-functioner” role; research consistently shows that women pay a social cost for a messy house or “imperfect” children that men simply don’t face. Many women feel as if small mistakes are catastrophic and that they will be judged harshly for perceived oversights and missteps. Some women feel they need to be hypervigilant to avoid even the perception that they are screwing up.

A typical dynamic I see in my office is a couple that comes in because the wife is resentful that she is taking the lion's share of household responsibilities while also working full-time. Her husband seems to have limitless time to pursue his own interests. She is seething, “It isn’t fair! He leaves everything to me,” while he is shrugging, “She wants everything to be perfect, and I don’t care. If she feels like she doesn’t have any time for herself, that’s not my fault.”

She is over-functioning; he is under-functioning. In therapy, we work to rejigger expectations and responsibilities. Often, her husband’s on board until the wife starts to complain about how he’s doing things and gives constant direction about how he could improve. He says, “If I’m going to do it, you have to let me do it my way!” Friends, he makes a good point.

If you’re going to micromanage the way things are done, you are not truly giving away the responsibility, and it is staying on your mental dashboard of things you need to take care of. Now you have the double whammy of a resentful husband, who feels like he is stepping up but still never gets any credit, while your own to-do list hasn’t shrunk because you still feel responsible for everything.

Here are a few ways to break the cycle:

1. Don’t regularly do for others what they can do for themselves.

If you feel like you are doing more than your share, first give back any chores or responsibilities that don’t directly affect you. If you make lunches for everyone in your family each morning before they run off to work and school as an act of love that feels meaningful to you, keep making the lunches. But if this act has morphed into an unappreciated chore that leaves you running late and fuming—and you’re doing it for anyone over the age of 8—give it up.

2. When dividing up shared responsibilities, mutually decide on a “minimum standard of care.”

In her book about dividing the labor, both mental and physical, of running a household, Fair Play, author Eve Rodsky advises using the same standards judges use when determining whether an act is acceptable or not: Any action taken by a citizen should reflect the shared values and traditions of that specific community. In your community, that may be that it’s expected that children will call adults by their first name. In a different community, “Mr.” and “Mrs.” are considered a must. In your home, it might mean that cleaning the kitchen means all the food and dishes are put away. In your neighbor’s home, cleaning the kitchen also includes wiping the counters and sweeping the floor. Both are fine.

3. Pick one or two areas where you really want to give your all, then consciously lower your standards in others.

It doesn’t all have to be perfect or even great. Over-functioning isn’t about excellence; it’s about anxiety. That nervous revving you feel in your stomach isn’t spurring you to greater achievement. It’s just distracting you from identifying what your true priorities are and letting the other stuff be mediocre. Something must give. The likelihood is that if everything must be exceptional, nothing really is.

"Your problem is how you are going to spend this one and precious life you have been issued. Whether you're going to spend it trying to look good and creating the illusion that you have power over circumstances, or whether you are going to taste it, enjoy it and find out the truth about who you are.” ― Anne Lamott


Rodsky, Eve. Fair Play (p. 148). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.