Are you hurting intimacy by giving yourself away?

David Olsen, Ph.D., LCSW and Erin Belanger, LMHC

When we try to explain what it means to love our partners and foster intimacy, we often start by describing a process of giving and doing. We make favorite meals, give gifts, and sacrifice our needs to meet our partner’s needs–for example, getting up with the kids so that they can sleep in. When we love, we sacrifice, we give, we compromise. Societal catch phrases are built around this premise – “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach” or “Happy wife, happy life.”  So, who would have guessed that giving so much to help our partners could actually hurt intimacy? While we all believe that self-sacrifice and putting the needs of our partner first will enhance intimacy; in reality, the opposite is often true.

The Creation of an Overfunctioner

Let’s start with love. You love your partner and want to express your love in giving and generous ways. No problem so far. In fact, if the relationship has a healthy balance, both partners will be interested in knowing the other and their needs, and they will give in a relatively balanced manner. At first, neither partner sees a problem with the arrangement. Over time, however, one partner may begin to give up more and more of their needs to focus on accommodating more of the needs of their partner. This shift often happens after a life transition, like a new job or a new baby. The husband who gets the new job for example, may see his wife take on more duties at home so that he can focus on learning his new role. His wife, in picking up more, gives up more of her needs. If the balance for this couple doesn’t tip back after her husband has settled into his new job, they will begin to create a more permanent imbalance and, over time, resentment.

Continuing with the above example, the wife who slowly takes on more and more roles will at some point be unwilling to give up those tasks because her husband cannot do them as well or with the same efficiency. Further, her sense of self will be tied to the overfunctioning in a way that makes her feel good about herself and her role. Unfortunately, this also begins the process of painting her husband as the “underfunctioner”, or the less capable and available one in the relationship. Over time, the wife begins to forget what her needs ever were and slowly sees herself becoming defined by what she can do for others, rather than for who she actually is. As this balance tips more and more, intimacy can no longer be cultivated or maintained.

Overfunctioning actually reinforces underfunctioning in a partner, trapping both in a vicious feedback loop –if the underfunctioning partner does less, the overfunctioner has to do more. Likewise, as the overfunctioner takes over more, the underfunctioner learns it’s futile to even try to do something, because it will never be right, or up to the same standard and will be redone anyway. Unfortunately, both then blame the other for the part they are playing and neither realizes that while one may be leading, the other is surely following.

Early Predictors of an Overfunctioner in the Making

Not surprisingly, partners who overfunction often have a history of being caretakers or peacemakers as children in their families. These overfunctioners often originate in chaotic, underorganized, or alcoholic families where they were dubbed the “good child”, the child who could be counted on, or the “responsible one”. Growing up, these unfortunate souls sacrificed the right to be a carefree child so they could fulfill the expectation that they would take on the role of taking care of their families. Part of this role means learning to never relax because they are constantly worried about conflict, parental substance abuse, or financial security. They learned to find ways of keeping things calm and tried to anticipate the needs of their parents and frequently of their siblings as well. So much for a normal carefree childhood!

To make all of this even worse, these caretaking children were praised for the role they played, leading to a complicated understanding of who they really are. These children were not praised for specific childhood traits such as playfulness, creativity, spontaneity, or other unique talents. Instead, being praised for playing the overfunctioner meant their sense of self eventually became wedded to the role – they existed only in relation to what they could do for others. Therefore, these children learned that they had worth not for who they were, but for the role they played within their families.

Growing up a caretaker leads to an adult life of defining yourself by what you can provide others. These adult overfunctioners unconsciously gain value by being caretakers. Without realizing it, they replicate the role they had growing up and often end up married to people who need to be taken care of or who expect significant accommodation. Unfortunately, under this role is a deep sense of shame because these overfunctioners were never mirrored in a way that helped them understand their value as a human being. In the end, these overfunctioners are left with the sense that, underneath it all, they have no true value or gifts to speak of.

So I’m an Overfunctioner, Now What?

In the short run, giving up too much of what we need adds some balance and stability to our relationships. Over time however, the underfunctioning partners get used to this unspoken agreement and begin to expect too much, and any attempt to shift the agreement, or contract, and build balance is met with resistance. When the overfunctioning partner tries to assert their needs, the result is not usually positive. Attempts at change may stick short-term, but things quickly revert back to the long standing pattern soon after. In the end, this pattern may keep things smooth and polite, but it will not allow for intimacy.

To build the potential for a more intimate marriage, the overfunctioning member of the relationship needs to start getting more in touch with what they need. It sounds simple, but for many, this is not an easy task! If you ask an overfunctioner what they need, you will often see a confused expression–they have great difficulty even being in touch with what they need, much less being able to express it. Or they think they know what they need–they need their partner to do more around the house. But this may not actually be truly it! They may just need time to relax, to let go, to have some time for themselves. Identifying true needs is step one.  It may take some time, and assistance from a therapist or friend to begin to think about what their needs are, but it is a necessary part of building intimacy.

The second step is to take the courageous risk of sharing these needs with their partner. This step must be done non-reactively, meaning not out of anger or frustration. If it is done reactively, the change will not hold and things will quickly go back to the way they were. So, if you are tired and frustrated, don’t start the conversation. Come back when you are ready. Change must be thought out and done carefully and it must anticipate the reaction of the partner, which will most likely not be pleasant.

Thankfully, there are very few surprises when it comes to relationships and how partners will react. Therefore, when the overfunctioner expresses their need, they can anticipate their partner’s reaction of resistance or defensiveness. The overfunctioner can then plan for ways to attempt to hold onto their anxiety and reactivity so that they do not back down from their needs.  Remember, this is not a one time deal –this is a slow and consistent process of understanding yourself, dealing with anxiety and conflict, and creating change.

This work, like many things worth doing in life, is not easy. It requires strength and discipline and the ability to be nonreactive and not back down. In the end it is completely worth it, and it is necessary for intimacy to take root and grow.