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“Why Won’t You Do More!?” How Couples Over-Under Function

(4 minute read)

Do you get mad at your romantic partner because they just don’t take responsibility for something in your daily life? That ‘something’ could be managing the family spending, planning vacations, dealing with household problems, shopping for food, handling the kids, arranging social engagements, or any one of a myriad of other issues. You’ve asked, begged, pushed, perhaps even screamed or punished, but the same thing happens again and again.

Or maybe you’re on the other side of these problems: your partner is mad at you for not doing enough, and either you’re too busy, or not interested, or always seem to forget. Perhaps you make an effort, but you always seem to mess things up. While your partner is getting mad at you, you’re feeling nagged and resentful.

Most couples have this issue to a greater or lesser extent. One of you functions well in a certain area, and the other one functions rather poorly. If you’re aware of what’s going on, you can take steps to manage the problem. But if you don’t address the issue, it can spiral out of control and contribute to — or even cause — the death of a relationship.

There’s two steps to making sure things don’t spiral out of control. First, understand how the problem got to where it is. And second, implement tactics for negotiating your way out of the impasse.

How It Started

Childcare is one (although hardly the only) source of over-under functioning in many couples, and a source of conflict. Here’s a classic example: Jeff and Angela have a baby. Angela nurses the child and has maternity leave, thus spending more time with the baby, and so naturally becomes more adept at childcare. Jeff feels clumsy in comparison, unable to soothe the baby as quickly as Angela and unable to interpret the child's different cries. He tends to give way to Angela in this department. Angela is anxious to calm the child quickly and becomes impatient with Jeff’s relatively ineffective efforts. She increasingly takes over when things get difficult, and Jeff is increasingly relieved to let her run the show. After all, it’s not much fun to deal with a crying baby when you feel you don’t know what you’re doing, and your much more competent spouse is watching you fumble around.

And so Angela becomes more and more competent in dealing with all things child related, and Jeff becomes more and more incompetent. And because raising the child is very important to Angela, it bothers her terribly when Jeff doesn’t do things the right way. Since she’s a human being, it’s quite natural that she believes that the ‘right way’ means ‘her way’. When he does step in to do something she gives him detailed instructions. Even though he may end up doing quite a bit, the ultimate management of the child’s situation is still her responsibility. She may delegate things to him, but he’ll do what he’s asked to, not more.

Jeff’s sense that he’s not very good with the child is reinforced by the fact that his own initiatives, few and far between, rarely meet with Angela’s approval. Discouraged, he doesn’t put much thought or effort into raising the child, and focuses his attention elsewhere, perhaps on work, hobbies or friends.

Meanwhile, Angela is frustrated with the situation. She’s spending much of her time with the child, and rewarding as that is at times, her own priorities suffer. She sees Jeff devoting time to work, hobbies or friends and wishes that she could spend more time on those too. She resents his freedom and begins to demand that he take up his fair share of the child rearing burden. Perhaps he agrees, but she often finds his performance inadequate, forcing her to step in to fix things. For his part, Jeff experiences her efforts to fix things as a criticism. He feels his attempts to share the burden are not appreciated and that Angela’s behavior is unreasonable. Resentment and anger build on both sides of the marriage.

Fixing The Problem

It's important to understand that the “problem” can’t be fixed. Jeff is not going to become the super-competent parent Angela wishes he would be. What CAN change, however, is how the couple views what’s happening and thus the emotions generated by this situation.

The first step is to recognize the pattern and the contribution that each partner makes to this particular ‘dance’. The fact that Jeff is incompetent forces Angela to become competent, but the reverse is also true: the fact that Angela is competent forces Jeff to be incompetent. Take a moment to think about that: it's very important.

Each couple will have its own set of solutions — there’s no universal key that works for everyone. But here are some practical ideas that could work for Jeff and Angela, and could, with some adaptation, work in many other situations too. Perhaps even your situation.

Reassign Responsibilities

It may be impossible for Angela to accept Jeff’s parenting style if she’s not in there helping (or “managing and supervising”, depending on your point of view). Raising their child may simply be something that is too important for her to compromise her standards. She then agrees to be the primary manager of that part of their lives. He in exchange, agrees to pick up something else: for example, he might manage their finances, plan vacations, shop for groceries, cook, wash up, or all of the above. Her resentment decreases because she now has more free time; his sense of being incompetent decreases as he has responsibility over more of their joint lives.

Focus on Shaping Behavior

Punishment is an ineffective method of teaching. Animal trainers know that the way to get an animal to do something is to reward any behavior that approximates what the trainer is looking for. So too with people. If Angela wants Jeff to participate more in child care, criticizing him for his failure to do so is very satisfying, but not very effective. Rewarding him for anything that gets close to what she wants is a better strategy. Thus, if she’s frustrated that he doesn’t put the child to bed, she might give him a kiss when he brushes the child’s teeth. Now, Angela undoubtedly believes that rewarding him for a small thing removes any incentive for him to do anything more, but the research shows that's not the case.

Remove Opportunities for Over/Under Functioning

Since Jeff tends to under function more when Angela is present, find situations where Jeff can be alone with the child. Angela can go out for time with friends, or Jeff can take the child out on his own. This will give Jeff a chance to discover his own capabilities as a father. And while Angela may indeed be very competent, there are things that only Jeff can contribute. For example, when Jeff forgets to bring a drink for the child, or doesn’t apply enough sunscreen, or cooks a terrible meal, the child may discover that things can go wrong without it being a big deal. Or that creative solutions can solve a problem.

Refuse to Save / Refuse to Ask to Be Saved

When Jeff feels out of his depth in the childcare department, he asks Angela to save him. And when Angela feels Jeff isn’t doing things the right way, she steps in to save him. Either party (or both parties) can change this dynamic. When Jeff forgets to pack a lunch for the child’s school trip, Angela can resist the impulse to track down the class and bring the lunch herself. And when Jeff finds himself confused when taking the child to buy clothes, he can resist the impulse to call Angela for help, and instead ask friends or accept that he might make a mistake. This will increase Jeff’s sense of competence (after all, he’ll eventually learn how to buy clothes for the kid) and will reduce Angela’s sense of irritation (since she doesn’t have to jump in to save things).

Figure Out What’s Critical, and Ignore the Rest

Angela can identify what’s her bottom line when it comes to child rearing. For example, she might say that anything involving safety and education are things she cannot ignore if Jeff’s management isn’t up to her standards. However, recreation, clothing choices and play dates are areas where she can tolerate things not being done the way she wants. When Jeff does something that doesn’t meet with her approval in those non-critical areas, she tells herself that her children will not suffer life-long damage from this and so she’s free to ignore it. This requires energy and willpower, but the payoff is more free time for her, and less conflict between the two of them.

The Bottom Line

If you find yourself caught in an over-under functioning dynamic, you may feel that truth and justice are on your side. You feel that if only your partner took their responsibilities more seriously, or stopped nagging and criticizing you, or took the trouble to remember things, or stopped taking over from you — then things would be better. But the truth is that the problem lies not with you, nor with your partner: it lies in the dance that the two of you have developed together.


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