A Gendered Over-functioning Dynamic Signals Unmet Emotional Needs In A Relationship
While over-functioning can take many shapes and forms, I’ve noticed a gendered over-functioning dynamic in the heterosexual couples I see in my couples therapy practice with women doing the bulk of the household chores, as well as the relational and emotional heavy-lifting for their male partners. Over-functioning–being productive, achieving and doing-it-all–has become an emblem of self-worth for many strong, whip-smart women. This can come at a cost, particularly within relationships.
Male partners frequently comment in a benign way about how their female partners have a certain way of doing things and get upset when things are not done the way they want them. Besides, who cares if the flights are booked this instant or over the weekend, if the Tupperware is hand-washed or put in the dishwasher, or what they get for friends for an engagement gift? Spoiler alert: It’s not about the dishes for either partner. Almost always, there are unmet emotional needs for both partners that once they can address, the dynamic can start to shift.
Over-functioning Can Hide A Fear Of Being Taken Care Of
I see a lot of really badass, independent women in my practice. One thing that unites them is that they’re all really good (at times, too good) at taking care of themselves. Especially with self-care hype being all the rage, they’ve figured out how to get themselves what they need in order to manage 60-hour work weeks, friendships, travel, family and exercise. However, there tends to be one important thing missing for these women: allowing their male partner to take care of them.
Women are socialized to be caretakers (though hopefully this is changing as parenting practices become more diverse and progressive). But, as the caretaking muscle developed, receiving caretaking became an impossibility for many women. While I am the first to laud strong, independent women, the fact is humans enter into relationships with others in part to be taken care of.
Women who are desperately craving caretaking from their male partners tend to over-function in an effort to control everything as a defense against this longing. Why? Because they’re terrified of it. While it sounds counterintuitive, the fear of being taken care of is the shadow-side of wanting it so badly; this dialectic is deep, layered and profound, with many complex psychological, cultural and intersectional resonances. Control of relational spaces allows women to ensure they aren’t hurt in a way they have been previously, whether by their parents, other family, in prior relationships, etc. Women become too good at being competent in their role of “I’ll take care of it” that the narrative develops that they don’t need anyone to help them, especially a man.
Underneath Under-functioning Is A Defense Against Caretaking And Receiving Care
In contrast, underneath layers of complacency for men, which often presents as under-functioning in the relationship, is often a deeply felt sense of inadequacy and an equally pervasive defense against being taken care of emotionally. Boys are often raised to be in competition with one another, to take up space with their doing, and produce a product: a talent, an outcome, or some other version of a gold medal. This is done at the expense of relationality; men don’t often get opportunities to deeply invest in emotional relationships with peers. Both caretaking and receiving care get tagged as weak, feminine and something to be avoided.
Being relational takes time and practice–one has to cultivate a sense of self-awareness and a sort of perceptiveness about the other. Because men don’t often get the opportunity to practice, many men have a hard time sitting with their partner’s feelings, without going into fix-it mode, because they haven’t yet learned how to tolerate their own feelings, or let anyone meet their emotional needs. Underneath their annoyance of being “nagged” tends to be a fear of not knowing how to invest in emotional relationships and a resistance to bringing their own emotional needs to the table.
How Can Couples Get Unstuck From A Gendered Over-/Under-functioning Dynamic?
Both partners have silently and often inadvertently agreed to create and reinforce this gendered over-functioning dynamic, despite its downfalls. In my couples therapy practice, I help both partners break down their anger, and express their fears and longing. When partners articulate that the fights about dishes, laundry or bills are symbols for a larger, painful emotional fissure, the work to regain closeness can follow.
One of the initial steps for women is to separate their needs from the impact that these needs might have on the people around them, even when they could inconvenience or be painful for others. I often remind female patients that they are not a Band-Aid, and their existence is not designed for alleviating pain for other people. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. It can feel safer, less exposing and less vulnerable to over-function as a caretaker without asking for care for yourself. However, when women let themselves have big needs, they become larger in the relationship in a more meaningful way.
Male partners can join their female partners in this endeavor. Men are often taught that having emotional needs is weak, feminine or unproductive. In an over-/under-functioning relational dynamic, men don’t take up much space either. Partners can learn how to be “big” with one another by tuning into themselves with more frequency, and developing a vernacular for their emotions to share with their partner. The intention behind this is not for their partner to fix, re-set or get rid of the feeling, but to get closer to one another.