Overfunctioner and Underfunctioner

5 Commentsby   |  09.14.09  |  Uncategorized

Overfunctioning and underfunctioning are two dysfunctional reciprocal roles that often occur together.  It occurs when one person appears to be healthy and successful while the other is unhealthy or not operating at their full potential (Gilbert 1992).  In reality both members of this dyad are struggling.  A typical scenario where this plays out can be seen in the family where the wife is very popular and well-liked and very active at a congregation or job, while the husband does very little and feels as if no one likes him.  He feels like a failure, and so the wife ends up making his friends for him, disabling him from learning how to socialize and make new friends.  Although the underfunctioner appears to be the one who is unhealthy, the overfunctioner actually is keeping this pattern going as well through his or her encouragement of the behavior of the underfunctioner.  Also the overfunctioner often experiences burnout as a result of trying to take care of two people instead of just him or herself.

The answer to stopping this cycle is to have at least one member start to take responsibility for themselves and only themselves (69).  The overfunctioner will not perform the actions and desires that the underfunctioner can do him or herself, while the underfunctioner will seek to solve his or her own problems without the assistance or crutch of the other member of the relationship.

In the Beatles song, She’s Leaving Home, this dysfunctional relationship is implied between the parents and their daughter.  The parents have attempted to win the child over by giving her “everything money could buy.”  They thought this was what was best for the relationship, but they neglected the desires of the child and her desire to have a real relationship with her parents.  They thought they knew what was best for their daughter and established goals for her that were not her own.  By leaving home, the daughter takes responsibility for herself and attempts to break the cycle where her parents are attempting to control her life and depriving her life of what she wants.

I want to close with a few questions that might stimulate some discussion.  First of all, Is the overfunctioner/underfunctioner model ever actually function, and if so, when would it be functional?  Also, does this model apply to couples where one member is severely handicapped and needs constant supervision and guidance from the other member?  Finally, how is parenting affected by this model?

Gilbert, R. M. (1992). Extraordinary relationships: A new way of thinking about human interactions. New York: John Wiley & Sons Inc.

Beatles Song: She’s Leaving Home


  1. Tyson Alexander
    9:22 pm, 09.16.09

    Interesting questions Dean. In relation to the question about can the model be applied to parenting, I would have to answer yes.

    I instantly thought of the stereotypical tee-ball parents who force their kids to be involved in everything even if the child does not want to be involved at all. The parent forces relationships onto their child. Or what if the parent when growing up was quite popular and their child struggles making friends and is socially awkward? The parent would more than likely work as the over functioning member of the system forcing the child to be the under functioning member. I think parenting can very much be affected by this model of dysfunction.

    Great post Dean!!

  2. Elizabeth Brown
    8:56 pm, 09.22.09

    I’ve known couples who in my eyes seem to fit this pattern, but they seem very happy. I assume that the key to this being a case of under/overfunctioning has to do with each member’s perception if their funcionality and potential. If one partner seems to micromanage every aspect of their life and the other seems fine to sit back and let them, is this over/underfunctioning even if they are content with the setup?

    Thanks Dean!

  3. Jaime Goff
    3:55 pm, 09.30.09

    Regarding Elizabeth’s observation that an overfunctioning/underfunctining relationship seems to work for some couples, I’d like to ask another question. Even though this pattern seems like it is working in the present, what happens to the underfunctioner when the overfunctioner is no longer able to assume the majority of responsibility in the relationship? For example, I have a great aunt who was the youngest sibling in her family by ten years. From the time she was a little girl, people protected her from having to take responsibility for herself. This pattern continued into her marriage. She and my uncle had a wonderful Christian marriage. They loved one another dearly, and that was evident to everyone who knew them. But my uncle died about ten years ago. My aunt had never balanced a checkbook, pumped gas, or taken responsibility for a multitude of other daily tasks. For several months, she was completely reliant on her children, and she was only in her 50s and in perfect physical health. Her functioning has improved as time has passed, but she still expects everyone to do things for her. Despite her family’s and her husband’s motivation to protect and care for her, their overfunctioning left her paralyzed and incompetent.

  4. Kevin Burnette
    3:55 pm, 10.02.09

    Regarding Over/Under Functioning 10/02/09

    Even though I know it’s not how this concept is usually talked about, Dean’s question about parenting made me want to generalize one step more to the concept of sibling rivalry. I just can’t help but think about the experience of my brother and I. As the oldest, I was first in the position to have my achievement evaluated in the public school system, and as a bright child, I did well. “Doing well” became a good reputation that I enjoyed and also an expectancy. I don’t know if we could really be called an over/under functioning pair, because my brother is a smart guy and recorded his own successes, but like a lot of younger siblings, it was easy to think of him not as Sean, but as “Kevin’s little brother.” In late middle school/early high school, I hit the phase of education that requires actual effort instead of just natural aptitude. I also hit that phase of adolescence that turns young boys into terrors on wheels…*LOL* During this time my brother was just hitting his stride, and eclipsed me for a while as the high achieving son. He was winning art contests and geography bee’s, and I was brining home C’s and getting into trouble. With the focus and hopes on him, it almost gave me an excuse for additional slacking off. A few years later he was hitting the above mentioned phase, and now I was the (again) responsible son who was holding down a part-time job and working my way thru community college (although not without a couple of getting into trouble hiccups *LOL*). As I type this, I think that perhaps it’s not the same issue as sibling rivalry, but I do think I have insight into how being in the less/regarded/less favored/less prominent position can be a temptation toward under-functioning if you allow it to be, as well as relief emotionally, at least on some levels.

    *DISCLAIMER: My parents were very fair to both of us, and made their equal love and expectations very clear. A lot of my talk about the “favored” position was an idea that I imposed on myself and built my self-esteem around until I lost the perceived slot.

  5. Kelsey Waskow
    8:21 pm, 12.03.09

    I have an uncle who in his parenting role definitely serves as an overfunctioner. His daughters are 6 and 3 years old, and he has almost caused them to take on a role of learned helplessness. If it weren’t for their mother and babysitter, the two girls probably would not be able to function at all. One way in which I have seen him in this role was while the 6 year old was learning to read. She would come home with tasks to accomplish, and he would give her no time to answer before he was already feeding her the answer. In fear that she would give the wrong answer (possibly making him look bad)he would go ahead and do the work for her. Thankfully their mother and (perhaps, mostly) their babysitter resist this same position from taking place, or I am sure these two young ones would be struggling a great deal. However, I do question how this will affect them as they develop.

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