Are you concerned that you’re caught up in codependency? While the specifics of your relationship are unique, the patterns that play out in codependent relationships are pretty predictable. In fact, you may feel like you’re getting into relationships with the same person over and over again in your life.
“Codependency is a dysfunctional relationship dynamic where one person assumes the role of “the giver,” sacrificing their own needs and well-being for the sake of the other, “the taker,” according to Psychology Today. Couples trapped in codependency often get caught up in patterns that cause them to act out something called the overfunctioning/underfunctioning dynamic. This unconscious dynamic is often hard for people to change. Recognition of the dynamic is the first layer that needs to be peeled back.
The Overfunctioning Half of the Dynamic
In a codependent relationship, the overfunctioning partner is the one who would be described as being reliable and responsible. They come across as competent, capable, and intelligent leaders in their roles as partners, employees, parents, or community members. However, this ability to take on responsibility often comes from the fact that they were “parentified” by their own parents during childhood by being asked to step into adult roles due to disinterest or incompetence in their own parents. Here are some characteristics often exhibited by the overfunctioning partner:
- They can’t stand to see their partner fail.
- They constantly come up with ideas or solutions to help their partners.
- They find it impossible not to absorb a partner’s feelings and emotions.
- They often take on all household chores without delegating to others.
While overfunctioning behaviors may start with good intentions, things can quickly turn dark. The overfunctioning partner may grow angry and resentful because they feel like they can never relax, play, or do spontaneous things. They feel that everything will “fall apart around them” if they take any time to do something they enjoy. In addition, they take on the mental load by constantly thinking of ways to help, motivate, or “fix” partners.
The Underfunctioning Half of the Dynamic
The underfunctioning partner in the relationship can often come across as the “immature” one. They may take on much less responsibility compared to their partner. In addition, they are always seeking emotional support and attention from their partners. When they do take on tasks, they often act clumsy or incompetent. It’s not unusual for an underfunctioning partner to also be stagnant in their career. Here are some common characteristics the underfunctioning partner may exhibit:
- Constant need for validation from a partner.
- Jealousy in a relationship.
- Difficulty managing emotional reactions.
- A need to rely on their partner to accomplish everyday tasks.
- Feeling threatened by a partner’s actions or words.
What’s interesting about underfunctioning partners is that they often exhibit many of the same behaviors that they bring to the relationship when interacting with the outside world. For instance, they walk around with feelings of incompetence, toxic shame, and insecurity when dealing with peers. They may also struggle with achieving life goals.
Unconscious Dynamics Drive Underfunctioning and Overfunctioning Behaviors
The kicker is that people with underfunctioning and overfunctioning attributes are often drawn to their not-so-complementary opposites. An underfunctioning person longs for a strong, capable person to “scoop them up” to rescue them. When a partner “takes over” to ease their constant anxiety, they often idealize that partner. Of course, these idealized feelings don’t last once the constant clashing starts. All of the things that made the relationship work so well in the beginning are the exact same things that make it so unbearably toxic once it matures.
An overfunctioning person subconsciously seeks to fill the caretaker role because it feels safe and familiar to them due to a childhood spent taking on more than was appropriate. Selfishly, they love that their partner “needs them” because it makes them feel indispensable. The security that the overfunctioning/underfunctioning dynamic brings often causes the overfunctioning partner to subconsciously play up their partner’s weaknesses as a way to perpetuate the dynamic.
It’s important to keep in mind that this dynamic only plays out in a relationship with codependency. Being a competent person doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll attract people who need to be “saved.” The fact that you might be struggling to be confident and successful doesn’t mean you’ll attract people who only want to save you. Your ability to differentiate from partners can ultimately determine whether or not you’re at risk for codependency. Differentiation refers to our ability to become a distinct person apart from our partner based on how we related to a primary caregiver in childhood. The overfunctioning/underfunctioning dynamic can’t be solved with awareness alone. Both individual and couples therapy is often needed to break the cycle.