What You'll Learn
- What an Underfunctioning and Overfunctioning Relationship Looks Like
- The Importance of Healthy Interdependence in Relationships
- Why Understanding Our Own Needs Helps Us Let Go of Overfunctioning
- How Internal Work Helps Us Break Away from Overfunctioning
- How to Stop Overfunctioning
- How to Communicate With Our Partner About the Dynamic
If you’re experiencing more conflict in your relationship after having a baby, you aren’t alone—67% of couples report a decline in satisfaction in the first three years of a baby’s life. There are many reasons why this happens—including an underfunctioning and overfunctioning relationship dynamic.
Today, I’m joined by clinical psychologist and couple’s counselor Dr.Tracy Dalgleish to unpack what overfunctioning looks like in relationships and how we can break away from this dynamic and regain balance after a baby.
The Pressure to Be and Do More
Many couples are surprised at how having a baby impacts their relationship. They’re often battling sleep deprivation, struggling to establish new rhythms and routines, and muddling through the early postpartum days in pure survival mode.
But for a lot of those couples, the conflict and changes in the relationship last beyond the postpartum phase. They often find themselves unintentionally falling into patterns of traditional gender roles, with mom taking on the bulk of the invisible load.
As moms, we often feel pressured to be and do more. But when moms are pressured to live up to an unreasonable standard of perfection, they often find themselves defaulted into an overfunctioning pattern—taking on an unfair share of the invisible load.
Likewise, their partners might fall into a default underfunctioning role—taking on less of the household labor without even realizing it.
This creates a cycle that often causes conflict and resentment on both sides—and prevents us from working as a team to solve problems.
I couldn’t wait to chat with Dr. Tracy about underfunctioning and overfunctioning in relationships and what we can do to break out of the cycle.
Dr. Tracy’s experience as a couple’s counselor showed her how common it is for couples to struggle after having a baby. She wrote the book I Didn’t Sign Up for This to help couples understand that they aren’t alone—and that there are usually ways they can strengthen their relationship again.
We live in a society that emphasizes “the one” and creates a very romanticized ideal ofwhat a relationship should be like—one that isn’t often based in reality. So when we struggle or experience more conflict or unhealthy dynamics, we might question our entire relationship or worry that this is the beginning of the end.
Dr. Tracy shared that it’s important to view the relationship dynamic as the problem rather than our partner. We co-create relationship dynamics—but when we remove the blame we can start to create change.
What an Underfunctioning and Overfunctioning Relationship Looks Like
Dr. Tracy said that there are many common relationship dynamics that form after having a baby, but the pattern of underfunctioning and overfunctioning is one of the most common.
In this dynamic, one partner begins to take on the household and domestic labor, the mental load, the child care, and the emotional load. In different-sex couples, this partner tends to be the woman.
The overfunctioner becomes the one to manage the household, delegate tasks, initiate hard conversations, make tough decisions, and hold the mental space for the family. They become the go-to problem-solver—the one with all the solutions.
Dr. Tracy said that the overfunctioner is often the one more at risk for developing anger and resentment because of the heavy load that they carry.
The underfunctioner might be more passive, waiting for somebody else to make decisions or ask for help. They might struggle to take intiative or avoid bringing up hard topics—and they might even feel inadequate in their relationship.
Dr. Tracy pointed out that the underfunctioner can also develop resentment, feeling like someone else is always telling them what to do.
There are many reasons why this underfunctioning and overfunctioning relationship dynamic plays out—including socialization and gender norms.
Women are often socialized from a young age to be people-pleasers, helpers, and caregivers. They are often conditioned to strive for more, to help others and to sacrifice their own time and mental energy to be “good wives” or “good mothers.”
Moms are often conditioned to to sacrifice their own time and mental energy to be “good wives” or “good mothers.”
Many of us saw our own mothers do the same thing, falling into gender roles that were passed down for generations. It can be very hard to break out of those generational cycles—especially when we don’t intentionally think and talk about them.
Dr. Tracy said that when she asks couples if they have ever sat and talked about the roles their parents carried and what roles they want, the answer is usually no. They often fall into the same roles as their parents did by default.
The Importance of Healthy Interdependence in Relationships
Dr. Tracy said there is another element at play that leads to the underfunctioning and overfunctioning relationship dynamic—the core of how we experience relationships. We’re trying to cope with the tension we feel by being an autonomous, independent person while also navigating what it means to be connected and intimate.
And when we aren’t given the tools to communicate, to share, and to navigate that balance, we might end up struggling.
Dr. Tracy said that the ultimate goal is interdependence—being able to strike that balance between self and being connected in a relationship. In a healthy, interdependent relationship, we can say “I feel _____” or “I need _____” and withstand our partner’s reactions or feelings in response to what we say.
For example, rather than trying to fix or solve the problem when our partner is experiencing a bad day, we can think “I see you having a hard time right now, but that doesn’t mean it’s about me. I can find a way to support you in a way that works well for you.”
This requires depersonalizing our partner’s feelings and behavior and acknowledging that they have their own feelings, thoughts, opinions, and desires that we need to make space for and have compassion for.
When we can reach this level of understanding and communication, we can start to work together to solve other problems—like the distribution of the invisible load or how we want to parent our children.
Why Understanding Our Own Needs Helps Us Let Go of Overfunctioning
It can feel uncomfortable to work toward healthy interdependence when we have been conditioned to overlook our own needs in favor of other people’s.
Many moms experience difficulty acknowledging their own needs, let alone advocating for them. We often want someone else to see us and care for us the way we do for everyone else.
But in reality, our needs are our own responsibility. In Episode 172, Mara Glatzel, author of Needy, pointed out that we are the steward of our needs, and we have to take radical responsibility for advocating for them.
Our needs are our own responsibility.
Dr. Tracy said that a lot of her work is helping people see their partners for who they are and accept them—and that sometimes means finding other ways to get your needs met. Our partners do bear responsibility in our relationship, but they can’t fulfill all of our needs.
In an isolated society where we are less community-oriented or connected to our families, we crave deeper connections. But it isn’t our partner’s sole responsibility to fill the holes we feel. Instead, we can fill the bucket ourselves.
Dr. Tracy shared an example of a person who needed deep pressure connection—she wanted her partner to give her massages. But due to his PTSD, he wasn’t able to fulfill that need. Instead, she had to find another outlet—going to get a massage every other week.
By finding a different way to meet her needs, she took pressure off of the relationship and created more space to connect with her partner in different ways.
How Internal Work Helps Us Break Away from Overfunctioning
When we are experiencing an underfunctioning and overfunctioning relationship dynamic, we often get caught up in the external results—for example, we might be frustrated with the division of labor.
But Dr. Tracy said that internal work is the key to shifting the dynamic. We can try to redistribute the labor with chore charts or lists all day long, but until we’ve addressed the internal patterns and beliefs that contributed to the dynamic, we’re likely to just pick the labor back up again.
For example, if our partner doesn’t do something the way we wanted, we might find ourselves thinking it’s easier to just do it ourselves. Or if we ask them to do something but they are resistant, we decide it isn’t worth it. We might even pass off part of a task but hold onto all of the mental load or prep labor involved.
Dr. Tracy shared a personal example of making her children’s lunches. When she first asked her husband to take on this task, she still made the muffins, cut up the vegetables, and dictated what he should pack in the lunchboxes. But she realized that she wasn’t actually passing the task off—she was still holding most of the labor.
It wasn’t until she was able to truly let go of control and pass off the task entirely that her husband was able to own the task, feel empowered, and step up to the plate. Now, he makes the muffins—and does a fantastic job at it.
Letting go of control often requires us getting comfortable with watching our partner struggle and learn something new. It might involve us acknowledging that there is more than one way to do things. When we shift our piece, when we put down labor, and stop overfunctioning, we take a big step forward to breaking the cycle.
Our partners deserve autonomy—they deserve the chance to learn, adapt, and become capable.
Our partners deserve autonomy and empowerment—they deserve the chance to learn, adapt, and become capable. We all benefit when we break out of the underfunctioning and overfunctioning relationship dynamic.
How to Stop Overfunctioning
It can feel especially difficult to stop overfunctioning when we associate our labor with being a “good mom.” But if we want to share the labor, reduce overwhelm, and break out of the pattern, we need to turn inward and understand that doing more doesn’t make us a “good mom.”
We might have to tune out the noise from around us—the messages we hear from other people, the pictures we see of other moms on social media—anything that makes us feel like we need to be constantly doing and being more.
Dr. Tracy said that instead of asking ourselves what we “should” be doing, we can ask ourselves, “What do I need right now?” The more we practice letting go of the shoulds and uncovering our own needs, the better we become at it.
It’s helpful to tune into our own values—the things that matter most to us—and use those as a guiding light for letting go of the shoulds and being comfortable with doing less.
The more we practice letting go of the shoulds and uncovering our own needs, the better we become at it.
For example, maybe we don’t need to take matching photos in pajamas or create every magical holiday experience. Maybe we don’t need to do all the activities or create Pinterest-worthy lunches. Maybe instead we value slowness and presence and connection.
Or maybe we do value those things but there are other expectations we can let go of. The important thing is determining what matters to us, and using that as a guiding light to help us choose what labor we need to do and what we can peel away.
How to Communicate With Our Partner About the Dynamic
Dr. Tracy said that awareness and insight are a great place to start breaking out of the dynamic—but so is communication.
She pointed out that if we decide to spring a task on our partner at the last minute, we’re likely to cause stress and set ourselves up for failure. For example, if we announce on Monday morning that we’re no longer making lunches when we’ve always done it, it’s unlikely to be a smooth transition.
But if we have positive conversations around building awareness for the relationship dynamic we can make productive change. This shouldn’t come from a place of blame or accusation, but from a curious, empathetic, compassionate place.
Dr. Tracy encourages moms to bring up the conversation of underfunctioning and overfunctioning in relationships while owning their part. We might say something like, “I heard about this dynamic—and I think I’m the overfunctioner. I end up getting angry and you feel like you can never win or never do enough. I think we are actually doing this dance back and forth. I wonder what it would look like if I handed some things over to you for you to take ownership of.”
It can be tempting to avoid these conversations and just muddle through the dynamic. But living with resentment doesn’t lend to connection, intimacy, or strengthening our relationship.
Breaking out of the dynamic can feel challenging, but in the long run, it can bring us closer together. As we start to peel back the layers of labor, let go of control, and breaking out of the underfunctioning and overfunctioning relationship dynamic, we can start to reconnect.
Dr. Tracy said that when we cut through the noise, we can focus instead on connecting—with our child, with ourselves, and with our partner.
She said that in a world that is full of noise, it takes work to remember how to turn toward the people we love and care about. When we can relieve some of the pressure and turn down some of the noise, it becomes easier.
From there, we can rebuild trust, form a stronger connection, and get back on the same team as our partner.
If you’re struggling to communicate with your partner or distribute the labor in your home, our therapists can help! Book a FREE 15 minute virtual consult today!