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Under and Overfunctioning in Relationships: A Bowen Family Systems Approach

Updated: May 8

Relationships are filled with anxiety, making them complex and dynamic for therapists working with couples. It can be difficult to pinpoint the root of conflicts or issues between partners when you're new to working with relationships, and I've noticed with my associates that the overfunctioning and underfunctioning dynamic often gets missed when it comes to conceptualizing a couple.

I'm a couples counselor and marriage and family therapist based in Los Angeles with a decade of experience as a therapist. I love helping people grow great relationships and teaching people about family systems theory.

Murray Bowen's Family Systems Theorygives us an obvious way of thinking about some couples and once you understand overfunctioning in relationships, you will be able to spot it everywhere and, in this video, you'll learn how to treat it too.

Bowen became a clinical professor at Georgetown in 1959, directing Family Programs and founding the Georgetown Family Center in 1975. He also maintained a private practice and working on extremely anxious patterns in relationships

A scholar and clinician, Bowen pioneered the use of closed-circuit television in family therapy while a professor at other medical schools. He actively contributed to professional organizations and authored prolific writings.

how to work with overfunctioning in a relationship

Family System Theory and Self Differentiation.

In order to fully understand this idea, it's important to understand 'Differentiation of Self' which refers to a person's ability to become an individual who is able to maintain their sense of 'Self' in a relationship by gaining independence from their family of origin.

differentiation of self, bowen family systems therapy los angeles

differentiation of self in relationships

A fully differentiated person can separate out 'Self', 'Other' 'Feelings' and "Thoughts' , and that means that they can have thoughts about their feelings and feelings about their thoughts.

As a result they respond to life based on all the information they can get. They have healthy boundaries between self and an 'other', which means that their relationship feel rich and satisfying.

an undifferentiated person in relationships - over functionin

An undifferentiated person's thoughts, feelings, self, and others are a hot mess. As their thoughts and feelings are not separated, they tend to have emotional reactions that arereactive to life rather thanrespond. The boundaries between self and other are blurry which means that relationships tend to be complicated. 

To make the matter worse, chronic anxiety is much more prevelant in undifferentiated people. We all have some amount of chronic anxiety, but the more of it that you have, the more of it that you can carry, the more likely you are to show symptoms in your relationships or yourself. There's some recent studies that shows that less differentiated people are more at risk for of having social anxiety and impulsive urges or reactive tendencies.

Murray Bowen's family systems theory proposes that couples can get caught in specific patterns when dealing with chronic anxiety. Bowen suggests that the most unstable relationship structure is a "dyad" (a couple) because of the potential for intense, shared chronic anxiety.

overfunctioning in relationships

Under and Overfunctioning in Relationships: A Bowen Family Systems Approach

In over and under-functioning relationships, it's as if the over-functioning couple takes on all the chronic anxiety of the relationship and acts on it. I find that anxiety can be an activating emotion, which I visualize as being the source of all their 'doing', an impulsive need to take care of things and get it done rather than to let things be.

How Family Members and Relationships Deal With Anxiety

Bowen’s ideas come from his time watching, observing and monitoring hundreds of families over a few decades as a psychiatrist working in hospitals. He came up with the idea that there are really only four or five different ways that couples (romantic bond or parent and child) can handle this increase in chronic anxiety after that initial spark fades in a relationship. A family system will want to try and manage this anxiety by:

Bowen Family Systems and couples therapy

  • Conflict - they can bicker or have big blow ups which can be hard for any relationship.

  • Distance and Cut-Off-  they can just disengage or cut-off people for good.

  • Triangles- they can triangulate a third person in, some people look at alcohol or work as a form of a triangle,

  • Over and Under functioning -this can occur in parent child dynamics and other relationships and is generally characterized by an increasingly lopsided distribution of roles and responsibilities. In clinical practice, you might see the caretaker and patient dynamic, or just a relationship in which sex ceases and the couple has difficulties managing intimacy.

The Over-Functioner's Own Anxiety

This dynamic between two partners sees the overfunctioning individual take on most of the responsibility and control in the relationship. They might appear successful and productive on the surface, but underneath, they can be experiencing burnout, resentment, or frustration. They may view themselves as the more competent partner and downplay their significant other's contributions.

Classic Signs of Overfunctioning in Relationships:

  • They may appear to be functioning optimally, taking charge of finances, social calendars, and household chores. If they're a parent they might be seen as overly strict.

  • They often offer unsolicited advice, appearing controlling and being the emotional caretaker, focusing on other people's emotions as a priority.

  • I feel like a martyr and express frustration passively-aggressively, usually feel exhausted and tired.

  • Have a deep fear of negative consequences if they don't take action and feel responsible for their partner.

  • Often, overfunctioning stems can from past conditioning - perhaps a family system or childhood experience in which family members and are sometimes the parentified child, forced into taking care of others at a young age) and a belief that they need to be responsible for everything to keep things running smoothly.

  • Most importantly, they often if not always, feel resentful, burned out, and pissed off.

The Under-Functioner: Falling Short Of Their Own Emotions

The underfunctioning person contributes less to the duo despite the sincere efforts of their loves ones, they may struggle with confidence or follow-through. They might become passive-aggressive, expecting the over-functioner to solve problems or take care of tasks. They may appear helpless and rely on their partner for help they don't necessarily need.

Common signs of an under-functioner:

  • Taking less responsibility and avoiding chores or tasks and potentially leads to little self awareness.

  • Withdrawing emotionally or becoming distant in the marriage, even becoming physically ill, develop mental health issues, or unable to sustain employment.

  • Being more emotionally dependent and constantly seeking reassurance, or have difficulties achieving goals which can be a self perpetuating pattern.

  • Struggling with self-doubt, a lack of motivation, low self esteem, and even toxic shame around this pattern.

  • Using substances or developing health problems as a coping mechanism.

  • The underfunctioning person may be financially dependent on the other or someone else in their vicinity.

  • While it may seem counter-intuitive, sometimes under-functioning can be a way to resist the over-functioning partner's controlling tendencies.

Breaking Free From the Dance: The Path to a More Balanced Relationship

So, what can we do to help couples struggling with this under and over-functioning dynamic?

As a therapist you have some general goals to help them become more equal partners by shifting a focus to their own behaviors in the partnership

Goals for The Underfunctioning Partner

  •  The underfunctioning partner has to learn to act independently from their partner, including learning self regulation and motivation

  • start to feel worthy of having their own goals and dreams, living life autonomously while remaining connected to their romantic partners.

Therapy Goals For The Overfunctioning Person

  • The overfunctioning partner has to stop overfunctioning obviously, and resist impuslive urgest to focus their partner and shift attention to their own process of self differentiation.

  • Begin to focus more of their 'Self' not others and tolerate discomfort of watching someone struggle.

Recognize the Dynamic: The first step is for both partners to understand how they contribute to the unhealthy equilibrium in their dynamic. Therapy can be a helpful space to explore these patterns and their underlying causes and helpful in gaining insights into their automatic reactive behaviors.

Focus on Feelings, Not Just Thoughts: Couples therapy can help partners communicate their feelings more effectively. Understanding the emotional impact of their behaviors on each other is crucial for change.

Address Underlying Fears: Both over and under behaviors are often driven by fear. Therapists can help couples explore these fears and develop healthier coping mechanisms.

Prepare for Nodal Events:  Discuss upcoming life changes and potential stressors as a couple. Proactive communication and planning can help you navigate these challenges without falling back into old patterns.

Seek Professional Help: A therapist trained in family systems theory can provide valuable guidance and support for couples struggling with chronic anxiety and imbalance.

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