The partners had been in business for eight years, a 50/50 arrangement from the beginning.
Increasingly over the years, Joe was the one who seemed to make it all happen. He was the producer, the business-getter, the rainmaker. His prowess in marketing was uncanny. He rarely met an opportunity he couldn’t close. Though the internal operation of the business wasn’t his strength, he’d often insert his opinions and advice, because he believed he had the best sense of what was needed to support him and others in the field; and that he had the keenest sense of client needs.
Jeannine believed from the beginning in the importance of equality in the situation. She became aware early on that Joe was gifted in “bringing home the bacon”, but she set out to establish her contribution to the partnership by assuming more and more responsibility for internal operations. She continued her attempts to market as well, but over the years the balance shifted more and more to servicing the business generated by Joe. Overall, she was, at best, mediocre in her roles.
Joe complained about Jeannine’s shortcomings, frequently gave unsolicited advice, but there was never any closure on discussions about Jeannine’s sub-par performance. Though there was a gradual widening gap in the actual contributions of each partner to the business, compensation remained relatively equal. Some adjustments were made through the years to reflect Joe’s production, but the compensation package certainly did not reflect the actual disparity.
And tensions about this were mounting.
The few times the partners attempted to discuss the basis for compensation, Joe’s pent-up frustrations were met by Jeannine’s building defensiveness. These rare discussions only resulted in each partner returning to his/her fate:
• Joe to toil away, seeing himself as under-appreciated and under-rewarded, feeling responsible to carry the business for both of them, and plagued by a growing resentment that was taking a physical, psychological and spiritual toll on him.
• Jeannine pushing to justify her contribution (her “self”), seeing herself as under-appreciated and misunderstood, but increasingly discouraged and depressed, knowing there was truth in Joe’s perception of an unequal contribution to the business.
Increasingly, Joe exhibited the symptomatic acts of an overfunctioning leader:
• Doing things for others that they could do for themselves
• Worrying about other people
• Feeling responsible for others, knowing what is best for them
• Talking more than listening
• Having goals for others that they don’t have for themselves
• Experiencing periodic, sudden “burnouts”.
(According to Roberta Gilbert, “Extraordinary Relationships”)
Increasingly, Jeannine exhibited the symptomatic acts of an underfunctioning person:
• Asking for advice when what is needed is to think things out independently
• Getting others to help when help really is not needed
• Acting irresponsibly
• Listening more than talking
• Floating without goals much of the time
• Setting goals but not following through with them
• Becoming mentally or physically ill frequently
• Tending to become addicted to substances
In Bowen Systems Theory language, this is a classic description of reciprocal functioning in a relationship. This dynamic can occur in work settings, family settings, or community organizations. This may occur between peers, or between a boss and direct reports. The dynamic may shift over time, the roles can actually be reversed in differing situations, and individuals who are overfunctioning in one arena might well underfunction in another. In the situation above, for example, Jeannine might be an overfunctioning spouse at home!
The fundamental issue is this: Each person is “leaning” on the relationship in a poorly differentiated way. The underfunctioning person is “giving up” self by underachieving and yet gaining benefit from it. The overfunctioning person is “gaining” false self by playing the hero role.
What is helpful in understanding the dynamics in these kinds of situations?
• Resisting the urge to see either as right/wrong. The partners above have found together a kind of balance in their relationship. Each one contributes to the stuckness. In fact, in relationships of any reasonable tenure, each partner is exactly as differentiated or emotionally mature as the other; otherwise they would not have been attracted to each other in the first place, nor would they have remained partners for long. The realization of this essential equality can be quite a shock to the overfunctioner who thinks he/she is the healthy, more adequate, or more talented member of the pair. And it can be a shock to the underfunctioner who had the same opinion!
• Understand that the overfunctioning partner, despite the self-perception as “super-achieving hero”, contributes to his/her woes by agreeing over the years to continue in the tendencies listed above.
• Understand that the underfunctioning partner, despite the self-perception as “incompetent victim”, contributes to his/her woes by agreeing over the years to continue in the tendencies listed above.
What strategies are helpful in these situations?
1. Always and everywhere, the primary strategy is self-awareness (followed closely by systems awareness, since we’re continually operating in systems). That is, the very act of recognizing and acknowledging one’s own part in the dynamic is, in itself, a first step toward managing oneself more effectively. In Bowen Systems Theory, the shorthand description of this strategy is “thinking systems”.
2. Joe’s task in this situation is to become more responsible for his own well-being primarily. This may mean abandoning the tendency to be the saving hero, reduce the desire to give advice, or to cheerlead or cajole or embarrass Jeannine into action. It may also mean developing clarity about his own needs, and about objective criteria for compensation. Holding to the values of honesty and justice, he will be challenged to allow her to have reactions to these stands (knowing that reactions to a higher level of functioning are virtually inevitable).
He knows instinctively that this may open him to a charge of selfishness, of not caring, of being insensitive. Actually, it can be said that Joe has been disrespectful and insensitive by NOT having these discussions up until now. He has saddled himself with the responsibility of “carrying” the partnership in an unconscious strategy to build “self” (or self-esteem). There is nothing compassionate or caring about this. He may well have a fundamental connection to and caring for Jeannine, but that has been clouded by self-serving heroics.
Frequently, after an initial period of some reaction to Joe’s changed approach, Jeannine will begin to stop underfunctioning to a reciprocal degree, though there is no guarantee that this will occur.
3. It might be true to form in this system if nothing changed until Joe changed first. (This is not uncommon since the underfunctioning person may feel less of a need for change.) Yet Jeannine can certainly initiate change as well. Her task is to become more responsible for her own well being primarily. Just as with Joe, this is a self-caring position (vs. selfish) in which one insists on recognizing reality, bearing one’s fair share of responsibility, and benefiting financially commensurate with her actual contribution to the business.
Jeannine may need, for example, to take more risks, to measure her contributions by outcomes vs. effort, to seek coaching assistance to improve skills, to step up in situations where she might normally hold back. (It’s also conceivable in this situation that Jeannine may need to consider a different career entirely.) This may necessitate re-shaping her self-image, from one of inequality or incompetence to one of parity and value. If Joe is not committed to “cleaning up his side of the street”, he may well have some reactions to Jeannine’s increasing competence and contributions!
And, as with Joe, she is challenged to accept fully responsibility for her own success, happiness, satisfaction, etc., breaking out of a pattern of seeing herself as a “victim”.
Frequently, after an initial period of some reaction to Jeannine’s changed approach, Joe will begin to stop overfunctioning to a reciprocal degree, though there is no guarantee that this will occur.
So the adjustment in the pattern can be initiated by either, or both. A new relationship pattern can be established on a more solid base: two well-differentiated people with a high level of personal responsibility, genuine caring, honesty, intimacy and respect.