Imbalance in relationships

It’s funny, being a therapist. With all the variety in people and relationships and experiences that we all can face, I seem to find patterns in the things that I talk about with people. I’ve noticed a trend that involves thinking about the ways that we experience an imbalance in our relationships. This kind of feeling tends to happen when one person starts to believe that they are doing more work or putting in more effort than their partner. While this can sometimes be the result of someone simply not being aware of the ways that the other person is contributing, the tricky thing about this situation is that sometimes the person who feels put out is completely accurate. 

Imbalance feeds imbalance

It just tends to get worse over time. When one person starts to over-function in a relationship, the other partner will tend to begin under-functioning. Or sometimes, one person is under-functioning and then their partner will respond by over-functioning. Either way it begins, the tendency of systems is to continue as they are going. So, in a system where one person is doing more and the other less what we notice is that the person who is doing more will tend to start doing even more and the person doing less will tend to start doing even less. Eventually this leads from a balanced 50/50 kind of arrangement to more like 70/30 or maybe even 90/10.

Set Clear Expectations

One of the first steps I recommend when confronting an imbalance in a relationship is to make sure that there are clear expectations of what exactly is supposed to be done and who is expected to do it. Sometimes a situation in which one partner is frustrated about something, say their partner not doing their “fair share” of the chores around the house, that there might never have been a clear understanding of who is supposed to do what. In my own life I remember a time in college when my roommate and I never actually spoke about how we were going to handle taking out the trash from our dorm. Sometimes I would do it, sometimes he would do it, and so it almost always just seemed to get done. One time, however, neither one of us felt like doing it. So we both just kept adding and adding to the trash can until it was like a crazy reverse-Jena game of seeing just how high we could stack this growing smelly pile of trash before it all toppled over. When it eventually fell (because honestly, it was just a matter of time) we had a bit of a heated discussion about it. We both blamed one another for not taking the trash out when we realized that we had never actually talked about it before – or about any of the shared tasks for that matter.

Let Something Fail

This is particularly hard to manage for most people. We don’t typically want to let things fall apart, and it is this kind of behavior that can get us in these kinds of situations in the first place. But in reality, the need to let something fail is not so that the over-functioner can finger-wag at their partner and say, “look how you failed here.” But it is to allow the under-functioner a front-row seat to the ways that they need to show up. It isn’t supposed to be shameful or hurtful, just eye-opening. And the catch here is that whatever fails has to be small enough not to destroy relationships or cause unbearable damage – like my roommate and me letting the trash pile up until it took two trips to the dumpster. The idea is that the over-functioner doesn’t punish the partner, but rather by letting things fail the under-functioner may experience natural consequences.

As always, if you find yourself in a spot like this don’t hesitate to reach out to a professional to help you and your partner sort through these challenges. Sometimes having a third party to talk  with can give perspective that is only possible with distance from the conflict.

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