Understanding Overfunctioning and Underfuctioning in Relationships


Are you the family member who always organises events, manages communication with friends and family, and handles everyone's activities without giving it much thought? Are you the spouse who constantly comforts and supports your partner in times of stress but never speaks up about your own problems? Do you feel stressed and upset with your spouse, children, or other family members for not stepping in and sharing the load?

If this rings true for you, you may be stuck in a pattern of behaviour in relationships known as overfunctioning and underfunctioning, in which the more one person does, the less the other feels compelled to contribute.

Stepping in for one another is a natural process of family interactions; however, as anxiety and stress in a family increase, the helper tends to become more helpful, eventually feeling frustrated and overwhelmed, while the person who tends to step back tends to step back more.

The Bowen Family Systems Theory

Within Bowen's family systems theory framework, overfunctioning and underfunctioning relationship patterns are seen as relationship seesaws: the more one person does one thing, the more the other party does the opposite. This is usually a fixed interactional codependent pattern in which a relationship works for an extended period or even a lifetime. Moreover, overfunctioning and underfunctioning dynamics can stretch over generations as we tend to repeat the patterns we learned in our families of origin.

What Does the Overfunctioning-Underfunctioning Pattern Look Like?

Whether or not someone will get drawn into overfunctioning-underfunctioning codependent relationships depends on the extent to which they can differentiate themselves in relationships. Differentiation of self in a relationship refers to maintaining an emotional connection with others while preserving autonomy in our emotional functioning and establishing a solid sense of identity.


Overfunctioners typically have a high level of differentiation. The level of differentiation describes a person's capacity to think, feel, and act independently in emotionally intense situations. Individuals with a higher level of differentiation have good emotional control and can preserve strong identities even in distress. 

They typically take on responsibility, decisions, emotional effort, or control in a relationship – far more than they should, and feel driven to fix things for others. This might be motivated by a desire to help, fear over things not being done "right," or a need for control. 

Overfunctioners are often people in helping professions like social workers, therapists, teachers, or nurses. They are often trained in some way to step in and help others. However, doing it at the expense of the others' functioning can profoundly affect the family. Overfunctioners often have trouble delegating tasks and may damage the independence and skills of others without realising it.


Individuals with lesser degrees of differentiation, on the other hand, rely on others to carry out their everyday chores and responsibilities.

People who are underfunctioning don't do their fair share of work or take on less responsibility than their skills allow. An underfunctioner may postpone making decisions, participate in less problem-solving, or rely excessively on others to manage work and emotional needs. This behaviour may be motivated by a lack of confidence, feelings of incompetence, or a desire to have others take the lead.

This dynamic can make relationships unstable and stressful because it keeps both people from reaching their full potential and helping each other in the best way possible.

How Couples Therapy Can Help

Couples Therapy can help overfunctioners learn how to set boundaries and delegate, and underfunctioners can take on greater responsibility so that they can support each other more reciprocally and healthily.

Couples Therapy can help you identify overfunctioning-underfunctioning interactional patterns in your relationship. Your couples therapist can help you understand your behaviour patterns, teaching you to set boundaries and break the cycle.