Many marriages could be said to contain one spouse who is "over-functional" and one who is "under-functional."
An over-functioning spouse is one who "parents" his or her partner, assuming responsibility for him or her and supervising most aspects of his or her actions.
Though very common, this kind of imbalance in a marriage is an intimacy killer. Intimacy, that which makes marriage fun, exciting and fulfilling, thrives in a relationship between peers or equals.
The over-functioning spouse, not content with her partner's behavior, tries to change him, driving him away as he seeks more autonomy and less criticism, thereby defeating herself in her quest for a satisfying marriage.
He, in turn, may misbehave out of defiance. This is one example of a "marital skew," that is, an imbalance in the use of power.
The other side of "marital skew" is the "under-functioning" spouse. This partner behaves in a way that would seem to solicit a parenting response from his or her partner. If you want excellent and lasting intimacy in your marriage, don't expect or invite your spouse to "parent" you.
One thing we must do to achieve a good and lasting marriage is differentiate between needs that we can legitimately expect to have met by our partner and those that we cannot.
You may legitimately expect companionship, sex, sharing of labor, sharing of wealth, affection and support. But don't expect your mate to fix your low self-esteem, heal your childhood injuries, save you from loneliness, alleviate your boredom, nullify your fear of death or eliminate the necessity for work.
These are infantile dependency "needs" which weigh a relationship down to the point where true intimacy becomes impossible.
In order to achieve and retain intimacy, you must both stand on your feet without leaning too much on each other. True intimacy, the kind that sustains and rewards the marriage of true minds and bodies, requires the presence of two solid selves.
You must each tell your story to the best of your ability and try to shoulder the load of living as an adult in a family. Your failure to do this, whether due to immaturity, incapacity or substance abuse, invites an over-functional, i.e. supervisory response from your mate.
After all, there are certain things that need doing. If you won't do them, that means someone else must. If one partner must continually sweep up behind the other, we can forecast a loss of intimacy.
On the other hand, sometimes a perfectionist partner will second-guess the other even when it's not necessary. This can stem from a basic inability to trust, a compulsive desire to have things just so or even from an old habit of acting like the boss all the time.
It may seem impossible to change these patterns once they're underway. Perhaps you're saddled with an immature partner who just won't step up to the plate and do what's right.
Perhaps your spouse has grown used to depending on you to take up the slack and to keep things from getting too far out of whack. It's not an impossible situation, just a difficult one. The point here is that you probably cannot force someone to change. You have to "invite" them to change.
And how do you do that?
The surest way is to change your own behavior.
The chances are good that your partner's behavior depends, to a significant degree, on your own performance of your own accustomed role. These are reciprocal roles, and one may not be able to exist without the other.
What if you suddenly fail to perform your role? A disaster, you say? Well, maybe, but a crisis is not always a disaster. Sometimes a crisis, even one that's engineered, can result in behavior change. And the disaster you fear may be only an irregularity.
Would it really be a disaster if the dishes didn't get washed for a month? Inconvenient, yes. Disgusting, no doubt. But un-survivable? Probably not.
You may feel trapped in either an over-functional or under-functional role. I guess there would be consequences if you were to suddenly stop being one or the other. I can pretty much guarantee it would shake up the status quo, calling the entire organization into question. You'd probably get some resistance or things might start to fall apart. Maybe that would be too much for you to risk, in which case you are stuck. You can't give up your part because you don't want to face the consequences.
OK, well that's pretty much the definition of an impasse. I would point out, however, that it's your choice to stay stuck. You choose it over the consequences of changing and whatever instability that might bring.
Don't feel too bad about that choice, though. You're only being normal. People fear change and they fear instability. They prefer the devil they know to the one they don't. It takes either a gambler or someone who's determined to be self-actualized at any cost to risk doing things differently when that change is not readily accepted by their loved ones.
Many times, however, if you stick to your guns, you'll find people start to fall into line with a change once they realize it's not temporary.
Hugh R. Leavell has been a marriage and family therapist in Palm Beach County for 18 years. He offers free seminars on couples communication and conflict management. Call him at (561) 471-0067 or visit his Web site www.oneminutetherapist.com.