Weighing the cost of underfunctioning…

Blog teaser for Conexus Counselling: The price of Underfunctioning in a relationshipSo I hurt my back several months ago. The physiotherapist said I likely ruptured a disc. The pain has been more in my leg than in my back. It’s been not good for several months.

I went to see a physiotherapist…Mike’s a prof at the University of Manitoba.  I met him when I taught there. Mike is a great physiotherapist in a multitude of ways.  As a systems therapist, I value when people work to notice a problem and then don’t just work to fix the problem, but track back to see where the problem arose…and then how it was that that issue came about. When I’ve taken Junior Tribe Members to see him, he has effectively fixed back problems by addressing the ankle, or knee problems by addressing issues in the trunk.

So…as Mike is assessing my back a few weeks ago, he does a simple test.  He has me lie on my tummy and lift one leg off the plinth a few inches from the hip. I can do it–on my left and my right leg. I mean, it’s a lot of work on my left side, and not as comfortable, but I can do it.

And he says: “Ahhhh!”

And he has me put my hand on my gluteal muscles (affectionately called “gluts” by those in the biz…the big chunky muscles in the butt) and says: “Feel your right butt cheek when you lift your leg up”

I put my hand on my butt cheek…and my right glut tightens to lift my leg.

He says, “Now, feel your left butt cheek when you lift your left leg up.”

My leg goes up…but my left gluts stay soft. It stays squishy. (Sorry…too much information from a therapist?) It was weird to feel the marked difference in the way the muscle groups were acting.

And he goes on to explain…”Two muscle groups-the hamstrings (the muscles in the back of your legs) and the gluteal muscles should be sharing together in the work of extending your leg up. The system is wonky on your left side and your hamstrings are doing all the work.”

He then goes on to tell me what marriage counselling has deeply ingrained in me:

When one part underfunctions, the whole thing can still work if another part over functions.

He then goes on to tell me the implications of the pairing of an over functioning muscle group with an under functioning muscle group for my body.

He didn’t need to tell me.

I coulda given him the lecture…because I’ve seen marriages die with this pattern never being addressed.

When one part underfunctions and another part over functions to compensate, it pulls the relationship out of alignment.  And being out of alignment creates all sorts of related issues. It works…but at a price.  Pain. Decreased strength. Fatigue.

The third part of what he said was profound:

The strategy to fix the underfunctioning/ overfunctioning dysfunction is to get the under functioning muscles to start firing.

So, Mike taught me to work to first tighten my left butt cheek and then lift my left leg.  I had to reteach the muscles that weren’t working how to get involved again. 

The way to fixing this was to teach those underfunctioning muscles to do their share, with awareness and repetition and practice and strengthening.

It was weird…I had to “find” the muscle and figure out what signals to send to it to get it to contract.

It wasn’t that it didn’t want to work…it was like it had forgotten how.

It wasn’t easy at first.

But even after two sets of 10 in the office on that visit, it was already just starting to begin to do what it was supposed to do.

I do this exercise every night now before I go to bed. My left gluts still only work about 80-90% of what the right side can do.

But this, combined with the other exercises Mike has given me meant that I have begun to sleep through the night without pain medication for the first time in months in the last week or so.

Fixing this under/overfunctioning pattern in my gluts and hamstrings has literally changed my daily life.

This video made the rounds on Facebook for the last few weeks or so:

This video is funny…and my family laughed while watching. They got the point quickly.

Husband chuckled knowingly, recalling the time that Car ran an experiment early in their marriage leaving a load of folded laundry on the stairs to see how long it might take until he saw it and carried it upstairs to  put away.

After several days she gave up.

She let him know what it was like for her to do the laundry and not have him notice or think to pitch in.

Husband never forgot. He realized how he had unwittingly gone around that laundry basket several times a day.  It was like he didn’t see it.

After that, he started to see it.

And he’s a thoughtful laundry do-er now.

(Thankful for Car’s input into his life, BTW)  🙂

But I didn’t find it funny.  It hit too close to conversations I have witnessed as a therapist. Marriages have literally died because the dysfunction of one spouse over functioning (statistically, tho not nearly always the female) in response to the other spouse underfunctioning wore on the marriage so much, one day it finally snapped and was over.

The not-so-funny truth about this video is that even after she leaves, the fellow is still clueless–unaware about where she went.

Underfunctioner–take note:

You likely will not have seen or noticed this blog post on your own. It wouldn’t have crossed your radar to read.

Chances are you are reading this because your spouse printed it off for you, or pushed her phone into your hand just now with this article on the screen. Maybe he shared it with you on a personal link through Facebook.

If so, consider it a gift?

It might seem easier to let your spouse regularly do the cleanup.  It might be a convenient excuse to say you suck at folding laundry.  You might beg off grocery shopping or driving the kids because you’re tired and you’ve worked hard. It’s less vulnerable to not start hard conversations or invest vulnerably in sharing your heart.

There are some significant short term perks to being an underfunctioner.

And your spouse may well pick up the slack, even with an attempt to be understanding.

It might help to know that overfunctioners are willing to over function quite a long time…becuase:

  • it’s easier to do it than explain and invite you to participate. It’s an uncomfortable conversation to tell someone that they aren’t stepping up
  • they come from a world where one parent overfunctioned while the otherfunctioned and it’s all they know
  • they have spent time explaining and cajoling and arguing and you have blown them off…and they have simply given up on you

However, marriages where one spouse is consistently underfunctioning while the other one overfunctions are at serious risk.  It creates an atmosphere of resentment and distance.  It sets the tone where disengagement is very possible.

The sad thing with the dynamic of an overfunctioning/underfunctioning marriage is that it limps along, with everything getting done and everything mostly looking ok…until one day, the overfunctioner can’t do it anymore.

The marriage has been silently eroding for a very long time and can seem to collapse overnight.

Marriages work best when the two work together to find a rhythm that works for both…when they work in tandem.

So it's not gonna be easy. It's going to be really hard; we're gonna have to work at this everyday, but I want to do that because I want you. I want all of you, forever, everyday. You and me... everyday. Quote by Nicholas Sparks. picture of couple on a dock.

Underfunctioner, if your significant other has troubled you to see this article, would you be willing to recognize yourself in it? Would you be willing to recognize that your partner is struggling under the weight of overfunctioning now. And trust me, you as an Underfunctioner could pay the ultimate price of losing someone you really care about…if not in body, then in spirit. Being able to watch the game while she runs around getting things done might seem like a good deal…but trust me, you both will pay the price.

If your significant other has had you read this article, would you be willing to begin an uncomfortable but ultimately beneficial conversation of curiosity, where you ask lots of questions and reserve your reactions, just to really hear the experience of the overfunctioner in your life?

Would you be willing to notice that you are at serious risk of losing the most important relationship in your life because you benignly choose to omit seeing how much harder your spouse works at your relationship than you?

This isn’t just about housework–making supper, laundry, emptying the dishwasher (tho it is that too).

This is about:

  • Engaging with the kids,
  • Engaging with your spouse.
  • About raising the conversation of your unresolved last argument to actually pursue its end.
  • Taking initiative to write the birthday card to your mother this year,
  • Arranging the Friday night date this time
  • Saying, “I love you”, not just, “I love you too” in response
  • Pouring the first glass of wine

When the Underfunctioner, as hard as it is, finds a way to engage, it releases the Overfunctioner. (Sometimes it even need to kick them in the butt a little, as in, “Stop doing all the work and then resenting me for it.  I want to share in the work of our lives. Trust me enough to not do it all yourself”).

It frees everyone to a marriage that has a good chance of working well.

Does this article hit home? It is featured in our book, Nice to a Fault. Pick up a copy from our Pembina office or buy on line:


  • Deb Peters

    Carolyn, such a good post. Thirty-Six years and 257 days of marriage to a remarkable man often leaves me saddened to witness the dynamics between couples. Every time I washed my husband’s laundry, folded it and placed it at the foot of our bed, in his basket for him to put away, he said “Thanks for doing my laundry Babe”. For us, it was the little things that made our marriage so wonderful. In his final hours before his entrance into Glory he told me he was so lucky to have found me…I said I was the lucky one. I’m not certain why we were so well balanced but I do know we were blessed. I really enjoyed this, any many of your blogs. Thank you.

    • Carolyn Klassen

      Hey Deb…What wonderful memories you have now that he couldn’t even have known at the time that he was giving you! Appreciation is one important and valid way of contributing to the relationship I think, and it sounds like he was a rock star at it! And you’re right…the little things are the moments that are so often the most remembered! Thanx for your comment!

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