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Relationship Responsibility

May 23, 2023

Too often our relationships with our loved ones are unbalanced. Many people feel as if they are being asked to do too much…or perhaps they feel as if they are not carrying equal weight. When it comes to our relationships, we should strive for balance and to identify evidence that things may have gotten lopsided. Read on the learn more about balanced and unbalanced relationship responsibility.

Dr. John Gottman (pictured here, left) and Dr. Julie Schwartz Gottman (pictured here, right) are cofounders of The Gottman Institute, a leader in a researched-based approach to relationships.

Relationship Responsibility Runs Across Generations

As a condition of childhood, each of us feels some level of responsibility for our parents, arising from concern for our parents’ wellbeing or from insecurity about our relationship with our parents. This felt responsibility is intense in families where parents could not or did not seem to take responsibility for themselves (if, for example, one or both parents were not fully functional due to illness, emotional condition, substance use, interpersonal conflict, chronic stress, financial hardship, natural disaster, or other circumstance). This felt responsibility is also very strong for those of us whose parents could not or did not seem to take responsibility for us or for their relationship with us (if, for example, parents were grossly inattentive, emotionally unavailable, neglectful, or abusive or failed to protect the children).

When our parents cannot take adequate responsibility for themselves, us, or their relationship with us, we come to believe that this is either our fault or our duty to change. We feel responsible for our parents and our relationship with them. With this generational reversal of responsibility, we tend to become anxious (for ourselves and our parents) and develop deep feelings of shame, guilt, inadequacy, failure, and poor self-worth. These feelings may manifest as an extreme need to please, difficulty setting appropriate limits or boundaries, unhealthy striving for success, hypersensitivity to criticism, and defensiveness; even as emotional shutdown, escape into substance abuse, or compulsive behavior.

Having developed this template for relationships in childhood, each of us feels as responsible for others in adulthood as we did for our parents. This felt sense of responsibility is most intense in our most intimate relationships. We can, for example, marry (or be in an extended intimate relationship with) only someone for whom we feel as responsible as we did for our parents.

Unbalanced Relationship Responsibility

When our sense of responsibility for others is very intense, our relationship responsibility is unbalanced. We feel over-responsible for others and equally under-responsible for ourselves.

Over-responsibility for others includes feeling another’s feeling for them; taking over for, talking for, mediating for, or making excuses for someone else; monitoring another person by word or gesture; bailing someone out; interpreting, second-guessing, or anticipating what someone is saying; feeling or acting responsible for someone else’s feelings (such as anger, depression, or even their happiness) or someone else’s behavior (like their drinking, success, failure, or acting foolish).

Under-responsibility for one’s self includes not speaking up about what is important to us; not being able to ask for what we want or need; not being able to say “no” to others; not wanting to burden or bother others with what we want, think, or feel; being controlled by what we expect someone’s reaction to be; letting someone else take over for us, speak for us, or interpret what we mean.

Black and white portrait of the bust of Emily Mudd. She is wearing a light colored suit with short hair and looking directly at the camera.

Dr. Emily Mudd (pictured here) was a pioneer in family therapy and relationships. In 1932 she founded the Council for Relationships.

Balanced Relationship Responsibility

Each of us as an adult is 100% responsible for ourselves. Failure to take full responsibility for ourselves is under-responsibility for ourselves.

Each of us as an adult is 0% responsible for another adult. Acting or feeling responsible for another adult is over-responsibility for others.

Each of us as an adult is 50% responsible for what we have in common with another adult (children, household, finances, etc.) to be agreed upon in some equitable balance.

Each of us is required to be 100% responsive to others, that is, to hear them out, take them seriously, and respond with equanimity, taking them, ourselves, and the circumstances into account.

In AA language, unbalanced relationship responsibility is labeled “codependence” or “enabling.” In mental health circles, unbalanced relational responsibility is subsumed under the concepts of as reactivity, parentification, projection, and poor (rigid or weak) boundaries. Relationship balance is thought of as differentiation or individuation.

Under- and Over-Responsibility are Matched and Paired in All Our Relationships

To the extent that I am over-responsible for others, I am under-responsible for myself. To the extent that I am under-responsible for myself, I pull the over-responsible part of someone else to step in and take care of the under-responsibility part of me.

The following are common over- and under-responsibility pairings:

  • Across generations (our parents to each of us, us to each of our children).
  • Across contemporary relationships (between us and any other person in our lives but strongest in closest relationships).
  • Within ourselves (between the over- and under-responsible parts of ourselves).

Relationship Responsibility is Linked to Our Most Basic Feelings about Ourselves

To the extent that we are over-responsible to others, we maintain our self-worth by trying to please others, win their approval, avoid their displeasure, make them feel better, or monitor, fix, or change them. We typically do this even when others want none of these efforts of ours or even reject them vigorously. Any move on our part away from our over-responsible orientation toward others provokes anxiety and guilt. We feel mean, selfish, or worthless.

Dr. Eleanor Maccoby (pictured here, left) and Dr. Carol Jacklin (pictured here, right) published their groundbreaking study, The Psychology of Sex Differences, in 1974.

Women and Men Often Experience Relationship Responsibility Differently

Men are often seen as under-responsible in troubled relationships. And they may act under-responsible or even irresponsible. This behavior often masks strong unacknowledged dysphoria from feeling over-responsible for the partner. Because men have a lower tolerance for strong emotions, they tend to bury or displace this dysphoria. It often takes the form of control: if I can change (with the “voice of reason,” of course) what you think, feel, want, or do, I will feel calmer. This dysphoria can also lead men to shut down emotionally, distance themselves physically, resort to alcohol or substance use, seek comfort in another relationship, develop a short fuse, and even become violent. When men feel over-responsible for others, they can feel like relationship failures and become highly defensive around being “good enough.” Under-responsibility in men leads to intense (often negative) focus on others (especially the partner), inattentiveness to their own emotional and relationship needs, and excessive search for validation in non-relationship activities, especially work.

Over-responsibility in women leads to deferring to men and over-functioning for men in the emotional, relationship, and family spheres. They become too good for their own good. Under-responsibility in women leads to submissiveness, not attending to their own needs and aspirations in a variety of relationships, devaluing other women in favor of men, loss of a sense of self, and anxiety around abandonment.

Signs of Unbalanced Relationship Responsibility

Is your relationship responsibility balanced? The following are some signs of an unbalanced relationship responsibility:

  • Inability or extreme difficulty saying “no” to what others want from us.
  • Inability or extreme difficulty being clear with someone else about what we want.
  • Inability or extreme difficulty accepting someone else’s “no” to our request.
  • Trying to fix someone.
  • Boredom, burnout, resentment, withdrawal, or cut-off in a relationship.
  • Confusion about what we think, feel, or want in a particular exchange with someone.
  • Divided attention or inattentiveness to ourselves or the other person in a particular interaction.
  • Defensiveness and hypersensitivity to criticism.
  • Interaction is characterized by the rapid escalation in negative feelings leading to explosive behavior or shutdown.
  • Believing that it is our job to make someone else happy.
  • Feeling helpless or powerless in a relationship.
  • Overstepping our bounds by making inappropriate or unwanted physical contact, getting into someone’s head, intimidating, or threatening someone else emotionally or physically.

Acid Test of Relationship Balance

The acid test (that is, conclusive test) for relationship balance is the following:

To be with someone we love or care about, who is having a hard time emotionally, AND to stay focused on the other person, to feel our own discomfort, and to do nothing to feel better ourselves.

Is your relationship responsibility balanced? If not, consider requesting a Couples Therapy appointment. Balanced relationships are possible.

A portrait of Dr. Michael D’Antonio looking directly at the camera against a black background. Dr. D'Antonio is wearing a dark blue sweater with a light blue collared shirt. He is smiling with short hair and is wearing glasses.

Dr. Michael D’Antonio is a Senior Staff Therapist and a specialist in relationship responsibility.

About the Author

Michael D’Antonio, PhD, is a CFR Senior Staff Therapist.

If you have questions about this blog or want to learn more about relationship responsibility, reach out to Michael at mdantonio@councilforrelationships.org or (215)-382-6680 ext. 7010.

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