Is She Doing Too Much, Or Too Little?
My client, Barbara*, had been sharing a house with four other women for the past 3 years. Two of the roommates were original renters of the house and their names were on the lease. One of them, Millie, handled most of the household responsibilities. She collected the rent checks, paid the bills, arranged for maintenance and housekeeping, and purchased the household supplies.
Barbara was on a month-to-month sublease. She was reliable with her rent, paid her share for expenses, and cleaned up after herself. She didn’t think much about household matters beyond that and had been quite happy with the living arrangement.
However, circumstances changed. Millie recently relocated to care for her aging mother in another state. Barbara replaced her on the lease.
Immediately upon signing her name to the lease, Barbara started to experience life in the house very differently. All of a sudden she was keenly aware of who was bringing in the mail, taking out the trash, buying the cleaning supplies, and paying the bills. She was aware because it was she who was doing all those things!
Barbara had gone from blissful unawareness to lying awake at night with thoughts like, “I hope the landlord doesn’t blame us for clogging the toilet again,” and, “I wish someone besides me would think to bring in the mail once in awhile.” She was also more impatient with her roommates when they left dirty dishes in the sink or failed to replace an empty roll of toilet paper.
Barbara was frankly surprised at how many of the household responsibilities were left to her. Moreover, she was embarrassed at how much she had taken Millie’s efforts for granted. She called Millie to discuss it.
Millie: “I knew this was going to happen. Now you know how it’s been for me all these years.”
Barbara: “But why didn’t you say anything?”
Millie: “Listen, I rented in that house for 7 years. You were new there. I knew that if I didn’t take care of things, they wouldn’t get done. It was easier to do everything myself than to try to get other people to do their share. I guess I got that attitude from my mother. Dad was a drinker, so she just took care of stuff.”
Barbara: “Yeah, but weren’t you resentful? I am already!”
Millie: “I suppose so, but what choice did I have?”
Barbara: “Well, there must be a better way, and I’m going to find it.”
As Barbara told me during our therapy session; “Is obvious I’m doing everything for everyone because I’m scared of the consequences if I don’t. I don’t like where my thoughts are going since this whole thing started. I’m worried about stuff I have no control over-like if I upset one of the other renters, she’ll leave and I’ll be stuck with her share of the rent. I never worried about that stuff before and I’m only doing it now because I’m mad at everyone else for not worrying enough! It’s crazy! But it wasn’t right to be like I was before, either, letting Millie do all the worrying for everyone. There must be a happy medium.”
I explained to Barbara about overfunctioning/underfunctioning reciprocities and that each side exists in reaction to the other.
Barbara never really chose to be in the underfunctioning position; it evolved as she lived with someone who tended to overfunction for others. After Millie moved out Barbara didn’t choose to move into the overfunctioning position; she was just the likeliest candidate given her place in the new household dynamic. But Barbara understands that she will have to choose if she wants to stop either under-or overfunctioning for others and just be responsible for herself. I have confidence she’ll figure it out.
*Barbara is not the name of a real client. She and her story are a composite of many people I’ve coached in therapy.