Stephen and Erin Mitchell

Stephen and Erin Mitchell

Founders of Couples Counseling For Parents

When A Relationship Feels One Sided

“I do everything in the relationship and they don’t do anything.”

It happens a lot when I meet with couples. One partner will say, “I do everything in the relationship and they don’t do anything.” This is a pretty broad statement. And honestly, the partner saying this really means it. What follows next is a list of all they do in comparison to their partner, “I take care of the kids, I take care of the house, I plan our social life, I initiate sex etc…” The list can be pretty extensive. 

The “Do Nothing” Partner

Quickly the “do nothing” partner follows up with their rebuttal to the accusation that they do plenty of things and this sets the session into a tailspin of accusation and defense. Is one partner doing everything and the other is just lounging on the couch watching TV? When a relationship feels one-sided what is going on?

I’m going to get a little nerdy here to try and explain

So I’m going to get a little nerdy here to try and explain. There is a model of relationship therapy called Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy. In this model of therapy there is a common relationship pattern that is discussed and entitled the pursuer-withdrawer pattern. This pattern means that there is generally one partner that is the “pursuer.” The purser is the one in the relationship that initiates. They initiate conversations about intimacy, parenting strategies, social plans…everything. And they can be perceived as the more “active” partner in the relationship. They can also see themselves as the partner that “does everything.” 

The other half of the pursuer-withdrawer pattern is the “withdrawer”

The other half of the pursuer-withdrawer pattern is the “withdrawer.” They are not the initiator. They typically will follow the lead of the other partner. If their partner brings up a conversation they will talk. If their partner says they need or want something they will try and respond. This partner is more “passive” when it comes to initiating in the relationship. They can frequently be characterized as the “do nothing partner,” but many times they are doing a lot. Yet, it looks like they aren’t because they might wait to follow their partner’s lead or just start doing things without collaborating.   

Overwhelmed and overextended Vs. Under appreciated and micro-managed

Is this what is happening every time when a relationship feels one-sided? No. But it is a relationship pattern that happens a lot. The primary gripe from the partner that is doing everything is they feel overwhelmed, over extended, and over relied on to “make sure things happen in the relationship and family.” The primary gripe from the partner that doesn’t do anything is they feel under appreciated, micro-managed, and like “the only reason I wait for you to tell me what to do is because if I didn’t you would just tell me I was doing things wrong anyway, nothing is ever enough for you.” 

Yikes!

Yikes! Can you already feel the tension rising and the conflict about to break out?  This is a tough conversation because often times both partners are right. Due to personality, past experience, past trauma, past expectations; there generally is a more active “do everything” partner and a more passive “wait and see what my next move is” partner. So often couples see this way of interacting as their partner purposefully trying to get at them. The “do everything partner” feels like they are being taken advantage of and that their partner is just sitting back so they can benefit from their over functioning. The “do nothing” partner feels like they are being ignored and devalued because their partner’s over functioning anxiety needs to be in control. 

These patterns are not patterns that started when you and your partner got together

Yet, the key to seeing this pattern differently is to pay attention to the line I wrote a few sentences ago, “Due to personality, past experience, past trauma, past expectations; there generally is a more active “do everything” partner and a more passive “wait and see what my next move is” partner. These patterns are not patterns that started when you and your partner got together. These patterns were started long before one another and have functioned for years as your best coping strategy to deal with life. 

How can these patterns change?

Couples can shift these patterns in their couple relationship when they are able to evaluate three things:

1. Who are they? The pursuer or the withdrawer? 

2. How fulfilling this role has made the most sense for them throughout their life and in their relationships? In other words, you had to be this way for a reason. What’s the reason?

3. Can you see how your role as the pursuer or withdrawer may be challenging for your partner to understand and how it may be hurtful to them?

Then, after you have evaluated these three areas you can do one more thing. Go to your partner, share what you have learned, and then ask a lot of questions about how you can be a part of helping one another establish a healthier more equitable pattern. 

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