I Function Because my Partner is Dysfunctional

I Feel More Emotionally Mature Than my Partner

In many instances in a relationship, we can feel that one of us is more emotionally mature than the other person. In couple’s therapy, we actually get that a lot. One of the partners seems more stable and has his s**t together while the other seems distraught and dysfunctional. This can last for many years where one partner takes care of the other on numerous aspects of the relationship.

Typical examples of different levels of maturity

Case #1: The organizer and disorganized couple

Partner one is really organized. So much so, that they do and plan everything from the cooking to the cleaning and getting the kids ready. They make all the appointments and gets everyone lined up with their schedule. They are balanced and always ready to serve others. They have little time for themselves, but that is okay because they don’t need it. They are made strong and they impress their friends and family with the devotion and motivation to do it all.

Their partner, on the other hand, is always forgetting things and getting mixed up. They don’t really know what to do with the kids or organize any type of social gathering. They are social people and can be the life of the party, but when it comes to planing they are nowhere to be seen. When they do try to help out or plan something, it tends to be a disappointment. They can also be needy towards their partner when it comes to sex and they tend to want it a lot.


Case #2: The rational and emotional partners

One partner is extremely emotional and the other is rational/intellectual. The latter is frequently calm and zen while the former cannot manage their emotions. The emotional partner wants the other to open up about their feelings and talk about themselves so they can share intimacy together. They need their partner to comfort and reassure them on a constant basis. The rational one feels the partner is a minefield of frustrations, sadness, and warmth all at the same time. They always feel like they are walking on eggshells and they are not unhappy with the relationship except for the emotional instability of their partner.


Case #3: The sex craving and the prude

One partner is really open about sex and the other is more prudish. They can’t seem to find a common ground on what each of them wants in sex. One is very curious and adventurous as they want to try lots of things in sex such as positions and practices to playing with sex toys. The more prudish partner is considered shy or stuck up. They like emotional and romantic sex and not much else. The open partner is always ready for sex at any given time and any opportunity that their spouse is potentially willing to have sex, they will jump on the occasion.


Which couple are you?

You may recognize yourself in one of these couples or have your own variation of dynamic where you feel or your lover feels more mature than you do. The thing is that neither of you is more mature than the other. As a rule of thumb, partners in a long-term relationship tend to have the same emotional maturity. The balance in the relationship is kept by having one partner being the emotionally unbalanced person. This dynamic is called burrowed functioning*.

Burrowed functioning

As we learn and explore our relationship we tend to develop systems with our partner. They help us cope with our insecurities and short-comings and vice-versa. This is called burrowed functioning, where the couple functions when one partner is, in appearance, more stable while the other tends to depend on the other. The partner who looks more mature needs their partner to be dysfunctional so that they can actually function.

We tend to see this a lot in therapy, where the partner who has more difficulty starts to grow and this destabilizes the more “mature” partner. They are used to having this one-up position in the relationship and now that they have lost it, they start questioning their role. They don’t have their points of reference anymore and they start struggling with their self. They don’t have the validation they once used to have and their worth as a person has diminished.


How does it play out?

Let’s go back to our previous examples that we talked about earlier. The partner who is organized isn’t needed anymore when their lover starts to be less dependant on them. They gained a lot of recognition from others and their spouse about being very reliant and dependable. Secretly, they feel that people would not like them if they were not needed. They keep people in this dynamic so they can feed on it, all the while complaining about their partner’s lack of initiative.

The rational/emotional relationship is destabilized when one of them changes the dynamic. If the rational partner starts to be more emotional and opens up, it tends to create discomfort for their partner. They are so used to having an intellectual and rational partner that this new version of their spouse isn’t natural. They chose this partner because it allowed them to hide their own incapabilities of being intimate on a profound level. They had a barrier that protected them all along. The opposite is also possible whereas the more emotional partner who constantly sought to be reassured doesn’t need their partner to do so, the rational partner loses his role of the protector/comforter in the relationship and is scared that they will find someone better.

Sexual differences in couples also play a huge role in burrowed functioning. If the partner who is more sexually oriented stops demanding sex and loses interest in the partner who has never really been that interested in sex, it creates anxiety. The low desire partner starts to feel undesired. They felt validated that their partner wanted them so badly. They could find it annoying or feel the pressure, but once those things are gone, you are left with another symptom. If my partner doesn’t desire me as much, will they leave me? It is very comforting to know that your partner desires you.

If the more prudish partner becomes more sexually active, the sex craving partner loses his position as the sexual one (high desire partner). They are not the teacher or the leader of sex but become a follower. This is a position they are normally not comfortable with. They liked having a position of authority and would always be in their comfort zone because they took the sexual dynamic where they wanted it to go. When the other partner takes charge, they have to be in elements they are not used to or are unknown to them.


Getting out of a dysfunctional relationship

Are you willing to see your partner as an equal to yourself? Can you see yourself as an equal to them? How much value do you attribute to your partner’s perception of yourself? Are you willing to be less dependent on your role in the relationship?

These questions are fundamental if you want to change in your relationship. If you are not willing to put the effort to better yourself and confront your own insecurities, the chances of making a better relationship are slim. Take into account how you act and behave with your partner by realizing how you benefit from the current dynamic. Truly ask yourself if you are ready to let go of those advantages and accept a new model in your dynamic that will allow you to GROW with your partner. Rather than STAGNATE in a routine of frustration and conflict.

sexologue montreal

Francois Renaud M.A.
Sex therapist & psychotherapist Montreal

Specialized in couple’s and sex therapy

About the author


* Concept created by David Schnarch in his book: Intimacy and Desire

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