Should I Stay or Should I Go?: Problem Marriages #1–The Over- and Under-Functioner

In my years in practice and as a social being I’ve come across a number of marriages that were, shall we say, to put it tactfully, not functioning optimally. Over time I came to see that such marriages fell, more or less, into four categories. And I found it a high likelihood that couples in marriages such as these would bump up against the possibility of divorce sooner or later.

The first example I call either the Over/Under-Functioner–or sometimes the ‘Slavery-Freedom’ model–of marriage. The stereotypical story  is that a woman grows up with a controlling, rich father, who makes her life miserable.  In an effort to create a better life for herself, she marries a weak, unsuccessful husband so she can feel free [this works with men and their mothers, too]. She seems to subscribe to a dynamic where one must control or be controlled. This usually works out badly, to say the least. The more the unsuccessful partner under-functions, the higher the drive of the over-functioned, and vice versa.

Joannie and Janie*  were comfortable with each other and actually complained very little about their relationship, but Joanie, frequently, had a number of stress-related illnesses. It turned out that the more her partner lost jobs, overspent, and drank, the more jobs Joanie took on, sleeping less and less, and compensating both financially. It struck me as no surprise that Joanie was sick.

Rose fit the pattern–the child of  an over-bearing father, and weak mother.  She felt safest when men were under her thumb, but she hated them for it.

Rose originally married an artist, a job that appealed to her as it seemed freeing, imaginative–unbound by the rules that so constricted her own sense of being [it may come as no surprise to you that she was a computer programmer]. But the problem with this marriage was that her husband made no money, and seemed so hapless that to get him to do anything required instruction from her–and really she was running two people’s lives, with only one salary.

So she divorced him and married a doctor, certain that here would be a successful man, they would be more equal partners. However this was as managed care was reaching its heyday, so once again she was left with a man who hardly made a living–his practice downsized him out. He had been spoiled by his first wife, when he earned a better salary, so that he hardly contributed to household chores. So, after a brief period of ‘love is blind’-ness, Rose bossed him about, too, taking charge of his resume and sending it out. It was hardly a step up from the first husband, and  now she was in charge of job searches as well. Honestly, Rose likes controlling so much that I’m not sure she would have called it quits, but the doctor couldn’t take it.


Rose, who has decided she should be cautious before she marries again, is now involved with a man who’s prone to seizures and therefore can’t drive. This is a serious impediment to his career progress, as he’s a musician and gets gigs throughout the city. Clearly, Rose needs to drive him; and she monitors his health like a hawk, ever fearful that he might convulse when sheisn’t around.

In my first post on the Should I Stay or Should I Go? topic, I stated that one of the crucial questions you need to ask yourself before you leave a marriage is how you can improve things if you leave so your situation will be different the next time. If you don’t ask this, and don’t take the steps to make things different, you might be like Rose, heading into a third marriage which is, in its outlines, very little different from your first.

In such a case, really, doesn’t it make more sense to stay in a marriage and work through your issue, than to rack up marriages, repeating your same pattern each time.


**As with all characters in my blog posts, there is no real Joanie or Janie or Rose , whose names have been changed to protect their privacy.  They are teaching characters, composed of bits and pieces from real life humans plus details from my imagination which make the story more interesting and, hopefully, instructive.


I help adults and adolescents through the particular struggles of our time: tension between couples, parenting frustration, blending new families, separation and divorce, (un)employment, cancer, and loss. When relationships come to an impasse, I use mediation techniques to try to ensure that each party will have his/her needs heard and accounted for in a dignified way. In addition to talking, listening, and reframing, I utilizes the tools of metaphor, active teaching, role-playing, visualization, and hypnotherapy.for families and businesses, as well as in cases of divorce.

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