There are a lot of labels for this common dynamic — active vs. passive, over-responsible vs. under-responsible, martyr vs victim — but the pattern is one where one person is always initiating — handling the money, planning vacations or date nights — while the other person goes along with or helps out when asked. The active partners tend to more quickly and often identify what they think may be problems — the small stain in the ceiling that might be a water leak, their son’s grades slipping in math might lead to failing the course — and want to jump on it and fix it right away. The other person is more laid back — let’s see if the stain gets bigger, if the grades continue to drop. Each handles anxiety differently — active partners tend to attack; passive partners tend to withdraw or avoid.
At the beginning of the relationship these polar-opposite folks are attracted to each other because of complementarity: the active partner appreciates the other’s calm and relaxed manner; the passive partner likes the other’s energy and risk-taking approach to life. It’s over time that what you liked most is now what drives you crazy. The passive partner thinks the other person is always overreacting, seeing problems where there are none, moving way too fast, and needs to calm down and be less controlling, while the active partner sees the other as having her head in the sand, is being an irresponsible slacker, and resents having to do all the heavy lifting.
Conversations around this never go well. The active partner complains about having to do it all, and the other says just ask me to help. "But I don’t want to have to ask you, because I’m still the one worrying and on-duty. I want you to see what I see, what needs to be done yourself and take initiative — check out the ceiling, plan a vacation without my prompting you." Now the passive person responds, "But I just don’t see these things because I’m not a worrier like you, or if I do help or take something over you’re still nagging me or micromanaging about how I do it; I’ve learned to just give up and let you do it yourself." The conversations go nowhere and the couple is having a power struggle over whose reality is right — who’s too controlling and anxious, who’s too lazy and clueless.
How to break the pattern
Unfortunately, this can go on for forever or until the active partner get fed up and burned out enough to leave, or the passive partner gets tired of the seeming drama, tension and feeling perpetually picked on and controlled. The way out of this is creating a win-win situation that accounts for each’s personality, and this starts with rational problem-solving conversations.
Conversation #1: See problems and step up
The overall change that’s needed is that the more passive person needs to step up — take more responsibility, be more assertive, tackle issues that create anxiety rather than avoiding them — while the active person needs to step down — learning to calm themselves and not overreact, step back from being over-responsible, and allow the other person to handle situations in his own way.
What this translates into is the active person asking the other to do exactly that — acknowledge the stain on the ceiling and proactively talk about it, and if he is not concerned about it, say why and what he would want to do if it gets worse. Ditto for the math grades. The partner agrees, and then the active person lets it go, trusting that the other is aware and doesn’t need to nagged or micromanaged about it.
And if the active person is concerned about something that the other hasn’t noticed, she makes the effort to state this calmly, and the more passive person makes the effort to take her concern seriously, rather than blowing it off by saying to not worry, or that you always get upset about nothing. This acknowledgment will help the active person feel heard rather than dismissed, and feel that there is an active partner on board sharing the responsibility for the problem.
Conversation #2: Heavy lifting
If the active person feels that responsibilities are out-of-balance and he is doing the heavy lifting, it’s time to have a larger discussion about dividing up responsibilities. The active partner calmly says I have too much on my plate, we need to redistribute responsibilities, and the more passive person does her best to avoid becoming defensive, digging in her heels, or going-along-with-but-then-not-following-through just to get the other person off her back. What they both want to do to is once again avoid drifting into arguing over whose reality is right – I do so much, so do I – endlessly going back and forth. The more passive partner steps up because she cares about the other.
But because we’re trying to change this parent-child-like dynamic, the conversation needs to balanced. Stepping up doesn’t mean that the more passive partner will do what she is told — this only keeps the parent-child-like dynamic in play — but is also able to be assertive, clearly stating, for example, what responsibilities she is willing or not willing to take on while still balancing out the workload. The other side of the deal is the active person once again needs to step down and not micromanage the process and outcome once the decision is made. To help the active person with his anxiety, they can agree at the front end on a deadline when things will get done, and / or the more passive person can proactively help relieve the active person’s anxiety by providing updates on the status of tasks.
While fairly straight-forward these conversations can be difficult. What they do require is a commitment to create a win-win solution and a balanced team approach to solving problem, as well as an ability to recognize when conversations are going off course or turning into a power struggle, and get them back on track. If you find you can’t successfully do this on your own, seek brief counseling to have a safe place to resolve not just a particular problem, but the larger dysfunctional pattern.
What you don’t want to do is keep fighting this battle. Life’s too short.