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Tired of Doing the Heavy Lifting How to Break the Pattern

A common relationship pattern is the over-responsible vs. under-responsible partner.

  • Anxiety, personality, and different priorities may drive this imbalance.

  • Acknowledge the pattern, reach winning compromises, and work on core issues.

The problem isn’t that Jake doesn’t do things when she asks, says Ann, but that she has to ask. Or that Jake

says he’ll do something but then forgets or blows past the agreed deadline. Jake complains that Ann is constantly nagging him, that there’s always something for her to be upset about; Ann feels like she’s doing the heavy lifting, is always on duty, and that living with Jake feels at times that she’s living with an unreliable teen.

This "heavy lifting vs. nagging" dynamic is a common problem among couples, with household chores, parenting responsibilities, and who’s worrying about money being the usual go-to topics. One partner is the annoyed, the over-responsible martyr, while the other is the under-responsible victim who feels like he’s always in the doghouse. The relationship is out of balance.

What drives this is usually a combination of three factors.

1. Anxiety

Ann will admit that she’s an anxious person. She lives in the future; she easily worries and copes by keeping steady routines and staying on top of things with to-do lists. When Jake doesn’t follow through or, worse yet, can’t see what needs to be done, her anxiety increases, and she feels she needs to hound Jake or do it herself to ensure things get done.

2. Different personalities

Ann is a doer, her anxiety drives her into action, and her action is further fueled by the list of "shoulds" that are always running in her head. Jake is the opposite—more laid back, less driven by structure and shoulds, and more by emotions. If he feels like doing something, he will, but if not, he might not.

3. Different priorities

Ann thinks cleaning the bathroom twice a week, changing the bed sheets once a week, or balancing the chequebook once a month just “makes sense,” but it doesn’t for Jake. It’s not because Jake is lazy but because it is less important to him, or he has different standards or wants to use his time in other ways.

All these differences result in their not working together as a team and fueling a pattern that leaves them both frustrated and resentful. They need to change the pattern. Here’s how:

They need to talk about the pattern

Instead of taking potshots at each other or getting into arguments over whose reality is right—the bathroom, the bed, Ann’s too controlling, Jake’s too irresponsible—they need to have a conversation about that dynamic between them. Acknowledge that they both are feeling frustrated and resentful, that they’re stuck in a dysfunctional rut, and that what they’re doing isn’t working for either of them.

They need to come up with win-win compromises

Rather than having a power struggle over their priorities and needs, they both need to be willing to bend. Here Ann will agree on the bathroom getting cleaned once a week, and if it bothers her some weeks, realize that this is her problem that she can fix by cleaning the bathroom herself without resentment. Similarly, Jake can offer to handle the monthly finances but do it without the attitude and resentment that he’s a victim of Ann’s nagging. Instead, he says to himself that even though this isn’t important to him, it is to Ann and because he cares about her, and that’s enough reason for him to do it. Or, they can decide to skip the quid pro quo, think outside the box, focus on the solution, and hire someone to come in and clean.

They each need to work on their core issues

Here Ann needs to realize how anxiety is shaping her life and affecting her relationship and tackle it directly—learning to set priorities instead of seeing everything as important, realizing when her anxiety is driving her desire for control, and practising stepping down.

Similarly, Jake needs to work on stepping up, being more proactive and less passive, and more structured than emotionally driven. Rather than reacting when Ann is coming at him, he needs to go to Ann, and let her know that he is on top of things, hasn’t forgotten, and isn’t putting off his responsibilities. By doing so, he is not only being a more responsible partner, but he is also helping Ann reduce her stress and anxiety.

With each working on their sides of the equation—Ann stepping down and Jake stepping up—they are breaking the dysfunctional pattern, being sensitive to each other’s needs, rebalancing the relationship, and working together as a team.


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