One common source of frustration in relationships is the confusion around and misdistribution of responsibility. We get frustrated at times if it seems that others are not taking sufficient responsibility for themselves and we feel the burden of responsibility falls on us. “If he would just wake himself up on his own, then I wouldn’t have to wake him,” we might say.

The glitch is in the sequencing of these two steps. We want the other to take responsibility first, so that then we can let it go. In fact, the reverse order is often what is needed. But here’s the rub—we don’t always want to let go of the responsibility because we’re not sure the other will take it. And the other really can’t take it because we won’t let it go. Catch 22, so it seems.

Responsibility is not so much the act of doing things externally. It’s more of a feeling and a belief that we carry internally. “I feel and believe that this is my responsibility.” It would be difficult for your colleague to have this experience of responsibility regarding getting her work done on time if you are ultimately more worried about it than she is. If she knows that you’re going to remind her until she gets it done, then you are holding the responsibility so closely that she would have trouble feeling it if she wanted to.

It’s hard to feel the weight of a thing if somebody else is holding it. It takes an exceptional young adult to say, “Mom and dad, thanks for the free ride up to this point but I think it’s time for me to pay for my own cell phone and car insurance.”

Motivated by fear and the need for control

We’d love to pass the ball of responsibility to the other and watch him run with it. But often we’re afraid it won’t work out that way. We fear that the responsibility is too much for the other who might be crushed by the weight of it, and then we’ll feel guilty. Or, we’re afraid that the other will resent our passing the ball and cause us to feel rejected and alone. Sometimes we’re even afraid that the other will react destructively, towards self or others.

Wanting to avoid these negative outcomes—guilt, rejection, violence—we try to control things. We try to orchestrate the situation so that these bad things don’t occur. In other words, we take responsibility for the matter. And now we have the makings of the classic enabling dynamic. We enable, or make it easy for, the other to not take responsibility because we’re more invested in a certain outcome than the other is.

How do we climb out?

We never want to dump responsibility onto another prematurely, insensitively or angrily. We do want to shift the burden of responsibility gradually and compassionately, yet decisively. It’s a process of weaning, feeding the other a little less, thereby creating the opportunity for him to practice survival skills which, hopefully, we are modeling. There are intelligent, ongoing assessments of the other’s ability to take on more weight as we go. And we use the opportunity to further understand and transcend our fears, guilt, aloneness and need for control.

Art Frenz, Ph.D.

Image courtesy of Vlado/


Psychological Fitness

“Psychological Fitness” is my monthly column featured in the Binghamton, NY Press & Sun Bulletin since 2004. This page highlights articles, or adaptations thereof, from that column.