By Barney Armstrong, MA, LMHCA, Bellevue Christian Counseling
Autonomy and Dependence: The Dialectic of Marriage
Marriage is brilliantly designed; it has a built-in dialectic of dependence and autonomy that demands that you continually be alive to your marriage – it won’t let you live by formulas or the boredom that you naturally tend toward.
What is a dialectic? A dialectic is not a paradox – it doesn’t say two things that can’t both be true – no, it instructs you by holding two things in tension. The Bible, for example, is often dialectic. It keeps us from living on autopilot and requires that we be alive to Scripture.
For example: The Bible tells us not to lay up treasures on earth (Mt 6:19) and to love not the world nor the things in the world (I J 2:15). On the other hand it tells us that it is wise to store up food in the summer (Prov. 6:8; 10:5), and we are told that God richly supplies us with all things to enjoy
(I Tim. 6:17). If you want to live by formulas and only consider the first set, you might give everything away, never work or provide resources for your family, and maybe start a cult around your extremism. If you only consider the second set you might be a miser and a hedonist. The two sets of ideas are not in conflict, they create a tension that refuses to let you diminish the Bible to formulas and requires you to be alive to the Scripture.
Amazingly, the dialectical nature of marriage will not allow you to go on autopilot; you must be alive to your marriage. It doesn’t reduce to formulas. Marriage requires you to be dependent on your mate, to be fully trusting and vulnerable to your spouse. Surprisingly, for such things to be meaningful, they must be the choices of someone who is first fully autonomous. Not a paradox! How meaningful is trust, vulnerability and dependence if it’s not a real choice, if you have to, if it’s by default or passive?
We tend to fall into exactly that — it’s the kind of dependence we had as a child. We were dependent on parents, trusting and vulnerable. And they could be anywhere from totally loving to horribly abusive, but we had no choice, it was by default –our “choice” carried no meaning with it, it was passive. In marriage we tend to want things to settle down and be predictable; we would like benefits that require nothing of us, like when we were kids. We reduce our mate to a box … dependable but boring — and our “choice” becomes passive – not romantic like it used to be (remember when you were dating? This completely other person was choosing you!)
So this is definitely the wrong model for marriage! Yet we tend toward it because it’s the model we are used to and it requires no effort. In a marriage we must be adults and autonomous peers who are continually choosing each other wittingly. Otherwise our choices carry no meaning – they are not romantic, and marriage is boring.
The other extreme is being only autonomous, independent without the purpose of choosing your mate – manifested in things like spending all of your time out “with the boys,” or texting your girlfriends the whole time he’s driving — avoiding your mate wherever possible.
A couple I was recently talking with saw their romantic attachment to each other dramatically bubble to the surface on the eve of his leaving on an extended business trip—his departure made their independence tangible, and so their attachment became vivid as well. Autonomy and dependence, self-motivation and deference, independence and commitment, self-reliance and trust – all are pairs of ideas that when each held in one hand, create a tension, a posture toward your everyday interaction that demands you to grow in your own personhood and be alive to your mate and your marriage.
Sitting with a Christian marriage counselor can help you renew this healthy tension in your marriage! That is — to help you see where you are being passive, where you need to grow in autonomy, and where you need to grow in vulnerability with your mate.
Images cc: freedigitalphotos.com – Lovers in the Farm and Green apple vs. red apple both photostock