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Dependence or Independence in Marriage?

July 4 items
Pic from Microsoft Word Clip Art

It’s Independence Day in the United States — the day we celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. America was intent on gaining its freedom, but it didn’t earn it until 1782.

I started thinking about independence in marriage. Early in our marriage, my husband and I would debate about how dependent or how independent we should be.

Dependence. Some contend that we are one flesh, joined completely in all ways, and thus entirely dependent upon one another. Dependence advocates focus on how we complement one another, how we are like two halves of the same unit. As famously said in Jerry Maguire, “you complete me.”

Yet we all sense this can be taken too far. Like the couple who can’t seem to make the simplest move without the okay of the other. The couple who can’t spend a minute apart, as if doing so might rock the very foundations of their relationship. It can resemble that high school relationship between those two inseparable teens who had summarily dumped all of their friends in exchange for spending every waking moment with each other.

Given that our independence was earned by soldiers, I’m reminded of the number of military families today who must spend day after day apart. Are their marriages a sham? Of course not. Plenty of couples must be able to live independently yet still enjoy solid and long-lasting relationships.

So maybe “one flesh” doesn’t mean entirely dependent.

Independence. In our culture, this is more often the enticing track. One of most quoted Shakespeare lines is “To thine own self be true.” Never mind that it was spoken by Polonius, who is given to deception and characterized as a fool in the play Hamlet. We live in the era of such maxims as “It’s My Life,” “Follow Your Heart,” and “Choose Your Own Path.”

Independence advocates would say that we need to be able to care for ourselves, to be completely fulfilled individuals without relying on marriage. Then, we can give our love to someone else and invite them into our lives.

Certainly, we don’t get married to have someone to cancel our guys’ or girls’ night out, to tell us what to do, and to insist that we report in all the time. We aren’t children who need a parent.

And there’s also some truth here. Many people meet their mate soon after they’ve given up on relationships and decided to be content on their own. (I did.) Being able to care for yourself makes you more a more confident and appealing person. And you never know when you might need to take over certain duties due to your spouse’s absence, an injury, etc.

Moreover, marriage is not intended to replace all of your other relationships. There’s nothing wrong with having some time on your own or with friends outside of your marriage. Just because you’re married doesn’t mean that you’re constantly a package deal. Yes, you leave and cleave. But you don’t smother.

And yet, you don’t get married to spend time apart, to insist that your spouse leave you alone and let you do what you want, even if it injures the marriage. You did promise to love, cherish, and keep to this person, above all others. Marriage involves joining lives, not just sharing beds and bank accounts.

Interdependence. And here we have the happy compromise. Although I don’t really like the word “compromise,” because that makes it sound like you’re giving something up. You’re not. You can be both independent (a whole person) and dependent (one flesh with your mate) by mixing the two approaches.

The question for a couple to decide is what this interdependence looks like. Do you spend 70% of your time together, or maybe 30%? Do you check in with each other throughout the day, or wait to talk in the evenings? Do you take all vacations together, or does one spouse visit family alone? Do you make all purchasing decisions together, or buy some things separate?

And that can look different from marriage to marriage.

But what I do know is that those who insist on total dependence or total independence aren’t likely to have a great marriage. Those in the first camp (dependence) have placed too much authority and responsibility on their spouse to make their life worthwhile. It’s not fair to expect your spouse to be everything for you. Those in the second camp (independence) are too focused on their own rights and desires to give themselves fully to making the relationship work. It’s not fair to promise to merge your lives but hold back a big part of yourself.

So today, I’m thinking there should be a Marriage Interdependence Day. Celebrating the whole-person, one-flesh experience.

Now it’s even better, of course, when you’re both dependent on God.

Happy 4th!

6 thoughts on “Dependence or Independence in Marriage?”

  1. I think we were probably a bit too dependent for years. My first mission trip (10 years after we married), I was away for 10 days. It was the longest we had been separated since high school. And not only separated, but incommunicado (excepting 1 short phone call).

    It was hard, but we managed, and I think we grew a little more healthy independence from it.

  2. J, I was really torn on this one I must admit. I know you meant well and it’s probably good advice, maybe?, but why can’t folks not be dependent but still be dependent? I don’t think that is impossible. We started our marriage much as your goal, only in recent years we’d probably fall into what you categorize as dependent…and I would not go back for anything. We spend most of everyday within 50 feet of each other. Maybe once a night every two months we are apart for a few hours…and it sucks!

    In other words you aren’t dependent if you are choosing your spouse out of choice and desire…

    It would not be impossible to live otherwise, but our very remote location (one in which we chose to live exactly like this) helps foster this. So while I think you meant well…you can keep your ball games, girls nights out, etc. We wouldn’t change it for the world.

  3. J, I get completely what you’re saying, and I thank you! It is a gift to have another person completely committed to to your well-being for as long as you both shall live! But I think where this goes too far is when the person becomes more to them than God Himself. Their spouse becomes the one to whom they look for everything, when that place should be reserved for God alone. When we keep God as our highest love and the One we depend on completely, then we are able to provide support and encouragement for our spouse when they need it most. I think many times those who are too dependent on each other as those who might be making more of their spouse than they should.

    I love what you said, “Yes, you leave and cleave. But you don’t smother.”

    Great post!

  4. As with most (all?) things I suspect what is healthy varied from couple to couple.

    Lori and I have been accused of being “too close”. We are able to be apart, but we choose to be together as much as possible. I think we could be happy long-term just the two of us alone on an island – something that is not true for most couples. I (no longer) assume that all couples should be as we are, but neither should we be as others are.

    The trick if finding what works for you, the right balance for your marriage.

    1. Well said Paul. Darrell and I are often ridiculed for wanting to spend lots of time together – and how we spend that time. I have just started to notice that when people see a husband and wife moving in tandem, it seems to be suspect – of what I don’t know.

      I had someone once actually rebuke me for serving him! He and another husband had been working outside. I offered to make something for them to eat – and the other wife said, “He knows where the fridge is, he can make it himself (referring to her own husband).” The other husband refused; but Darrell accepted. So I made it. Later that day, alone with her, I was confronted with, “Why did you do that? You made me look like a bad wife.”

      I think that the terms ‘co’ and ‘inter’ ‘dependent’ mean different things to different couples. This wife believed that Darrell is too dependent (co-dependent) on me. Yet we would define our marriage as interdependent.

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