The Ditch: A metaphor for a balance of connection and autonomy in marriage

As a Marriage and Family Therapist, I am often asked what the sweet spot is between connection and autonomy in marriage. 

Be too autonomous and you can alienate your spouse. Your communication suffers, your teamwork, your sense of belonging. Your emotional connection with your spouse begins to breakdown. What’s the point of being with someone if you can’t share your hurts and joys with them?

Be too dependent and you begin feeling insecure, you start needing your spouse to manage your feelings or to make decisions for you, you begin to lose yourself. Your partner feels suffocated, and controlled. You begin resenting your spouse or your spouse begins resenting you. 

So how do you maintain a healthy connection yet maintain your independence in marriage?

Here is an illustration of what a healthy marriage should look like.

Imagine that you and your significant other are walking down a road. All of the sudden your spouse falls into a large ditch in the road.

If you tend exhibit too much dependence in marriage you would…

…jump into the ditch with your spouse. Now both you and your spouse are in the ditch and have no way out. 

If you exhibit too much autonomy in marriage you would….

…just keep on walking. Now you have left your spouse behind and you are walking alone. 

 A healthy individual and thereby a healthy marital relationship looks like this:

Your spouse falls into the ditch, you stop walking. You lean in and offer your spouse a hand up. If he or she refuses, you say, that’s ok. I’ll be right here waiting for you when you are ready to come out of there.

In this illustration the ditch could be a personal or interpersonal difficulty, a conflict or just a hard time. When one of you experiences a bad day or challenging situation, you need the other one to be there for you, to offer a shoulder to cry on, to offer some sound advise, to let you know that you are not alone. You don’t need your spouse to jump into the trouble with you, get riled up and make a fuss. In the same vein, you don’t need your spouse to be so nonchalant that he or she completely dismisses the issue and ignores your feelings, communicating: “this is your problem, I’m outta here, I’ll be back when you are better.” 

This illustration can be applied to many facets of a marital relationship. This principle should also be used when you are in an argument with your spouse and one of you loses your cool. The other one does not need to join the distressed spouse, escalating the conflict more; but neither should he or she leave the spouse to deal with it on their own. The distressed spouse needs to ultimately soothe himself or herself, while the non-distressed spouse remains emotionally close by.

The key idea to keep in mind here is: be there for your spouse, offer help, offer support but don’t join them in their ditch.

Would you like to improve your relationships?

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