Marriage and Family — 23 October 2003
Can you be married and free?

Can you be married and free?

Some of those who struggle with whether or not to commit to a permanent
relationship, battle with the issue of autonomy. They fear that marriage
will trap them into a state of permanent yielding and misery. They
envision the loss of personal freedom about their choices and lives. Understandably, this view of marriage may become a major commitment
deterrent, but is it correct?

These concerned individual’s site evidence for their fears from a few

couples whom they know- where the power balance is indeed very skewed.
Most of us have seen those marriages in which one partner is dominant
and the other submissive about most issues. It may appear as though this
is a marriage trap that may befall any of us if we were unlucky.

The truth is far from this assumption. Many couples, who share the power
of decision making and control unevenly, are mutual parties to this

The decisive partner seeks and marries a more passive mate, who in turn
yields the power willingly – and may even view it as a gift of nurturing
and care. This arrangement is not a secret, nor does it occur upon the
exchange of vows, but rather is a known and satisfactory choice of two
complementing personalities.

More commonly, couples may divide the areas for which one or the other
is primarily responsible. For example, one may handle most of the
financial matters while the other executes vacation plans. The decisions
may be made jointly, but to an outsider it may appear that the power
division is skewed.

It is also true that in some marriages the uneven division of power is
unsatisfactory to one partner- or both. In those cases the failure is
within the marriage partners capacity to identify and deal effectively
with conflict. It is not an inevitable outcome of commitment.

The fear of loss of individual freedom in a committed relationship has
its roots in childhood. Children experience the benefit of nurturing and
love, while submitting to parental authority.
In considering entering into a loving familial connection, the adult may
re-experience the discomfort he remembers from his childhood state of
dependency. For some people the price of anticipated subjugation to
another person’s ways- does outweigh the benefit of marital love.

The error of this view is in equating the parent-child relationship with
the marital one. In the former there is definitely a hierarchy of power,
while in the latter the partners can be equals.

For men _ even a perceived threat to their autonomy feels extremely
unsafe. Men are valued by what they do and any obstacle to achieving
their mission- threatens their self worth. Women, who are culturally
trained to please others, are less likely to see commitment as a threat
to their autonomy.

Yet, recent research found that both men and women are delaying marriage
by several years as compared to previous generations. The explanations
vary, but most of them relate to modern life styles, careers, and living
together- rather than to fears of commitment.

Marital commitment does impose certain limitations on its partners. It
expects emotional and physical fidelity, compromise, and a shift from
the individual perspective to the joint view. It does not, however, mean
that you as an individual have to lose any of your personal autonomy,
goals or freedoms.

In a healthy relationship, you gain a teammate. Now you can be helped,
supported, encouraged and understood by your loving spouse, someone who
will cheer for you on your way to success and wipe your tears when
failure strikes. You are not alone.

The essential choice between being single or coupled boils down to a
trade off. Do you stay single and face life’s challenges autonomously-
yet alone- or do you sacrifice some autonomy for the benefit of connection?

Karen Horney, a noted psychoanalyst, stated that extreme need for self
-reliance and the reluctance to share with another is an unnatural leaning.

Research indicates that married men, (who are more likely to fear
commitment than women), live longer and healthier lives than single men.
It also finds that married people with families fare much better in
crisis than do single people. The evidence suggests that from a health
and survival perspective- marriage is the better choice.

So for the faint at heart about commitment here are some considerations:

  • Honor your need to explore your readiness for commitment. It is a
    responsible stance.
  • Choose to marry only when you are prepared to share your life with
    another person, which includes negotiation and compromise- not routinely
  • Marriages of uneven power are often the choice of its partners- not a
    fate of commitment.
  • Marriage does require certain restrictions. Only choose it when the
    benefits of connection outweigh the disadvantage of compromise.
  • Marriage can be a very freeing experience for two healthy, mature
    partners, where each person’s autonomy is supported within the
    objectives of the marriage.
  • Research on health and survival adds a vote for marriage.
  • Educate yourself about the nature of successful marriages to evaluate
    your readiness.
  • Being married can provide the ideal environment in which to actualize
    your goals and dreams.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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