Autonomy in Marriage and Why it Saved Mine

wedding pic

I want to tell you all a secret. I want to tell you why my marriage has stayed a happy marriage thus far after enduring a major restructuring. The reason I want to share this secret with all of you is because I hope it will be as life changing and positive for you as it has been for me.

It’s something I’m going to call autonomy.

I grew up seeing a lot of manipulation in relationships. The role of effective communication seemed to be communicating well enough that the other person would see you were right and do what you want. Let me tell you, I have some manipulation skills! If you don’t believe me, ask my husband.

For the first few years of our marriage Ricardo and I had a wonderful marriage. I think one of the biggest reasons our marriage worked so well was that Ricardo loved me and just let me manipulate him lots of the time. I guess it worked for both of us because we had peace in our home, and it worked for me because Ricardo was meeting all of my most important expectations. Of course he was meeting my expectations, because if he didn’t meet my expectations, I would launch into a tirade about why I really needed him to change his behavior, and how important it was that he did this or that, and even how important it was because God wanted him to do this or that. I honestly thought I was doing the right thing. I mean, I was helping my spouse live up to his potential and that seemed incredibly important.

With most of the things that were not extremely important to me, I granted him his autonomy in doing what he wanted. With the things that were extremely important to me, to our spiritual life, and to our health as a couple, I made sure the pressure was laid on heavy and thick–and most the time Ricardo conformed to keep the peace in our marriage.

That worked great for me. Sure, I hated feeling like I was a controlling wife, and I resented him for having to feel that way, rather than him just understanding what I wanted and doing it out of love. But, at least I got the end result that I needed, and we were doing the very most important things that I thought we needed to be doing. Excellent.

Eventually, as you all know, Ricardo left the Mormon church. I was furious at him for doing this without considering my feelings. This was a decision that should have been made as a couple. Couples always need to involve the other person in those kinds of decisions. He shouldn’t have done anything until we decided together what he should do. That is how I felt.

For the first time Ricardo was expressing his autonomy in our relationship, and it infuriated me!

I forget if it was something I read or listened to, or just something I finally realized, but eventually I figured something really important out, something that allowed all that anger I held towards my spouse to dissipate and something that started the healing in our marriage. I discovered that it was okay that Ricardo made that decision on his own. I realized that it wasn’t my job to control him.

It was as much mind-blowing as it was liberating!

Suddenly I realized that I wasn’t in charge of making his decisions for him. And that was a huge burden off my shoulders.

It has taken me until just the last few weeks to start realizing that I also am fully and completely free to make my own choices. part of that realization was when it dawned on me that I could meet my own needs in my marriage (see here to read about that) rather than depending on my marriage and my spouse to meet all my needs. Part of that was the last few days when I realized that I need to start loving myself and having enough confidence in  myself that I no longer am so dependent on the validation of others (see here to read about that).

In the podcast I mentioned in my previous post (see here to hear that podcast), even though it was about sexuality, it talked about this idea of autonomy in such a profound way. This idea is so very important for each individual and I would again encourage you to listen to the podcast if you have time.

So here’s how autonomy works in my marriage, and why it has been so life changing.

I’m an adult. Ricardo is an adult too. Each of us makes our own decisions because we are adults. Ricardo can choose to be Agnostic, play x-box games, watch horror movies, and drink beer, even though I would rather he didn’t. Why? Because he has his autonomy and no one gets to or should get to make his personal decisions for him. I can similarly choose to attend the LDS church, wear garments, and spend time away from home socializing and participating in my hobbies even though he would rather I didn’t. Why? Because I also am an autonomous adult and no one makes my decisions for me. I don’t tell him what to do, he doesn’t tell me what to do. No one grants me permission, no one needs to, not even my spouse. I could go join the army or the Nazi party tomorrow and no one can tell me I can’t. But then Ricardo can also choose if he wants to stay married to me given my choice. We both choose, and we both own our decisions, there is no room for blame since the choice is our own.

I can say no when I don’t want to do something. In fact, it’s healthy to say no when I don’t want to do something. I used to feel devastated when Ricardo would say no to me. For example, several times in our early marriage, I expressed an intention to engage in a particular activity extra common to newly weds (ahem), and Ricardo told me he was tired. I felt rejected and it took months for my self-esteem to recover because I thought he didn’t find me attractive (after all, men are the sex-starved animals right? He couldn’t possibly have not wanted it, it had to be because I wasn’t attractive enough). But after listening to that podcast I realized that it really, honestly, was okay that he tells me no. It’s okay for everyone to say no. I need to have enough of a healthy sense of self that I don’t take his honest communication to mean that I am not desirable. All he was saying was that he didn’t want to have sex right then, I was the one who interpreted it to mean something was flawed about me, and it’s my job to stop doing that and to start respecting his autonomy and expressing my own.

Nobody owes anyone anything. No one has to meet the other persons needs, whatever those needs are. My spouse doesn’t owe me favors because he is my spouse and visa verse. We are two autonomous people who love each other; we owe each other nothing. Now, since I love Ricardo, when I understand his wants and needs (which I can’t do unless he is communicating openly and honestly with me), I often choose to honor those wants and needs because I love him. But that is my choice, and I sacrifice what I want, when I want. What this means is that a person can also choose not to honor your desires. They don’t have to. They also shouldn’t honor your desire when it is damaging to them because that is not healthy for them.

Love is not about having someone who gives you what you want, love is about having someone who loves you enough that they want to and choose to honor your desires sometimes. Love is beautiful because a person is choosing to share their body, their thoughts, hopes, and desires with you because they want to, and honoring your desires sometimes, even though they don’t have to. When someone succumbs to what you want out of pressure or obligation it means very little, other than that you are controlling, but when someone chooses to sacrifice for you–that is powerful and meaningful. The beauty is in the choice. The beauty is in the fact that someone is there when they could have otherwise been elsewhere. Love is not about belonging to someone and owning someone. It’s not about I am yours and you are mine. We are all our own. Love is about knowing and being known by someone. It’s about sharing yourself and having someone share his most intimate parts of himself with you, by choice.

As we are learning this, our love we share has become deeper because it is genuine rather than manipulated. We are learning to communicate honestly with each other about our desires and to respect the other person’s choice to honor those desires or not. We are learning to say no when it doesn’t work well for us, and to sacrifice freely when we choose to. We are both healthier people for it, and I really believe our love is getting stronger because of it.

That is my secret for a happy marriage, and honestly for a happy and healthy life. I share it with you because I believe we all deserve happiness, and I hope this helps us all find it.

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