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May 29, 2020

Balancing Independence and Interdependence in Marriage

Every healthy marriage manages a balance between independence and interdependence. Research suggests that a bit more than half of us handle this naturally. The rest of us must pay a bit more attention, because it's not our natural style.

Psychologists call the ability to naturally notice and make corrections in this balance a secure attachment style. When you're both busy doing your own thing, exploring interests you don't share, launching a new solo project, spending time with friends you're not both crazy about, pounding out work for too many hours, or not feeling the need for physical closeness, if you have a secure attachment style, you deliberately schedule some pleasurable time together or you send brief, supportive text messages or put love notes in each other's pockets. And when your anxieties about life or your relationship or other difficult emotions have kept you monopolizing your spouse's time and attention for a bit too long, you encourage him or her to do something independently.

I've been thinking about this lately, because I lost a very dear friend last November and another two weeks ago. Both were my friends through my work, so my husband was not especially close to them and does not share my great grief. I have needed quite a bit of interdependence both times. I've wanted him to comfort me with favorite foods and comforting hugs and kisses. I've needed to ask him to handle several of my chores that I just cannot get to. I've felt frantic when he's not available as the next wave of grief gets triggered. I've even imagined any pulling back from my requests for support might be a sign of problems in our relationship, rather than a healthy attempt to restore our balance. Earlier in life, this Anxious Attachment Style was mine, all the time. Now, it's just making a short-term visit, and I'm quite conscious of the need for a bit of balance, so I am also relying on friends for my immediate emotional needs, especially friends who share my grief. I'm happy to call my current attachment style Secure But Grieving.

The other side of that big, happy middle of Secure Attachment is the Avoidant Attachment Style. Folks with this style are naturally focused only on making sure they don't lose their Independence. This is, of course, a very important goal. Marriages don't work without some Independence, some dreams and friends and hobbies and stories of our own. But until they know better, those with an Avoidant Style don't even notice the other side of the balance, the Interdependence side. They depend on their mate to make sure that is there for them. This why you almost never see Avoidant-Avoidant couples lasting more than a very short while. It's also why there is so much roller-coaster-style drama in an Avoidant-Anxious couple until the Anxious Attachment Style spouse abandons hope.

A very small percentage of us have a mix of both Anxious and Avoidant Attachment Styles, full of internal drama that makes a healthy marriage nearly impossible without some professional help.

Take it from someone whose emotions are all screaming "Take Care of Me!" right now -- your emotions should not be your only guide in marriage. Do your part to maintain the balance, because when you do need and get help, it's so great to get it from someone who has known you so well for so long because you managed to maintain good balance over many years, even if it doesn't come naturally.

And if you have a Secure Attachment Style, but you married someone who doesn't, keep looking for Third Alternatives to choices presented to you as either/or. The more practice you two get doing this on all sorts of decisions, the easier it will be to get your spouse to try it when his or her emotions are screaming for too much Independence or Interdependence.

The Author

Patty Newbold is a widow who got it right the second time...

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