How can your marriage work when the two of you are so wildly different? At the start of your marriage, it’s easy to overlook those differences. But the more you get to know your spouse, the more you realize that they are a totally distinct person from you.

While that can be overwhelming or even unexpected, this is an incredible step towards developing intimacy. Learning to appreciate and explore the mystery of the individual you are married to will help you grow closer to one another.

Irreducibility and Autonomy Build Intimacy

The first step, while perhaps a little tedious, is to define terms. Irreducibility and autonomy are critical psychological concepts to nail down. Once you see what each means, you will see how crucial they are as you work to build a marriage together.

Autonomy in Marriage

You and your spouse are separate people. And autonomy means that you each have the ability and the right to govern yourself [1]. Each of you can be independent and complete without the other.

This might seem to contradict how you might see marriage portrayed. Some of the most romantic quotes from movies (e.g. “you complete me”) can give the impression that we are incomplete without the other. This isn’t the case; you are absolutely capable of existing apart from your partner.

Marriage is choosing to become interdependent, to become one, not surrendering the capacity to be independent altogether. Understanding this will protect you against psychological abuse that says that you can’t live without your partner or that says you are nothing without them.

Autonomy in marriage means that no matter what, you and your spouse are two individuals with the ability to make choices independent from each other (even though you have chosen to live inside the union of marriage).

Irreducibility in Marriage

Knowing that you are separate allows you to build on that idea. Since you are autonomous, you will never fully understand the mind and heart of your spouse. This is irreducibility. Being different people means that each of you will have different emotions, thoughts, and motivations.

And this is a great thing! If you could fully understand and comprehend your spouse, then at a certain point, your intimacy would stop growing. Your marriage would become stagnant if you stopped trying to get to know your spouse.

Irreducibility brings hope to marriage. It means there is always something more to know, always another way to become more intimate, to grow, to deepen your understanding of one another.

How Irreducibility Deepens Intimacy in Marriage

As two married, autonomous, irreducible individuals, you are bound to run into differences in thoughts, feelings, perspectives, and experiences. Discovering these differences will affect your behavior and how you interact with one another.[2]

The truth is that discovering these things will take a lifetime. No matter how long you have known each other, you will always surprise one another. This should not cause you to feel anxious or somehow inadequate as a spouse. Instead, this should encourage you to pursue one another continually.

Irreducibility brings vibrancy, mystery, and excitement. If you embrace it in your marriage, you will never be bored with your spouse. Instead, you will have a foundation for exploration, creativity, understanding, and intimacy between you.

The Gap Can Bring You Closer

We’ve put together a downloadable PDF with practical strategies to bring these ideas into your daily lives. You’ll learn how to create small, meaningful moments of discovery and to open the door for bigger conversations about your dreams, goals, and hopes for the future. Join our Patreon, and get access to these strategies today.

How To Make Autonomy and Irreducibility Work For You

Now that you know what autonomy and irreducibility are and the roles they play in marriage in general, here are some practical steps to see how they can deepen the intimacy in your own lives:

Go For Understanding

It’s not enough to know about autonomy and irreducibility in marriage. Those concepts only give you the framework. If for whatever reason you have stopped trying to understand each other, you need to take the next logical step. You need to pursue your lifelong journey of understanding your spouse.

This journey will be full of wonder and surprises. As you continually get to know your spouse, resist the urge to give up, thinking that somehow you’ve made it. Instead, let curiosity push you forward. As you learn more and more about each other, you will understand each other better, deepening your intimacy.[3]

Leverage Autonomy to Spice Things Up

Sometimes without realizing, you can find yourself in a rut or a routine. You’ve started to coast, no longer driven by curiosity to explore one another. In these moments, remember that there’s more to explore, to understand about each other.

So try something new. Use your autonomy, your ability to make decisions as an individual to help the two of you discover new experiences together. Put yourselves in an unfamiliar environment or situation. There, you will find something new to learn with and about your spouse, helping you get out of that rut.

Beware Independence

However, there is a balance to be had here. You need to be careful not to put too much value on autonomy and independence in marriage. Research shows that overemphasis on individualism and personal space is linked to higher divorce rates.[4]

While you do need to acknowledge your differences in marriage, you also must partner and work together as one flesh. This is why you need to bring in the other ingredients of intimacy–vulnerability, curiosity, and empathy. These provide counterbalances to autonomy and independence.

Marriage is about two “Me’s” becoming “We.” If you forget this and remain as two “Me’s,” you will start to undo intimacy.

Practice Compromise

Finally, as you embrace the irreducibility and autonomy in your marriage, you need to learn to employ healthy compromise. Again, learn to find balance. In abusive marriages, only one person can enforce their will. When this happens, the other partner will secretly look for ways to free themselves.[5]

So if you don’t compromise and become overbearing and domineering, you will push away your spouse.

Compromise is not about betraying your values in favor of theirs. Compromise is an invitation into a dance where each of you learns what the other wants. And together you find your rhythm and step forward through the song as one.

Whenever you are making decisions, do everything you can to find out what the other is thinking. Just because they agree with your suggestion doesn’t mean that they are happy with it. Compromise sometimes means doing the hard work of asking questions even when you think you know their answers.

Asking questions invites them into a conversation where they can share who they truly are. And compromise allows each of you to express yourselves and even surprise one another as you deepen your intimacy as a couple.


[1] Laceulle, H. (2018). “Autonomy. In Aging and Self-Realization: Cultural Narratives about Later Life” (Pp. 159-188). Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag. Retrieved from Http://Www.Jstor.Org/Stable/j.Ctv8d5tp1.9.

[2] Wilson, J., & Musick, M. (1995). “Personal Autonomy in Religion and Marriage; Is There a Link? Review of Religious Research”, 37(1), 3-18. Doi:10.2307/3512067.

[3] Obert, Julia C. “What We Talk about When We Talk about Intimacy.” Emotion, Space and Society 21 (November 1, 2016): 25–32.

[4] Wilson, J., & Musick, M. (1995). “Personal Autonomy in Religion and Marriage; Is There a Link? Review of Religious Research”, 37(1), 3-18. Doi:10.2307/3512067.

[5] Weber, M., & Bermingham, C. (2003). “Authority and Autonomy in Marriage. Sociological Theory”, 21(2), 85-102. Retrieved from Http://Www.Jstor.Org/Stable/3108620.