Autonomy and Collaboration--Not Mere Buzzwords

How to collaborate without losing your autonomy

Posted Nov 07, 2019

Keeping your perspective

Being married can feel like you’re at risk of losing your independence or your autonomy.  How do you and your spouse keep a perspective of yourselves both as individuals and as a couple at the same time—the sense of “being in this together” while also having “a sense of autonomy?”  

You can think about “being in this together” as being willing and able to collaborate with one another.  Autonomy comes from ancient Greek: auto-nomos — auto, "self" + nomos, "law" — "ruled by one's own laws."   

Being collaborative

In marriage, collaboration is about negotiating on what you each need to flourish as human beings. Now you have a partner to help you flourish as an individual! Being collaborators in your marriage means the following:

  • Collaborators are equal. True collaborators are equals. Collaborators negotiate with one another in good faith.
  • Collaborators share authority.  Neither partner is more equal than the other.
  • Collaborators do not capitulate (give in).   Collaboration protects individual autonomy.  Most of us have a (possibly subconscious) fear of being overwhelmed by someone and are reluctant to surrender any part of our autonomy in a relationship.  True collaboration does not require this type of surrender.
  • Collaboration is not the same thing as cooperation.   Collaboration is about the process of working together, while cooperation is about the result of working together.  For example, I can cooperate with you by stepping aside while you do what you want to do.
  • Collaboration is not compromising.  One partner “giving into” the other, thinking that he/she is “compromising” is not how negotiating collaboratively works. This “giving in” is usually for some personal reasons.
  • Collaboration is not accommodating.  To unilaterally make an “accommodation” can be a form of compromise.  It is as if you are saying, “I think I can live with that,” but you are really separating yourself from the process and your partner.

Collaboration in marriage comes from the unique qualities and contributions of the collaborators.  If either of you does not participate as fully engaged and equal partners, it might as well be one person making the decisions.


Independence or autonomy rests on the idea that you have individual wants and desires that flow from your individual life plan.  Here are some thoughts about what autonomy or independence means:

  • Having a sense of self.  Having a sense of self means you have your own thoughts and ideas.
  • Having your individual life plans. You have ideas about what is important in life for you to flourish and you are willing to state them openly.
  • Being able to accept other viewpoints.  Having a sense of yourself allows you to consider other viewpoints without losing your own perspective.
  • Being independent does not mean being alone.  Being independent has nothing to do with enjoying being with other people.


Too often, we think of autonomy and collaboration as antagonistic, i.e. if the more you have of one quality, the less you have of the other.  You may worry that collaborating with your spouse will endanger your autonomy.  On the other hand, you may worry that being independent depends on never “giving in,” which is what collaboration can feel like.

In healthy marriages, couples can maintain the tension between being collaborative and independent. They can be collaborative without their independence being threatened and they can be independent and work collaboratively with their spouse without feeling that they are being used or taken advantage of.

The schematic below gives you a picture of the tension that you must maintain to both be true to yourself and true to your spouse, i.e. be in a committed relationship with him/her.

Catherine E. Aponte, Psy.D
Keeping Your Perspective
Source: Catherine E. Aponte, Psy.D

The horizontal line between wife and husband represents a marriage that has the ideal togetherness and individuality for that couple.  The vertical dotted line represents being able to see yourselves as both an individual and a couple at the same time. This schematic shows that marriage is about collaborating with one another while maintaining a sense of autonomy. 


Doesn’t collaborating with your wife mean that you should you check with her if you want to have a night out?  Shouldn’t you be able to make decisions for yourself?  Should your wife question your choices even if you made them without checking with her?  Are you not the “head of the household?”  Here is how one newly married man described it:

Shortly after tying the knot, a friend asked if I wanted to watch a football game at a local bar and grill.  I hesitated.  ‘Maybe.  Let me check with the wife first.’ Then I quickly added, ‘I’m probably forgetting some plans we’ve already made, but if not, then I’m definitely in.’  The sinking feeling in my stomach begged two gnawing questions.  First, did I give up my decision-making power at the wedding altar?  And, second, did I lose some manhood along with it?[1]

In marrying, you will be going from independent bachelor to interdependent married man.  Being interdependent means learning how to work collaboratively with your wife.  This is not achieved by simply ceding authority to her; it is done by being willing to negotiate collaboratively the issues that arise in your marriage.  Negotiating collaboratively is about the way you interact with her. Negotiating that you will each check with the other on decisions that involve the other is one example of how you work collaboratively with your spouse. 

If your sense of independence feels threatened being collaborative, it may feel like your sense of masculinity or manhood is being threatened.  Being married gives you the chance to challenge your own, often quite sub-conscious, sense of masculinity or manhood.  The traditional societal view of masculinity revolves around a set of core features that a man must demonstrate or aspire to which includes power, authority, rationality, risk-taking, dominance, control, independence, and suppression of emotions. Being married affords you the chance to define your own sense of masculinity.


As a wife, you can fall into the marital trap of being “nice” to your husband.  Being “nice” can be a way of acting out society’s instruction that women should be “nurturing” and “caring” to others.  Other qualities assumed to be female include receptivity, being empathic, sharing, tenderness, accommodating, and patience.  Being married affords you the opportunity to define our own sense of femininity. 

Making unilateral accommodations to your husband instead of talking about your own wishes and wants can feel like you’re being “nice.”  This kind of “niceness” is a way of playing out more traditional views that wives should be “collaborative”—with collaboration meaning accommodating.  This kind of accommodating is implicitly saying, “I will make sure you get what you want, even without your having to ask me for it.” And, eventually you will resent him for not being “nice” in return.  

Your own insecurities may get in the way of being an independent partner:

  • Not asserting what you want to avoid being criticized.
  • Thinking that if you are nice to him, he will be nice to you.
  • Avoiding being thought of as too aggressive.
  • Not being a “good girl.”

For your marriage to work, you must invest yourself in it.  Investing yourself is not about being “nice.”  It is about “being” something—about having a sense of yourself as an autonomous person.


Keeping a simultaneous perspective on autonomy and collaboration is the secret to a successful marriage of equal partners.  You may be more threatened by collaboration if you are a husband—it feels like your sense of manhood is at risk by collaborating with you wife.  If you are a wife, your threat may come from being too independent—it may feel like you are not being feminine enough, not being nice.

Remember, in effective, supportive, and healthy marriages, couples can maintain the tension between being collaborative and being independent.  The hard work of paying attention to and maintaining this balance is worth the effort!  


  • Collaboration without autonomy ends up being wishy-washy, neither partner taking the risk of putting forth his/her wants.
  • Autonomy without collaboration ends up in separateness and isolation from each other. 
  • Collaboration without autonomy can create a marriage where nobody assumes personal accountability.
  • Autonomy without collaboration lacks the joint contributions needed to live well together.


1. Sentell, Eric.  “Why Sacrificing Power Helps Husbands Gain Masculinity,” Role Reboot: Life Off Script (blog), September 13, 2011.

2.  ___________ "Collaboration and Autonomy.  Kaiser.