What the Knot Is Made Of
20 minute read time
The spousal relationship is one of the largest and most dominant relationships in most people’s lives. Rather than thinking of it as a single bond tying two people together, I wondered if it may be helpful to think of it as a number of smaller relationships between those same two people.
When two people get married, we say they “tied the knot”. So if we think of “Marriage” as a rope connecting to people, then the rope is made up of individual strands.
A good visual representation would be the marketing image on this tennis string. There is a central fiber which has additional fibers woven around it. The number, types, and even orientations of the outside fibers will greatly impact the functioning and properties of the string as a whole.
I think there are a few positive strands that a marriage can have:
- Life Partner - This would be the central fiber that carries the rest
And there are also a handful of threads that trend towards negative or unhealthy and can weaken the integrity of the knot:
- Drill Sergeant
- Enemy, Rival, or Nuisance
- The Self - Either focus on the self or being Codependent
I’m thinking it may be helpful to more formally introduce boundaries between the different relationships so as to keep intentions clear and feelings unhurt. With my wife’s agreement, I might experiment with this in our life.
Naturally, some strands can be helpful and save one of the members, while others can chafe or restrict uncomfortably.
With one exception, none of these relationships is a necessary part of a healthy and happy marriage/dyad. There are many cases where a couple simply lives too far apart to be Lovers (deployed military for example). Many people, famously including some celebrities, have found their marriage to be happier when they stop living together and remove the Roommate aspect. Similarly with the other roles as well.
Additionally, there is no need to consider each of these to be exclusively the domain of the spousal relationship, unless both parties prefer it that way. Obviously, people should have Friends outside of their marriage. Usually a grandparent or nanny will become a member of the childcare Team, and spouses should definitely have people they can turn to elsewhere as Confidants and Advisors. Less obviously, there are also Roommate dynamics with others: some couples live in shared spaces with others, and there is also the typical case of living with your children as you raise them, or your parents as they get older and need help. And there are also as many as ¼ of Americans who have chosen to have the Lover relationship be non-exclusive in some regard.
That is a long way of saying that you and your partner can and should discuss which of these relationships is best for you and how they might figure into your life. This should also be an ongoing discussion, as you will both change over time, as will your needs and your life. The relationship should change accordingly.
Ultimately, this is a tool help you and your partner discuss what you want in your life together and how to get there from wherever you are.
This is a giant exploration of the grey areas of life. Where is the line between helpful and overbearing? Between loving and smothering? It’s impossible to say in general, and it’s often a very thin line. These things are something partners should discuss together and agree on. Throughout this post, I occasionally talk as if it’s obvious where the difference between “healthy” and “unhealthy” is, but it usually isn’t If you do decide to apply this thinking to your own life, please do so carefully and with a lot of thought and communication. If you’re not sure where something falls relative to those lines, listen to your body and spirit. If you’re still not sure, ask a trusted friend who is outside of the relationship.
This is all a hypothesis and mental model I have created based on my own lived experience and based on listening to stories from all kinds of people. I do use it myself and I believe it has some Truth to it, but like all models it is certainly wrong but useful.
Let’s start with what is — in my mind at least — the only necessity and that which defines a marriage as unique from other relationships. Fundamentally, it is an agreement to spend a significant portion of your life together and work towards a shared vision of a shared life. The shared vision should be something you discuss regularly and agree on, that you’re both fully invested in. Typically, these discussions start informally long before a marriage or even proposal. As they well should, it is best to ensure compatibility before legally ratifying such things. But I also think it is probably a good thing to have such discussions regularly and more formally. Are you going to have kids? Who will take care of them? Where do you want to live? What kind of work lives do you want? What about social lives? What sort of activities do you want to do separately or together?
Achieving this shared vision will require compromise and sacrifice from both parties. But those should be compromises and sacrifices that each individual makes voluntarily and without compulsion. Ultimately, both partners need to be fully bought in to the goal otherwise there will be problems later.
In my mind, this is the core of the rope that the other threads of the relationship are wound around. This core relationship is not enough to maintain the marriage if none of the other five threads are present, or if one of the negative relationships is too strong. But at the same time, it is vital to keeping the marriage strong. If this shared vision doesn’t exist, is ambiguous, or is even confused, it can lead to the other threads fraying and slowly unraveling.
The shared vision includes things like where you live, what your work-life balance is, how many kids you have, and all that good stuff. But it should probably also include some ideas about your relationship. Boundaries, what is part of your relationship, what is outside of it, and how the following threads fit together for the two of you.
Positives Relationship Threads
This is the classic romantic relationship. The dates, the flirting, the chemistry, and the sexual tension. It’s also how many relationships start, with a lot of romantic energy.
We are humans, and living creatures, and sexual desire and activity is something we need to stay healthy and happy. If this isn’t part of your spousal relationship, something needs to change stat. It isn’t strictly necessary, but it is often the first thing to break down that leads to other, larger issues. Think of how many couples you know that move into separate bedrooms and eventually part ways. It can also be a canary in the coal mine warning you of a hidden issue elsewhere, whether in the marriage or with one of the individuals (such as past or current traumas).
Most people look back fondly on the beginning of their relationship, when this was the dominant force keeping them together. Similarly, it is often suggested as a cure when things are starting to weaken. Taking each other out to fancy dates, dressing up nice, and generally trying to romance or seduce one another can help keep this healthy. Paradoxically, time spent apart often helps this area stay strong when you are together. There is also a growing body evidence that sexual boredom is a leading cause of divorce, so any way to keep it interesting will help with that.
Of course, if there is an issue elsewhere, no amount of fancy dates, freedom, or bedroom experimentation will resolve that. And all couples go through periods where there is simply a temporary incompatibility in some regard, and should be prepared for this thread to become less reliable, without feeling as though the romance is gone forever.
In our society these days, this description is often used to describe a marriage that is on it’s last legs. Which is true — if this is the only relationship left. But this can be one of the most powerful elements in a happy, healthy, life. How? Well, it’s quite simple really:
- Both participants should take care of the household as if they’re the only one doing it.
- Both participants should openly display their gratitude for the things the other person does.
That seems perhaps too simple and deceptively easy. Which is all the more reason to focus on it each and every day. The Great Wall was built one brick at a time, as were the pyramids.
This may not be the most glamorous part of the relationship, but it can be a strong pillar and make the other areas much easier. Think how much more eager you would be to wash the dishes if your spouse actually looked you in the eye and thanked you every time. Or how grateful you would feel if you were dreading mopping only to realize it had already been done.
This also build an underlying, everyday foundation of trust, mutual appreciation, and mutual respect that can keep a relationship going through hard times. If the romance is the fire, then this aspect is the hearth that gives it somewhere safe and the wood that feeds it.
This is a husband asking career advice from his wife or the wife telling her husband that she’s worried about her parent’s health. We all sometimes need a confidant with whom we can share our deepest secrets. Or an advisor we can ask to give us an honest and unflinching opinion but with love and respect. Most people turn to their spouse for this, and for many they may even feel their spouse is the only one they can turn too.
And it is vital to treat this particular relationship thread with the care and respect it deserves. There are many ways this can go wrong, which I talk about later. This is also an area that benefits greatly from transparent communication because it can easily get confused with making decisions together as a life parter or the support of a Friend.
But when it’s going right, you can make each other better in so many ways and become an unstoppable duo. Especially when your spouse has a drastically different perspective than you.
This is surprisingly hard word to use here, but there’s no denying that it should be one. So many couples refer to each other as their best friend, and count themselves lucky for marrying theirs. But
friend can also be a broad and overloaded word.
The way I’ve chosen to interpret it is that a couple has fun together. Relaxed time where the primary purpose is hanging out. Now, that doesn’t mean this has to be unstructured time that does nothing else. It could mean watching a TV show, or playing tennis, or going on a hike or even doing new things like skydiving. Really the only requirement is that it is time together where you’re having fun together and the other aspects don’t interfere too much.
I feel like this is a more potent aspect of the relationship when it involves getting out of the house/shared space a little bit. When done well, it feels like taking a break from the world and all the burdens that can come with life.
While many couples start out as Lovers and then develop a deeper relationship, it is also very common for couples to start out as Friends and develop a more romantic relationship from there. But no matter how you get there, the ability to have shared experiences, laugh and have fun together, and have a shared friend group can be a huge positive in a relationship. Like all of the other threads, it can have its pitfalls and if it’s the only element of the relationship it can ultimately spell disaster.
There’s something incredible about watching a good team at work. Whether a famous example such as Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski or my own personal favorite from the world of tennis: the Bryan Brothers. They way they are working towards the same goal in near perfect unison. They seem to be able to predict exactly what their partner is going to do before they even start moving. They consult on the right strategy together between points and trust each other utterly. They are empowered to do what they think is right with minimal communication. And examples don’t just come from the world of sports but business, military, and yes — marriages.
Do you have a shared goal with your spouse? One that you are both working towards together? This could be a move cross-country, buying a house, raising kids, or even building that new IKEA TV cabinet.
What separates this thread from the others is that it tends to happen in more pressured/stressful situations where communication on every individual decision is not an option. These contexts are often views as “stress tests” of existing relationship dynamics, but I think it makes more sense as a fully separate relationship.
It takes transparent communication, trust, and an intimate knowledge of the other person’s behaviors and motivations; practicing teamwork will also build those skills for use in the other threads.
If you’re thinking “Wow, that’s a lot going on”, well, I agree with you. I think there is a lot of pressure put on the single “marriage” relationship and it begins to make more sense when viewed as a bundle of shared relationships. I suspect that many, if not most, failed relationships could be attributed to lines getting crossed between these and the overloading of pressure onto a “single” relationship, which is in fact all of these combined.
But I also have come up with a series of ways that these can be corrupted, which I have called shadow relationships, because it sounded cool.
These range from the unhealthy to the downright dangerous. Every person or couple has a natural inclination towards some of these, so you must be aware and try to avoid that. Most of them are also related to one of the positive relationships.
Now, you can have elements of one of these and be OK. But such situations should be treated with caution; we’ve all known couples who display one of these and seem fine for a time, even for decades. But the bill comes due eventually. Sometimes one person pays the price slowly over a lifetime, sometimes it leads to an eventual divorce, and sometimes both participants seem ok, but it damages the people around them or their children.
If you see one of these in your relationship and you think it is ok, talk with your partner and see if they feel the same way. If so, great, keep on trucking! But if not, try to steer the relationship towards a more healthy expression.
Also, be cautious and compassionate in how you ask your spouse. Most of these shadow relationships are unhealthy because they create an imbalanced power dynamic, which can lead to one member of the relationship feeling like they have no control or freedom. Sometimes, the disempowered partner will even have a hard time admitting that they don’t feel comfortable with the status quo when asked. In the most extreme cases, the imbalanced power dynamic becomes abuse.
Let’s just get this one out of the way right of the bat. This is bad. I am not qualified to talk about this in any depth, but if one member of the dyad is using any element of the relationships to harass, shame, or manipulate the other member, that is abusive and needs to be stopped. Not all abuse is physical either, emotional abuse and manipulation are traumatic and wrong. Sometimes, the relationship can be rebuilt with couples therapy, but if you think you may be in an abusive relationship, try to find a way out. Your friends probably feel something is off and will want to help you. They miss you.
If you have been abused in the past, you may notice some of the healthy threads are a challenge for you or you are no longer interested in them. Be honest with your partner about what you are feeling and why. You don’t need to relive past traumas, just tell them that it’s not for you and it not their fault. If any of the threads is too traumatic for you, you do not owe it to your partner to try anyway. A relationship can be happy and healthy without any given thread.
If your spouse was in an abusive relationship in the past, you need to understand that they still love you, even if sometimes some of the threads aren’t quite what you would hope for. This is ok, because that will be true of almost anyone in any relationship. Enjoy the relationship for what it is and know that it can be happy and healthy even without all of the threads I’ve listed. If you feel like some of your needs are not being met over the long term, be honest with your partner, but don’t shame or pressure them. Work through your shared life vision together, taking both partners needs into consideration, and see how your relationship structure or life vision can change to allow both people to thrive.
This is one is a shadow relationship of the Rock/Advisor above. It can start of innocuous or even positive. Or maybe it was the relationship that existed before the couple started dating.
Let’s be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water. Some of the strongest and healthiest relationships rely on this dynamic, and it can be a powerful force for change in an individual. And if you look closely at such successful relationships, you’ll see that both members are constantly learning from each other. They have complimentary strengths and weaknesses.
Personally, I would be inclined to slot such interactions into “The Rock” domain. Although I could be convinced it belongs as its own healthy relationship.
But if it’s always going one way, there’s a problem. It’s easy to see how this can create an uneven power dynamic. Oftentimes, it even leads to the Mentor offering unsolicited advice and instruction at every opportunity.
There are also some subtypes of this relationship that are worth noting:
- Parent-child: this is characterized by some degree of infantalizing the partner by the Mentor role. Sometimes this takes the form of explaining things again and again and again and again, sometimes it takes the role of doing things for them because they believe (rightly or wrongly) that the partner can’t.
- Coach/Drill Sergeant: If the mentor role is always pushing the other one to do better and be better and inducing shame (purposefully or not), this is also a problem. Yes, it’s ok to have high standards for yourself, but those cannot extend to anyone else. Similarly, it is ok to hold your partner accountable when they have asked you to. If they haven’t asked for accountability, your role is support and compassion. It’s life, not boot camp.
Enemy, Rival, or Nuisance
This one may seem pretty obvious, and can come from almost any of the positive relationships. You definitely don’t want to view your spouse as an enemy who is thwarting your attempts to live the life you want to live. They shouldn’t be a rival that you constantly need to beat or one-up. And they shouldn’t annoy you in every little thing they do.
A little bit of competition can even be healthy to push both partners to be better versions of themselves. But it should not be constant and it should have limits. And outside of those spaces, a success for your partner should feel like a success for you. It should be progress towards your shared vision of life.
Similarly, it’s completely normal to be annoyed by your partner some of the time or by some of the things they do. Nobody is perfect. But if it becomes constant, if you start finding yourself annoyed at things that never bothered you before, start looking for what might actually be bothering you. Look in the other aspects of the relationship, but also within your self. And if nothing else is bothering you and all other threads seem fine, you may just need a little bit of personal time to come back feeling refreshed. Go workout, get a massage, or meet up with some friends and see how you feel when you get home.
This is a shadow trait that may grow out of the Roommate relationship and (again) can cause uneven power dynamics. One partner will naturally have a stronger opinion about certain household chores/activities than the other, and these standards definitely should be discussed. However, if compromise can’t be reached, if one partner starts becoming demanding or bossy, or becomes the guy from Office Space, you need to talk about how to change the dynamic.
It is good to spend time with your partner and to make decisions together. Certainly major life decisions they should participate in. But space and independence is also important.
If you can’t schedule a dinner with your friends without bringing your spouse along, that’s a red flag. If you can’t schedule a dinner with your friends on your own without asking permission, that’s an orange flag. You should have the freedom to do these things of your own free will, while also being intentional and respectful of the impacts on your partner. I’m a major advocate of shared digital calendars and each spouse getting at least 2 fun hours a week out of the house independently.
We’ve all known people who get so wrapped up in the fun beginning of a relationship that they disappear for a while. And we’ve probably all known people when we see them again after that, they are different somehow. They’ve lost a little bit of their identity and assumed aspects of their new partner’s identity. Perhaps we’ve even been that friend. The problem is you can get so focused on your partner and keeping them happy that you forget who you are. It should be obvious how this harms yourself and your friends. But also think how it harms the person you are now obsessed with. They fell in love with the old you, and now you’re with them 24/7, but it’s a you who’s been stripped of all the interesting bits. Be yourself, prioritize your own happiness, and know that your partner’s happiness and self worth is not your responsibility. You actually have no power to impact their emotions, the only one with that power is them.
Other times, this takes the form of a partner who begins to base their self worth on the success of the relationship. Or worse, how successful the relationship looks to the outside world. In case this describes you, stop that. You are valuable and worthy of love the way you are. You don’t need any one or any thing for that to be true. And the relationship will probably be more successful if you stop putting pressure on it to be successful
And finally, there’s the last way that The Self can manifest in a relationship that indicates a problem. When faced with a hardship, pain, or a deep unhappiness, some people will withdraw into themselves. They will stop participating in some or all of the above threads. This is also a red flag that something needs to be addressed. If you see your partner doing this, reach out with whatever thread is currently strongest between the two of you. Toss them something to hold on to. And if you’re withdrawing, grab onto whatever the strongest thread is. If you tell them, your partner will help pull you out of the darkness.
Wait, so What Do I Do With This?
If you’ve managed to read this far, I really appreciate you! You may also be a little overwhelmed and wondering what you do with this mental model.Well first off, think about it and what parts you see Truth in and what parts you disagree with.
Sidebar: I would love to hear what you disagree with so I can learn!
And then once you’ve figured out what parts are useful to you, start to look at your relationship through this lens sometimes. Maybe even share it with your partner and use it to review where your relationship has been and design how you want it to be going forward.
- Which threads are your strongest?
- Which are your weakest?
- How have these changed over time? (most couples will notice Lover and even Friend getting weaker after having kids while Teammate grows stronger)
- Do you have any of the negative threads? How can you manage them so they don’t cause hurt?
- Which threads are most important to both or either of you?
- Which threads are exclusive to your relationship and which are you comfortable sharing? (Most people will agree spouses should have friends outside the relationship, but far fewer will want someone else living with them)
- Which (if any) threads do you think you have no need for? Does your partner feel the same way?
- Of the threads you want to improve, what is each person’s ideal vision? (Do you prefer fancy date nights, romantic picnics, or sensual massages? How do you manage household tasks and other roommatey things?)
- Do you need to communicate which relationship you are in at different times? If so, how do you want to do that? (“I’m upset right now and just need you to be a Friend, not an Advisor.” Or maybe you’re talking about job issues, do you need a Life Partner to make a decision with or a Rock to listen and give feedback?)
- Or just use it to have a natural, intuitive conversation with your partner and see where it leads. Even if it means you both just talk about how dumb I am 😂
Thank you so much for reading! As is so often the case, I wrote this for myself as well, so please let me know where you see flaws or gaps in my thinking or any changes you may suggest.
Special Thanks to Kayla Gee, Becca Rosenblum, and Austin Tokarz for reading drafts of this and helping me refine the idea.
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Have a great day!