Autonomy and Connection in Relationship
by David A. Yeats LCSW

When couples figure out that their joy in relationship doesn’t come from focusing only on the ways we are connected, but equally on the ways we are separate, new possibilities and a new sense of ease and comfort can result.  Couples start to move out of the Urge to Merge Stage, or the honeymoon phase of relationship— that first glorious and delightful time as a relationship is beginning when we bask in the delight of each other’s company and only want more—and we start instead to notice that we want to feel our own individuality too.  

We start to sense that it isn’t possible to remain in the bubble of each other’s embrace:  that we need to move back toward greater engagement with our own self, and with the world at large.  It is not that we have suddenly become uninterested in our partner, but that we have rediscovered a sense of needing to pay attention to our own interests and our own separate path as well. As a chick emerges from an egg, we have arrived at the second stage, the Urge to Diverge Stage of relationship.

Usually, one partner feels the need to reclaim their sense of separate self first, while the other pleads for the blissful Merger to continue. Inevitably, conflict—perhaps for the first time—begins to show up between the partners. Inevitably as well, when partners begin to navigate the territory of the second stage of relationship, the Urge to Diverge Stage, there will be a power struggle that is born between the partners.  

If a relationship is to grow, the rupture of the bubble of the first stage and the power struggle of the second stage are necessary, just as childbirth is essential for a newborn to emerge from the womb, taking time and causing pain.  It is the time and the pain that can result in a gradual resolution of power struggle for the couple, if we are able to create a clear and definitive and committed vision in our relationship for the individual autonomy of both partners.

A significant majority of couples who seek couples therapy do so because they are stuck in this dynamic of power struggle.  Typically, one partner is the Primary Guardian of Closeness in the relationship, and the other is the Primary Guardian of the Separateness in the relationship. One partner advocates for prioritizing the relationship, while the other insists on emphasizing autonomy.

When couples have resolved this conflict, their relationship will tend to have these features: 
-we will both be Guardians of Closeness and both be Guardians of Separateness for the relationship,
virtually equally. 
-we will experience our relationship as equal parts closeness and separateness.  
-we will insist that we spend time with each other in predictable, reliable, deliberate, and quality ways
(with the emphasis on quality, not necessarily frequency or quantity), and 
-we will both be strong advocates for the independence and autonomy of our partner and ourselves. 
-each partner trusts, feel safe, seen, and prioritized, even as there may be frequent or long periods of time
where either or both partners are engaged in their own separately evolving selves and separate
evolving stories. 

If we experience our relationship with our partner this way, we have moved through the Urge to Diverge Stage, and have safely landed in the third, incredibly rewarding, stage of relationship, the Urge to Converge Stage.

If we are not experiencing this peace and closure around our conflicts as a couple, our work is to continue to move through the painful birth that describes the Urge to Diverge Stage. Posts on Triggered States, Time Outs with CPR, Boundaries and Bridges, Three Gardens, Two Truths, and Self Care in Relationships, and others, all directly address strategies and tools for navigating the power struggles of the Urge to Emerge Stage of relationship.

Still, the most important and most difficult notion for couples to address is the impulse to reestablish a sense of autonomy akin to what we experienced prior to relationship, and also hold on to the precious connection we have found with another. 

The difficulty is in wrapping our arms around the idea that establishing clear boundaries around the separateness of each person in the relationship, and each partner being an advocate for that autonomy, actually deepens and solidifies a relationship, and allows it to endure and grow in a healthy and satisfying way for both partners! 

The person most desirous of greater separateness may feel they understand that, but until we as a couple have reached true agreement on how we co-share Guardianship of Closeness and Separateness, and until we have begun to agree and to act—and trust it—in a way that keeps an eye on the balance of both, neither of us really gets it, because, paradoxically, autonomy in the relationship is something we establish together.

Very frequently, one or the other partner, out of great love and the best of intentions, offers unsolicited input, advice, observations, suggestions, and even expectations for the other partner.  While the person receiving the input may appear to be taking it in, under the surface of the flat expression things will likely be churning. 

Since the natural developmental direction in relationship has to do with incorporating the autonomy of both partners, things that obstruct that—from one partner’s internal inhibitions, perhaps, about acting independently; to a fear that acting independently will betray a partner, or start an argument;  to a partner’s fears about  their own well being leading them to trying to control the external world and their partner’s choices; or to a misguided belief that we as a couple should work to retain the rules and agreements of the Urge to Merge Stage—will be a repetitive trigger in the relationship.

Often, this triggering is compounded even more, because there is an unidentified dynamic in the relationship that partners can act in parental ways with each other.  You can tell me what to regarding aspects of my autonomy (what food, friends, interests, work, leisure choices I prefer, for example), and I can do the same with you, in a reciprocal agreement to parent each other.  We take turns acting in roles of parent or child, with the dynamics of inequality, control, and judgment that accompany that approach. Or, perhaps, one partner assumes that because they believe they have knowledge and insight about their partner, that they may know what is best for them, and offer that unsolicited advice, (that looks a lot like parenting a child), free of charge.  But if one partner assumes the role of a parent, either a father or a mother, the other is relegated to take on the role of the child, and will feel shame, powerlessness, infantilized, and less than, disrespected, controlled or angry.

And the death knell of intimacy is inequality—in agreement, in assumption, in words, in action.  So even though we may be well intended, love our partner, and have our partner’s best wishes at heart, when we don’t establish and respect the boundaries between ours and our partner’s autonomous functioning, we are creating issues, pain, and dysfunction for our relationship. And this is for two clear reasons, and likely, many more as well: 1) if we don’t support each other’s autonomy, we don’t support each other’s growth, (but rather, we reinforce the behavior of  deferring to another, that is, we reinforce greater dependence) and 2), we guarantee a buildup of resentment and resistance that tears down, gradually, any real intimacy between two people, and establishes in its place an unequal, disempowering, and probably a contentious parent-child relationship between two partners instead.

The definition of emotional intimacy is this: two people who say what their truth is to each other; who are willing to (slow down and) hear, understand, and have empathy for each other’s truth; and then to collaborate so that both of their truths, (and  needs, and concerns) can be  honored and addressed between them in a way that works for both.

It is not possible to create that kind of relationship if either partner dishonors the separateness of the other.  We are born alone, and we die alone, and in between, through the richness, caring, diversity, and relationships we experience with other humankind, we move along our own individual unique path toward greater knowing and greater becoming.  Our partner can be the greatest advocate of that knowing and becoming, but not by trying to tell us how we should do our independent journey.

If there is a power struggle in a relationship, the other polarity (opposite autonomy) is connection. The core conflict of any power struggle in a relationship has to do with the autonomy/connection continuum.  While we need to consciously and strongly advocate for each other’s autonomy in relationship, we also both need to advocate for our connection: advocating for our relationship, our common goals, and tending to the relationship needs of both partners.

That connection advocacy means that, around the issues or aspects of issues that affect us both, if we want to have a healthy and joyful relationship, we need to come to a common agreement that incorporates what we both need. (See the post on The Nurturing of Connection and Collaboration in Relationship).

We get tripped up if we are not able to be clear what we appropriately can say to our partner when it has to do with their autonomy, especially when it also has an effect or an impact on us too. To cut to the chase, when it works best between partners, there is an effort to be clear what Garden we are talking about. (See the Three Gardens of Relationship post).  

If it is about an issue—or part of an issue—that is about my or my partner’s autonomy, then, despite my preferences, I will not interfere with my partner’s choices or decision-making, and my partner will not interfere with mine.  I may, for example, think my partner would do better in their work or career if they did what I have to recommend, but I will not assume that my partner needs to hear what I have to say or act on it.  I will only go so far as to let my partner know I have some ideas I’d like to share, and make a request about sharing those ideas.  But since a request is a request, not a mandate, and because it’s about how my partner independently steers her or his own ship, my partner may agree to the request, may not, or may suggest something else.  If the issue has to do with a partner’s autonomous functioning, (their ship), then the decision about what information to consider in that decision is unilateral.

But whatever aspect of my partner’s independent functioning affects me too becomes not only about my partner’s independence, but about its impact on me and on our relationship.  It has to do with the quality of our connection, our Partnership Garden, and for that aspect, the rules change from unilateral to collaborative.  If a partner, for example, wants to spend money on something for themselves, that’s an autonomous call, but if means affecting a common budget, the collaborative part involves a negotiation around amount of money, perhaps, or timing, or reciprocity in spending, or other things.

Buying into the idea that there are two sets of rules, depending on whether an issue has to do with autonomy or interdependence, that is, getting clear which Garden, (Separate or Partnership), and therefore which rules apply, is the challenge as we move through the power struggle dynamics in our relationship.

In the process, each partner can redefine how they relate to others—important, intimate people, as well as peripheral family, friends, and others. Often if a partner has had an experience in childhood of bonding with a parent in ways that are not secure, they can rewrite that childhood script as they learn to act equally, respectfully, mutually, and collaboratively with a partner. (See the Attachment post). In fact, when partners commit to creating a conscious, healthy relationship, they are taking advantage of the most powerful tool there is to move past the difficult consequences of insecure attachment.

Although there are exceptions, most notably, when a partner is no longer committed to a relationship, in general, supporting both partners’ autonomy in appropriate ways, as we have been describing, is the path toward greater connection. 

Imagine two people—fearful, insecure, self-doubting—coming together in relationship.  They are attracted in large part because they experience the other as in the same boat (that is, having an equivalent lack of self esteem), and they partner up to withstand the storms of life, but in insecure, overly dependent, co-dependent, and needy ways.  Because of their fear and neediness, it will be unlikely each will be able to encourage the other to become stronger, healthier, and more confident, because they fear losing their anchor of security.

In contrast, imagine two people, who respect and like themselves, trust themselves, are confident, use their creativity, and take responsibility for their own well being.  Put two people like that in a relationship, and they will likely foster and nurture, exponentially, their own and each other’s growth, well-being, possibility, and happiness.

Which couple would you rather be a part of?

These two examples are extremes, and almost all of us fall somewhere in the middle, between the two representations.  Nevertheless, if we are looking to find a means to a richer, happier, more satisfying relationship, it is clear from these two examples, which direction offers the most possibility.

And the possibility results from working hard and consciously to find that all important balance between connection and separateness.  For those who have created that balance, the rewards are there!