In The Relationship Alphabet Blog Series, Zach Brittle has explained that “O is for Opportunity.” Marriage, as he described it, is an opportunity to build your own Sound Relationship House and create shared meaning. While any intimate relationship can become a wellspring of opportunity for inspiration and growth, these same relationships can also feel stifling!

When we get into “official” romantic relationships, a shift in perceptions often occurs. Others may see us differently, and we may feel personally transformed. This can be a blessing and a curse. The burden of expectations – both internal and external pressures – can make us feel trapped. Forced to behave in certain ways, we are left despairing and mourning (or cursing) our loss of autonomy.

Today, arguably more than ever, we value our independence. We balk at any perceived threat, highly aware and protective of our rights to be ourselves and follow our dreams. And while we truly deserve to live on our own terms, things can go terribly wrong when we get confused about terminology.

To avoid confusion, let’s clarify our definitions.

Autonomy is the freedom of self-determination. Too often, the overzealous pursuit and protection of personal space (head-space, or our “personal bubbles”) leads somewhere completely different: self-isolation. When we are stressed out, instead of exercising autonomy to achieve actualization or happiness – to become “more ourselves” – we end up in self-imposed alienation. Paradoxically, it is this isolation that poses a real threat. In this position, we truly stand a chance of “losing” ourselves!

The uncertainty and loneliness we may experience in this state is dangerous for many reasons. It may distract us from both short-term goals and long term projects. It may distance us from ourselves and from our loved ones, and cause us to lose sight of our values and dreams. When the fear of being prevented from pursuing independent self-actualization, happiness, and freedom catches up to us, it often backfires. As many of us know all too well, building walls for the sake of “autonomy” often creates the misery, anxiety, and insecurity we originally feared. This isolation makes daily stressors more difficult to handle. What do we need most in these moments? A friend! A partner! A support network!

We are social animals. We need community. To achieve long-term happiness and self-actualization, we may need to reconsider our notion of “freedom.” Most of us need to feel “a part of something” – a wolf pack, a tribe, a family, or any other intimate, supportive relationship – in order to feel fulfilled.

You can enjoy a hands-on follow-up assignment to this post here.

By: Ellie Lisitsa

Ellie Lisitsa is a staff writer at The Gottman Institute and a regular contributor to The Gottman Relationship Blog. Ellie is pursuing her B.A. in Psychology with an emphasis on Cognitive Dissonance at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.