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The Importance of Autonomy in Your Relationship

Today, arguably more than ever, we value our independence.

Ellie Lisitsa

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

Today, arguably more than ever, people value their independence. They balk at any perceived threat, highly aware and protective of their rights to be themselves and follow their dreams. While they deserve to live on their own terms, things can go terribly wrong when they get confused about terminology.

To avoid confusion, let’s clarify.

Autonomy is the freedom of self-determination. Too often, the overzealous pursuit and protection of personal space leads somewhere completely different: self-isolation. When stressed out, instead of exercising autonomy to achieve actualization or happiness, people can end up in self-imposed alienation. Paradoxically, it is this isolation that poses a real threat. In this position, they stand a chance of “losing” themselves.

The uncertainty and loneliness experienced in this state is dangerous for many reasons. It may distract from both short-term goals and long term projects. It may distance people from their loved ones and cause them to lose sight of their values and dreams. When the fear of being prevented from pursuing independent self-actualization, happiness, and freedom catches up, it often backfires. Building walls for the sake of “autonomy” often creates the misery, anxiety, and insecurity that is originally feared. This isolation makes daily stressors more difficult to handle. What is needed most in these moments is a friend,  partner, or 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” in order to feel fulfilled.

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

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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.

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