What is autonomy?

Autonomy means engaging in behavior by choice, particularly when the behavior is aligned with internal values. People are most autonomous when their actions reflect their genuine interests and/or values. Autonomy is a bit broader than independence, although the terms are often used interchangeably, in that, independent actions need not be driven by values.

There are multiple aspects to autonomy that are in keeping with both individualistic and collective approaches to relationships. Consider the following to see how autonomy is contributing to your individual well-being and the well-being of your relationships.

  • Self-definition and identity: Most people define aspects of their identity in relation to others (parent, child, spouse, friend, ally). While this makes good sense, it is helpful to stay in touch with core aspects of yourself (gender, ethnicity, religion), your talents (athlete, musician, artist), and your accomplishments (veteran, college graduate, published author).
  • Social networks and supports: Even if you’re in a serious romantic relationship, have a best friend, or come from a tightly knit family, it’s important to have other friends and a wider support network.
  • Interests and opinions: Friends, couples, and family members often have common hobbies or shared world views. Being free to pursue unique interests and form differing opinions is also valuable for each individual.
  • Personal space and time: Each person benefits from having a say in decisions like how much time you spend physically together, how often you communicate by text or phone, and when to check in with the person before making decisions.

Check out this infographic for more on autonomy’s role in relationships.

How to foster healthy autonomy

In building healthy relationships, it’s helpful to:

  • Find people who encourage and support your autonomy.
  • Give others space to be themselves.
  • Share your wants and needs for personal space and closeness, listen to what the other person wants and needs, and figure out the balance that works for both of you.

Intimacy and autonomy are mutually supportive. The strong bonds of connection help us to take on challenges in our own lives. And each person’s unique experiences and accomplishments can add to the shared joy of the relationship.

Balancing autonomy and intimacy

Being intimate and being autonomous are compatible ideas. For example, many of us feel emotionally close to people, even if we don’t see them very often and have other friends.

There is no “correct” balance of intimacy and autonomy; the people involved in each relationship have to figure out what works for them. Too much closeness and togetherness can be smothering or even signal an unhealthy relationship. On the flip side, too much distance may keep the relationship from deepening or be an indication of incompatibility. Relationships are also dynamic, so the right balance will likely change over time.

Consider using this tool to see if you are striking the right balance between autonomy and intimacy in your relationships: