What is autonomy?

Another essential part of healthy relationships is maintaining a sense of autonomy. There are multiple aspects to autonomy, including

  • 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.

Balancing autonomy and intimacy

It might seem counterintuitive that healthy relationships include autonomy as well as intimacy and partnership. In some senses, 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.

In other ways, however, these ideas can seem like opposites, for example, when thinking about togetherness vs. independence. The key is finding the right balance. Too much closeness and togetherness can be smothering or even signal an unhealthy relationship. On the flip side, too much autonomy may keep the relationship from deepening.

There is no “correct” balance of intimacy and autonomy; the people involved in each relationship have to figure out what works for them. Relationships are also dynamic, so the right balance will likely change over time.

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 independence and closeness, listen to what the other person wants and needs, and figure out the balance that works for both of you.

In the best of all worlds, 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.

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