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The Importance of Autonomy in a Relationship

Why having autonomy is key to a happy, healthy relationship

Along with trust, respect, intimacy, and communication, having autonomy in relationships is one of the core building blocks of a successful partnership. Everybody needs some personal space, after all. 

We all have friends, hobbies, and interests outside of our romantic relationship — and it’s entirely right that we should have the personal freedom to pursue them. 

While spending alone time with your partner is crucial to a healthy relationship, so is spending some time apart, fostering your own life. So, what exactly does relationship autonomy mean, and why is it so important?

What is autonomy in a relationship?

Autonomy is the degree to which we make our own choices. It’s a crucial part of how we grow, express ourselves, and experience self-determination.

Having autonomy in a relationship means having a loving relationship with your partner, while still having agency over your own life choices. That means spending time with your significant other while also having your own interests and relationships with friends, colleagues, or family. It’s about having a fulfilling and happy life inside — and outside — of your romantic relationship.

What is the difference between autonomy in a relationship and intimacy?

Having autonomy in a relationship means being free to have interests outside of your relationship. Intimacy, however, means sharing a special, loving bond with your partner.

Several types of intimacy make up a romantic relationship. You can develop physical and emotional intimacy with your partner, with intellectual and experiential intimacy coming from spending quality time together.

What is the importance of autonomy in relationships?

Having autonomy in a relationship is a key ingredient of overall relationship satisfaction. You love your partner and want to spend time with them — but everybody needs some me time.

Having autonomy allows you to have that time alone. As a result, you might treasure the time spent with your partner even more. Having outside interests and passions shows that you are a confident and interesting person to be around — likely leading to a more satisfying relationship.

Having your own interests is also important for your mental health and well-being. “Independence, or the ability to make decisions for oneself, is one of the most important aspects of a partnership,” says Michelle Shivers, a licensed marriage and family therapist. “If both or all partners are in control of their own life, they have a great foundation for making room for each other and growing together.”

What does a lack of autonomy mean?

The lack of autonomy in a committed relationship means one or both partners don’t feel secure in having their own interests or hobbies. The following are some common signs of a lack of relationship autonomy:

  • You prioritize your partner’s feelings, life, or schedule above your own needs. 

  • You feel like you always have to please your partner at the cost of your well-being. 

  • You generally lack self-esteem or suffer from poor mental health. 

  • You find it difficult to make your feelings known or avoid conflict

  • Your relatedness with family members, friends, or your support network has suffered. 

  • You worry that you should see every decision from your partner’s perspective rather than your own.

  • You have codependent tendencies or behaviors.

  • You seek validation from your partner before making any personal decisions.

How do you respect your partner's autonomy?

If you feel that your partner could be more autonomous, how can you respect and encourage them?

Encourage your partner to have outside interests

If your partner has an interest, hobby, or passion — support them. Ask them about it and empower them to do things on their own schedule. This will give you both the space to enjoy your hobbies.

Don’t be afraid to do things separately

Likewise, you should make an example of having your own passions outside of the romantic relationship. You can’t be together 24/7, so spend time with your loved ones or interests while your partner follows theirs. Then, spend quality time with each other.

Respect alone time

Sometimes, we just need to be alone. Your partner might need a little space — but might not feel like doing anything. That’s fine. Run them a bath, do your own thing, or make it known that you’ll respect their space. Give them time alone, and you can come back to each other later. 

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What are the mistakes people make when they don't respect their partner's autonomy?

Sometimes, people that don’t respect their partner’s autonomy don’t realize it. A person that doesn’t respect their partner’s autonomy might gaslight them, stonewall, or generally control their schedule. This can lead to an imbalance of power and a less-than-healthy relationship. 

“You or your partner might have encouraged and agreed on some time apart to do activities, but you later realize you did not do a good job planning what you are going to do with that time. So when you come back together you start sharing heavy feelings, such as loneliness, it gives your partner a negative feeling connected to spending time on something just for them,” says Moraya Seeger DeGeare, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and In-House Relationship Expert at Paired. 

“The key is to remind yourself that you made this choice together, and take some time to explore what is coming up for you,” adds Seeger DeGeare. “Journaling and sharing once your thoughts have some times to settle gives you time to organize your feelings and separate it a little from the time you spent apart.”

If you’d like more autonomy in your relationship, here are some things you can do.

1. Spend time with loved ones and friends

One of the essential parts of a functioning, healthy relationship is having other friends. You might have an established social circle or a big family. Spend time with them. By seeing friends and family, you’re not damaging your romantic relationship — in fact, the time apart might make the time you do spend together extra special.

2. Embrace your sense of self

Now and then, everyone needs some alone time. Whether you want to read a book, go for a walk, or listen to a podcast, never feel bad for taking some me-time to charge your batteries. We all need our personal space.

3. Do what makes you happy

Part of having autonomy in a relationship is being able to follow our outside interests and passions. Sure, you’ll still have dates and shared interests with your partner. But, if you’ve got a personal passion, follow it.

Being in a romantic relationship with somebody does not mean we give up our personal autonomy. Make time for your partner and yourself — and your relationship could be stronger for it.

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