Autonomy in Romantic Relationships
Balancing Autonomy and Communion
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | August 2, 2019 (edited March 25, 2022)
Balancing autonomy with communion in our romantic relationships is a challenge. Healthy communion begins with respecting autonomy.
We want to be loved, caressed, and validated. Secure attachments give comfort (and science says health). We also desire to direct our lives, empowered to choose what and how we act. Opposing desires are inherently challenging. We must balance the complexity of paradoxical drives—simultaneously securing autonomy while enjoying the security from a healthy attachment. Integrating these essential and opposing drives (autonomy and communion) is the hallmark of a well-lived life.
What is Autonomy?
An autonomous person acts in unity with the self—feeling free and volitional in their actions. The opposite of an autonomous, self-governing person is a person controlled by external forces. We emotionally respond differently to actions, depending on whether the action was an expression of self or a submissive yielding to another person. This difference has a powerful impact on our wellness.
Autonomy is freedom to be self-governing, maintaining individuality within a relationship.
The last year, I entered a new phase. I retired. I thought this would give me more time. Surprisingly, I discovered time is still limited and a precious resource.
I’m repeatedly asked, “what do you do with all that time?” Once the discussion turns to household chores, inevitably there is a mention of the dreaded ‘honey-do’ list. These conversations helped me appreciate a characteristic of my marriage: I don’t have a honey-do list. I’m blessed with the autonomy to choose, and not follow a prepared agenda. My time finally isn’t dictated by outside forces—there’s no lengthy to-do list. I was a bit offended when a friend of my wife suggested to her, “why don’t you have Troy do it. He’s retired, he doesn’t have anything to do.”
Don’t get me wrong, my wife asks for favors, and mentions things she would like done, but this is limited and respectful.
I’m blessed with the autonomy to choose, and not follow a prepared agenda.
Naturally, I have time to tackle more chores. This, I joyfully do. However, if my wife disrespected my time, acting as manager, directing how and when things should be done, this would dampen (if not kill) the joy of doing. My autonomous choice and newfound freedom would be burdened with a new taskmaster. Perhaps, this lack of direction and our mutual fondness of doing is why our marriage works so well.
Autonomous Action Contributes to Wellness
Joy from autonomous action is not equaled by thoughtless obedience. Autonomous action supports empowerment—a sense of control over our life. Autonomy enhances the joy of doing. While obedience is a negative joy—an attempt to avoid displeasure of an angry partner. The first is a beautiful integration of communion and autonomy; the second motivated by fear.
Autonomy in Romantic Relationships
Being autonomous doesn’t, however, grant authority to neglect the wants and needs of a significant other. If self-driven, autonomous action centers only on the self, there’s a more serious problem afoot—narcissism.
Edward Deci explains that authenticity leads to greater communion. “As people become more authentic, as they develop greater capacity for autonomous self-regulation, they also become capable of deeper relatedness to others” (1996, p. 6). When we choose to act in a benevolent way, the action is done wholeheartedly. We give; but it is a choice. We free ourselves from the nasty resentments that accompany compliance to controlling demands.
Supporting Our Partner's Autonomy
In a relationship, we should not only protect our autonomy but also support the autonomy of the partner. “It is a delicate balance between feeling free and supporting another’s freedom, and it is a dynamic that exemplifies how the issue of human autonomy is woven through the texture of all connectedness among people” (p. 8).
Autonomy and Domestic Chores
We must work to achieve balance and equality with our freedom. We often discover many unrecognized differences between us and our partner when self-expression is encouraged. The task of dividing the domestic workload hastens the revelations. Hidden expectations are uncovered, and a couple is forced to resolve the difference. Families must balance the work; childcare and domestic duties are demanding, and when unequally divided, resentments infiltrate the home, poisoning good feelings and destroy happiness.
Respect for each other’s autonomy in this process builds trust—or destroys it. We must carefully proceed with these intricate negotiations, providing for autonomous action with achievable expectations, and respect for individuality.
For a new couple to develop a workable plan, it often takes years. There’s a lot of trial and error (Deutsch, 1999, p. 4). A couple must learn each other’s preferences, sensitivities, standards and timelines. Success occurs when couples learn to bend, rather than forcefully impose a will.
A couple must learn each other’s preferences, sensitivities, standards and timelines.
Convergence of Expectations
A convergence of expectations has a powerful and positive impact. We arrive at an accepted destination only through patience and healthy discussion. A person just beginning to participate in domestic duties won’t have a finely tuned intuition. This can be frightening to watch—but when generous time is allotted for a slow arching learning curve, new skills are mastered.
"Crayons go one drawer up.” Mr. Mom Rascal Flatts
Previous generations didn’t have these discussions. They strictly followed defined gender roles. While my children watched a dad that cooked and potty trained, I had a father who dutifully followed the gender expectations of his time. Nothing is wrong with defined responsibilities (their actually helpful); it’s the inflexibility to change that destroys closeness.
The goal isn’t for one partner to be the manager and the other the helper. Typically, this doesn’t work, leading to constant collisions—and the honey-do list.
“Autonomy fuels growth and health because it allows people to experience themselves as themselves, as the initiators of their own actions. Perceived competence, or mastery, without perceived autonomy is not enough because being a competent puppet does not nourish humanness” (Deci, 1996, p. 71).
Albert Bandura adds to the discussion on mastery in his early research on self-efficacy. He wrote that when we perform autonomous acts, we gain confidence from the mastery (Bandura, 1977).
Autonomy and Self-Confidence
When relationship insecurity reigns, building confidence is essential. We need to know we are loveable and that our autonomous action leads to successful bonds. When our actions are positively received, we gain mastery—and confidence. Yes, we may not clean the kitchen or bathroom to the higher standards, but if the cleaning was an autonomously act, and the act is gratefully received, the relationship bond strengthens, and security is established along with a growing sense of mastery of cleaning skills and more importantly—relationship skills.
Interestingly, manipulators withhold affirmations that support autonomy. A partner’s autonomy lessens the narcissistic manipulator's control. Nothing is done to the manipulator’s satisfaction. This is a cruel tactic. They mar compliments with underhanded remarks, reminding the victim of insufficiency (see Gaslighting).
Scott Coltrane conducted several studies on shared responsibility at home. Many of the families interviewed appeared to balance the chores; but deeper investigation discovered the management of the task still followed traditional gender roles. The wife maintained exclusive control. The “mothers noticing when a chore needed doing and made sure someone performed it according to her standards” (1996, p. 73). Researchers have discovered that wives with lower standards (allowing their husbands to take responsibility for the chores without correcting or directing) have husbands that do more housework (p.75).
We don’t know if this finding is a cause or effect? Is it that husbands who do more work require less direction or is it wives that give less direction encourage husbands to do more work?
We do know, however, from observation that employees respond differently to freedom. Some respond well to autonomy while others abuse the agency and must be disciplined or dismissed. Likewise, some husbands or wives will misuse autonomy by ignoring boundaries and neglecting important communion-motivated behaviors. “Thanks for the freedom, I’m going to the bar with my friends; have dinner on the table when I get home.”
A natural response to the flippant disrespect is lowering the hammer of justice. They need more control, we think. But this isn’t an issue of control. A grown man or woman seldom needs more control. The attempt to lasso them in with rules and intense supervision isn’t the answer. A cankered and selfish soul isn’t cured through control.
Keeping the reins tight, controlling every opportunity for freedom is destructive to healthy partnerships. “You’re free to do as you like as long as it is what I want you to do.” This approach limits a partner and the partnerships, planting the seed of resentment and dissatisfaction that choke the beautiful blooms of connection.
Autonomy sounds like common sense; but in reality, it’s scary. As a man once retorted, “but then she’ll do whatever she wants.” And he is absolutely correct. The intention isn’t forcing a partner to stay or act pleasing but for us to be the partner they freely choose and wish to please (see I Love You; You’re Free to Leave).
We create balance of autonomy and communion through painstaking work. Francine Deutsch emphasizes the word create, explaining there is nothing automatic about equality (1999, p.12). Balance isn’t a set of strict rules, although known expectations are essential to begin the process. Equality is achieved through openness and flexibility to the milieu of constant change that constantly afflict family life.
Raising families and maintaining a house takes work—lots of it. With both husband and wife (or partners) working together to discover a workable plan of shared responsibility that relieves unnecessary pressure, greater closeness is discovered, while simultaneously inviting the fuller joy of autonomy—and ideally, all this is accomplished in a clean house and a healthy supper.
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Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review, 84(2), 191-215.
Coltrane, S. (1996). Family Man: Fatherhood, Housework, and Gender Equality. Oxford University Press.
Deci, E., Flaste, R., Deci, E. L. (1996). Why We Do What We Do. Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated.
Deutsch, F. M. (1999) Having it All: How equally shared Parenting Works. Harvard University Pres.