Humans are social creatures who yearn for belonging and support. But you also must prioritize your own needs and goals to feel like you’re bringing your most authentic self to each relationship.
Creating the right balance between reliance and autonomy is tricky and often starts with your relationship with yourself. But fostering autonomy in your relationships might just be the key to enjoying healthy connections.
What’s autonomy in a relationship?
A 2019 study defines having autonomy in a relationship as choosing your actions freely, feeling authentic, and behaving in a way that aligns with your wants and values.
While one partner or friend might encourage your autonomy more than another, according to the self-determination theory, feeling a sense of independence and understanding of oneself is a learned behavior that you develop as a young adult.
As you’re growing up, you form a unique sense of self. This is when you begin experimenting with independence, setting personal boundaries, and learning how you feel most comfortable with your surroundings.
Developing this strong sense of self and aligning your actions with your desires can make you feel like you can handle whatever life throws at you. But when you feel forced to behave in ways that are divergent from your values, you might feel out of sorts and dissatisfied.
When you feel like your relationship choices are consistent with your needs, the feel-good sense of inner fulfillment carries over into other areas of your life.
That 2019 study found that people who feel autonomy in their relationships have a stronger sense of well-being and the motivation to engage in positive behaviors that maintain their relationships. Other research finds that those who feel autonomous also:
What does an autonomous relationship look like?
An autonomous relationship is built on mutual respect, support, and openness. It requires self-awareness and emotional intelligence to understand and respect the other person’s boundaries, embrace authenticity, and develop healthy communication.
Autonomy isn’t the same thing as detachment or isolation. Rather, it’s the ability to self-govern and make informed choices that respect your wants and needs. When a partner respects your autonomy, they validate and support your personal and relational growth.
Notably, the same 2019 study found that autonomy is only half the equation to a successful relationship. The other half is relatedness, or your feeling of connectedness.
The two are intrinsically linked. When someone respects your autonomy, you’re more motivated to build strong connections with them. And the more connected you feel to your partner, the more likely you are to respect their autonomy.
You can enjoy autonomous relationships in every area of your life. Here’s what some of those might look like.
In a work relationship
Interactions with coworkers and managers can make you want to bring your all to work or peruse job postings. Positive workplace relationships can excite you to collaborate, share ideas, and help out, leading to increased job satisfaction and coworker support.
Here are a few ways autonomy might manifest in the workplace:
- Your manager encourages you to embrace your core values, like finding the right work-life balance
- Your teammate empowers you to take risks, follow your instincts, and learn from your mistakes
- Your team values your time instead of depending on you to solve all their work challenges
- Your direct report respects your perspective and communicates with empathy and constructiveness
In a romantic relationship
Studies show that partners who develop their individual potential and can achieve both personal and shared goals experience better well-being and higher relationship satisfaction.
A partner who encourages your autonomy might:
- Respect your personal space, alone time, and boundaries
- Share your relationship values, future goals, and life choices
- Celebrate your hobbies, achievements, and personal growth
- Encourage you to nurture meaningful social connections and support networks
- Make decisions that benefit your wants, needs, and feelings
With friends and family
Your friends and family likely make up the bulk of your personal relationships, so it’s integral to develop a sense of autonomy with this community.
Your loved ones might encourage your autonomy by:
Boosting your self-esteem and making you feel comfortable being yourself
Affirming your lifestyle choices, career decisions, and relationships
Honoring your boundaries and sense of privacy
Supporting your independence outside the relationship
What does a lack of autonomy look like?
To further understand the importance of autonomy, here are ten examples of what a lack of independence might look like in your interpersonal relationships:
You prioritize others’ feelings, time, or needs over your own
Your friends disrespect your boundaries, personal space, or privacy
Your manager guilts you into overworking
A family member judges you for being yourself
Your partner doesn’t consider your opinions, wants, or desires when making a decision
You often feel stifled and dissatisfied in your romantic relationships
You need validation from people before making personal decisions
You’re codependent on others to fulfill your emotional needs, self-esteem, or sense of self
You deliberately hide information because you fear ridicule
How does autonomy stimulate personal growth?
Building healthy relationships that respect everyone’s autonomy requires difficult conversations, self-reflection, and compromise.
Let’s say your business partner tends to make important decisions without consulting you, sometimes pushing your enterprise into a direction you aren’t comfortable with. You feel invalidated, ignored, and like your ideas aren’t important. But the idea of confronting them fills you with anxiety and frustration.
Arriving at a solution will require a lot of personal growth. To advocate for yourself and create healthy boundaries, you must look inward, analyze your emotions, and understand how they shape your thoughts and behavior. That’s not always easy. You could keep quiet — but that will likely leave you feeling stagnant, resentful, and possibly combative.
Now imagine you do sit down and talk to your business partner. Maybe they have a different understanding of what important decisions are, didn’t realize you felt left out, and share that they feel like you micromanage their responsibilities. Together, you define what decisions must be collaborative and open up new communication channels to stay in touch and keep everyone aligned.
It’s within that action and self-reflection that you stimulate personal development. In the process, you learn to speak up, look at the situation from your partner’s perspective, and will likely feel more confident when resolving future problems.
8 ways to build autonomy in a relationship
Respecting each other’s autonomy is an ongoing process that requires a commitment to support everyone’s individual lives. If you’d like to instill more self-sufficiency into your relationships, here are eight tips to get started:
- Encourage open communication: Make a practice of welcoming open and transparent communication to share needs, worries, or desires in a safe and non-judgmental space. The more you receive each other with care and empathy, the more comfortable you’ll feel sharing and being honest.
- Celebrate differences: Embrace what makes the other person unique. Accepting different perspectives and personalities will make people feel welcome to be themselves and ask for what they want.
- Nurture outside interests and social circles: Recognize that you can’t satisfy every interest and need the other person has. Encourage them to explore their other interests and relationships so they feel fulfilled and supported.
- Show respect: Mutual respect comes from acknowledging one another’s boundaries, opinions, and sense of self. Show them respect by embracing who they are without judgment and abiding by any limits they set.
- Encourage self-care: Support the other person’s need for self-discovery and personal growth. Recognize that self-care isn’t always an easy journey — celebrate their wins and help them through the losses.
- Demonstrate vulnerability: Being open about your emotions and insecurities with your partner may encourage them to demonstrate their authentic self. It might also build trust, create deeper connections, and foster empathy.
- Avoid codependent behavior: Be conscientious of any tendencies toward codependency that make you feel stressed and like you can’t be yourself. Look out for a lack of independence and boundaries as well as excessive reliance on your emotional support.
- Define what you want: You can only stand up for your needs and wishes if you know what they are. Determine your goals, maybe by journaling or meditating, and regularly check in to confirm your close relationships don’t hinder your progress toward them.
Foster connection through independence
Understanding why autonomy in a relationship is important means you know what to look for to enjoy healthy connections. And developing this autonomy offers invaluable personal growth, like learning to stand up for yourself and encouraging your coworkers to share their ideas.
Every relationship is unique and requires its own give and take. Finding the right balance of autonomy and connectedness in your friendships, work relationships, and romantic partnerships takes patience.
But once you figure out how to respect each other’s independence, you’ll feel more connected. And as you feel more connected, you’ll respect each other’s autonomy even more.