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The Dance of Intimacy and Autonomy

Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist and author of Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence (from Random House in October ...Read More

Love tends to join and hate to separate, but joining is not the same as love, and separation is not hatred. Sometimes the most loving thing a person can do is take a step back: that’s distance in the service of attachment. And it’s not loving to join in invasive or smothering ways. Most people want both closeness and independence. Intimacy and autonomy in all their forms: your course in life is shaped by how well you regulate their dance in your mind, and their expression in your relationships.

Harms can be done to yourself and others in the name of autonomy and intimacy, so it’s important to bring their dynamics into the sphere of your virtue. For example, Martin Buber described three types of relationships:

  • I-Thou – When I relate to you with respect as an independent being (like a dear friend)
  • I-It – When I treat you as a means to my ends (like, perhaps, an operator you’re calling for a phone number)
  • It-It – When you and I are just bodies in space (like strangers in an elevator)

We mistreat others by making them an “It” to our “I.” You know what that feels like on the receiving end: like you are being seduced, pitched, or used. Not good. It’s not uncommon to treat people as “Its” in order to feel close to them, such as by compelling their attention, making them feel bad for wanting their own space, manipulating their affection, not respecting their boundaries, or in the extreme, some kinds of sexual abuse. And certainly common to treat people as “Its” to make it easier to act freely: examples include dumping negative emotions without caring about the impacts, trampling on people to get ahead, or simply cutting in line.

Intimacy and Autonomy Working Together

Intimacy and autonomy are channels for expressing your natural goodness. For example, being kind toward someone naturally involves both an affinity with that person and a certain autonomy for the kindness to be genuine.

Besides its obvious rewards in everyday life, intimacy supports personal growth and spiritual practice through bringing you into relationship with things. Into relationship with your innermost experience and that of the people around you: the joys and sorrows, the suffering and its causes and what leads to its ending. Into compassion, kindness, and service: Love thy neighbor as thyself. Into relationship with a supportive community. And – if it’s meaningful to you – into relationship with God. Autonomy, too, supports personal growth and spiritual practice. For example, in Buddhism, you are supposed to “see for yourself” and make your own decisions about what makes sense to you. It is up to you, and no one else, to engage the path of awakening. It is you who will inherit the results of your actions, good or bad.

Intimacy and autonomy are often seen as opposite ends of the same continuum, so that as one increases the other diminishes. The classic example is, “Getting married means giving up my independence.” Less dramatically, people have understandable fears that if they express their deepest truth, others will leave them – or if they get really close emotionally, they’ll lose some of their own identity.

But intimacy need not undermine autonomy, and vice versa; in fact, they support each other. Intimacy fosters autonomy since repeated experiences of caring connection, particularly in childhood, are critical for the development of normal ego functions, personal worth, and confidence; healthy relationships provide the “secure base” from which we engage the world as an individual. Autonomy – both yours and the other person’s – nurtures intimacy in many ways, including its reassurance that you can still protect yourself when you’re wide open to another person, and by giving an extra oomph to relatedness: it makes such a difference when you know that the other person really wants to be with you.

Patterns of Closeness and Independence

Intimacy and autonomy are independent dimensions, and it is their combination that counts. The qualities in each category, imperfectly summarized by a single word, characterize both types of individuals and, more importantly, states of mind we all transit:

  • Integrated – Comfortable and skillful with both closeness and agency; able both to carry others in her heart while pursuing her own aims, and to be completely authentic in the most intimate moments; symbolically, “you” and “I” are about the same size.
  • Engulfed – Highly connected, but not free to act or express himself fully; giving up “me” is price to be “we;” unnecessarily dependent; clutching, beseeching, placating; could resist encouragement to be more independent; “you” are big and “I” am small.
  • Isolated – Strong sense of personal desires but weak connections with others; a solitary captain with a firm hand on the rudder; could be prickly about bids for closeness or seeming infringements on her prerogatives; “you” are small and “I” am big.
  • Adrift – Dissociated from both others and oneself; unresponsive and passive; alone in a boat with no direction; “you” are small and “I” am small.

Of these four, the Integrated mode of being clearly brings the most benefits to you and to others, it is the best foundation for personal growth and spiritual practice, and it involves the most complex forms of neural regulation. To feel safe in the deep end of the pool of intimacy, a person needs to be able to speak her own truth and be comfortable with closeness.

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