- Romantic relationships have many benefits, including satisfying our need for belonging.
- But romantic relationships can sometimes threaten one’s sense of individuality and autonomy.
- A test of individuality in couples may help promote dynamics for healthy relationships.
A committed, intimate relationship has many benefits, including a sense of connection, belonging, and security. However, it can also threaten one’s sense of individuality, independence, and autonomy.
How to prevent this? The first step is recognizing it when it happens, so we need a good measure. Published in the July 2023 issue of Psychological Assessment, a paper by Brock and colleagues discusses a new measure of individuality in romantic relationships called the Individuality in Couples questionnaire.
As detailed below, the authors concluded that the questionnaire can successfully identify unhealthy and healthy relationship dynamics.
How important is individuality in romantic relationships?
Individuality does not lose its significance just because one has a partner. Despite being in a romantic relationship, each person needs to feel known and accepted for who they are individually (i.e. their authentic self).
By respecting each other’s interpersonal boundaries, ideas, opinions, and feelings.
The opposite is often called “enmeshment,” which refers to having diffuse boundaries and being overly concerned and involved with the partner.
Those in enmeshed relationships no longer see their partner for who he/she is, but who they need that person to be. Therefore, enmeshed spouses try, often unsuccessfully, to control each other’s behaviors, thoughts, and feelings.
Healthy relationships, in contrast, allow members of the partnership to feel safe enough to be their authentic self. For instance, safe enough to show vulnerability without fear of being criticized as weak or incompetent.
This sense of security can prevent destructive power dynamics that occur in unhealthy relationships, such as those characterized by codependency, psychological manipulation, and emotional abuse.
Assessing individuality in romantic relationships
Brock et al. aimed to develop a scale that would measure individuality, conceptualized as the “extent to which someone feels respected for their individuality by their partner and experiences personal autonomy in the relationship.”
To create and assess the properties of the new questionnaire, the authors first developed an item pool that would cover key facets of individuality in romantic relationships. Specifically, autonomy support and respect for individuality.
Then, using a sample of undergraduates, they completed an exploratory factor analysis. Subsequently, they examined the factor structure and the validity of the questionnaire in a community sample.
Sample: 580 undergraduates in a romantic relationship; average age of 20 years old; 83% female; 86% White; 92% heterosexual. Mean relationship duration was two years. Most were dating (96%), with the rest engaged or married. About 14% were cohabiting.
Methods: The students were asked to indicate their degree of agreement with 160 items concerning their romantic relationship.
Sample: 445 community members in a romantic relationship; average age of 30 years old (range of 19-69 years); 65% female; 87% White; 84% heterosexual. Mean relationship duration was over seven years. Close to half (48%) were married, with 11% engaged, and 41% dating but not engaged or married. Overall, 72% were cohabiting.
Methods: Participants completed various measures of convergent/divergent validity (e.g., semi-structured interviews, self-report questionnaires) and criterion validity (e.g., intimate relationship satisfaction, partner health).
The authors found that the new 25-item scale, which they called the Individuality in Couples Questionnaire, had “strong psychometric properties,” such as high internal consistency, construct replicability, and convergent, divergent, criterion, and predictive validity.
The Individuality in Couples Questionnaire
Here is the final version of the Individuality in Couples Questionnaire, shared for educational purposes.
Indicate your agreement with the 25 items listed, using these criteria:
1 = strongly disagree; 2 = disagree; 3 = neutral, 4 = agree, and 5 = strongly agree.
Over the past month….
1. I felt respected by my partner.
2. I felt valued by my partner.
3. My partner asked my opinion on a range of topics.
4. My partner valued my opinions and ideas.
5. My partner seemed open to learning new things from me.
6. I felt like part of a team with my partner.
7. My partner made me feel like I have something meaningful to contribute to the relationship.
8. I felt like an equal in the relationship.
9. My partner praised my strengths and accomplishments.
10. My partner listened to what I had to say with interest.
11. My partner made me feel good about myself.
12. I felt admired by my partner.
13. I felt accepted by my partner.
14. My partner accepted my flaws.
15. I felt safe being vulnerable around my partner.
16. I felt a sense of belonging in the relationship.
17. I could tell my partner how I really felt without being judged.
18. My partner asked me about my interests and hobbies.
19. I had personal space when I needed it.
20. I had the freedom to pursue my own interests and passions.
21. I felt like I needed my partner’s approval to do certain things (R).
22. I had the freedom to be friends with whomever I wanted.
23. I had to convince my partner to let me do things that were important to me (R).
24. It seemed like we had an argument whenever I wanted to do something for me (R).
25. My partner made me feel guilty for doing things on my own (R).
Scoring: Average all the items, but note that items with an (R) next to them—21, 23, 24, 25—need to be reverse-scored.
A higher score suggests a greater sense of individuality.
Balancing being an individual and a couple
Any time there is a major power imbalance—for example, only the husband or wife makes all the decisions—the other partner’s autonomy is not recognized or respected (e.g., as in gaslighting).
But just like the need to belong, autonomy is a fundamental psychological need. So we must learn to balance the needs of partnership with those of being independent.
For instance, spending time with and supporting your boyfriend/girlfriend or spouse must be balanced with time spent alone, with personal friends, and in pursuit of personal goals.
It is this balance and reciprocity that characterizes many healthy, happy, and satisfying romantic relationships.
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