Does Love Threaten Autonomy?

Do you have to choose between togetherness and independence?

Posted May 13, 2010

In my earlier post dealing with being afraid of love, a commenter ("Cher") mentioned that what she feared in love was the loss of autonomy that (in her opinion) comes with it. I think that's a reasonable thing to be apprehensive about, though if understood in the right way, that apprehension may disappear—here's how.

Let's be clear regarding what we mean by autonomy here, because the word has many different senses within its essential meaning. What the commenter meant by autonomy, I take it, was independence or freedom, the ability to make your own choices regarding your life without consulting with someone else first. As she said, "I felt I knew where I wanted to go and how to get myself there—and wanted the freedom to change my mind or take a detour as needed."

I think it's fairly obvious that when you're considering a serious, potentially long-term relationship with someone, sharing goals and dreams is important, perhaps one of the most important considerations for the long-term health of the relationship. We can't always choose who we fall in love with, but we can choose who to settle down with, and compatibility of goals (if not having the same goals) is critical.

My main point is that as long as both of their goals are compatible, partners in an ideal loving relationship (to echo Cher's concerns) determine where they want to go together, and they also decide—together—when to make a change in those plans. Autonomy and independence become less of an issue because you share your goals and dreams with that other person, and you don't want to change direction and take a break on your own. You're in it together, and (paradoxically) together you are independent. "We" replaces "I," and in the best relationships, you both embrace that (unbelievable as that may sound to someone who places a high value on independence).

Of course, not every relationship is ideal, and even if partners agree on their joint path early on in the relationship, their goals may diverge later on. One person may become disenchanted with the life they're leading while the other is content with it, or perhaps they both want to change but in different ways or directions. It is in such situations that the issue of autonomy or independence rears its head again, and you remember how important it was once was to you, and bemoan its loss.

But you shouldn't be too quick to abandon the relationship because your goals have split, because the relationship has a value of its own. It's a rare relationship that has no give-and-take, no sacrifice, and no compromise, all for the good of the couple. No one wants to be the one to compromise his or her dreams in favor of a partner's—at least not all of the time. But if you value the relationship, if being with the other person is as important (or moreso) than your independence, then such a compromise may be the right choice, even though it represents a loss of your freedom and autonomy. (But make sure the compromises are shared over time—if your partner expects you to make all the sacrifices for him or her, then you may be in an asymmetric relationship, on which more here.)

The ultimate question is: is autonomy very important for you? (Some people happily give it up, and some don't.) More specifically, is it more important than love? If it is, then naturally, the prospect of love may be scary because you're afraid you might lose something important to you. But then, similar to what I said in the "afraid of love" post, you're avoiding something wonderful for fear of losing something you might not lose anyway.

And if it doesn't turn out the way you wanted, you still have the ability to change direction—hopefully before the relationship gets too serious, but even if it has. In that sense, you never lose your autonomy, because you never lose your ability to choose your own path, even if that choice involves leaving someone who no longer shares it (but possibly finding someone else who does).

To reiterate my main point: Love does not always mean a loss of independence—it's just that the nature of that independence, and perhaps its importance, changes.

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