Intimate love — 23 March 2008
How to balance intimacy and autonomy in your relationship

A common relationship difficulty for couples is managing the balance between their need for connection versus their need for autonomy. Partners want to be both attached to their mate as well as detached for self-identity. How well partners succeed in honoring each other’s needs for togetherness vs. separateness greatly impacts their individual and relationship satisfaction.

Early in a relationship most partners desire to be together most of the time, minimize their differences and maximize their common preferences, choices and likes. The process of minimizing their individual distinctions helps them increase their comfort with each other, reduce any potential conflicts and confirm their healthy choice of their chosen mate.

Michael Kolevzon, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, describes the ‘Inevitable push-Pull’ in Marriage: “As the couple’s intimacy increases, you often see a corresponding increase in their desire for distance.”

Most couple therapists observe that intimacy that blurs the boundaries between individuals also gives rise to the need for self- definition. Some mates describe feeling “suffocated” by their partner’s need for ongoing togetherness, sharing every thought and feeling and the expectation that they will consistently be of one mind in choices and decision making. Some object to what they perceive as excessive accountability, needing to report their whereabouts or conduct whenever they are apart. Some find the partner’s wish to know all the details of their lives as violating their personal space.

So how do mates find the appropriate level of closeness that also affords a separate distinction to each partner? The answer varies from individual to individual and from one couple to another. It depends on one’s personal ease with physical and emotional closeness and their need for personal space and autonomy. Intimacy with autonomy can best be dealt with through understanding, mutual respect and negotiations.

M.A. Fitzpatrick in his book “Between Husbands and Wives”, states: “In order to reap the rewards of intimacy without experiencing undo anxiety and rejection, couples look for ways to regulate intimate contact in their relationships. Each couple seeks their own balance between intimate encounter and risk, based on their respective individual intimacy capacities and preferences and on the other strengths of their relationship.”

The definition of intimacy is also challenging. Richard A. Mackey, D.S.W. offers four interrelated components of psychological intimacy; “Proximity (being together), Openness (comfort in “being one’s self,” able to reveal and say things to a partner that one felt could not be said to others), Reciprocity, (being a “best friend”), and Interdependence (feeling “safe” in revealing their inner thoughts and feelings because they could count on a partner to respect their separateness and to accept, if not understand, them)”. He integrates autonomy as one element of psychological intimacy.
Unless partners are able to understand and honor each other’s needs for autonomy and separateness, they cannot be fully intimate with each other.

The level of separateness that is comfortable for each individual has to be stated and clarified. There are those whose pursuit of their interests, hobbies, socializing, exercising, working, or any other activity, leaves their mate feeling abandoned and excluded. Harville Hendrix, Ph.D. labels activities that distance one mate from the other as “exits” from the relationship. Though they are not intended to exclude the mate, if they do so, they must be regarded as disruptive to the relationship.

Intense connection may feel to some as suffocating. Some distance may feel to others as abandonment. These emotions need to be shared so the pair can find the balance that satisfies both of them.

• Accept that there is no “right” and “wrong” way regarding your and your partner’s desire for closeness or space.
• Understand that intimacy can only be created in the presence of emotional and physical safety, which is the product of mutual respect.
• Share with each other what behaviors makes each of you feel connected or distanced from each other and what do you need for your personal distinction.
• Resist feeling defensive about your ways or critical of your partner’s. All needs are valid but must be coordinated to best serve both of you.
• Listen to your partner’s needs as a first step in good-will negotiations toward lifestyle choices that will suit both of you.
• Partners who succeed in balancing their personal endeavors with their couple connection feel satisfied and happy in their union.
• Realize that as your relationship matures, so will your preferences. Periodically recheck your mutual comfort with your intimacy and autonomy formula and modify it as needed.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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