Autonomy is keeping your emotional boundaries up and being independent. Intimacy is letting your boundaries down so you can be vulnerable with another person.
I’d say it is a safe bet to say that relationships are something we put a great deal of our time, energy and money toward. We invest all that into some combination of pursuing relationships, maintaining them, avoiding them or healing from them after they crash and burn.
This is as it should be. Humans are very social creatures. Ever since the days of the cave people relationships have been helping us survive, procreate and evolve to be the top dog on Earth. Want to know if this is true for you? Think about your last 24 hours – how much of that time were you involved in exchanging energy, information, love or discord with other people? Case made.
Modern people maintain autonomy in most relationships. We keep a respectful distance from others unless we have to be jammed next to them on a bus or plane. We generally stay clothed. We keep our emotional defenses up and work hard on creating emotional boundaries with others. We do all this because one of our most powerful and hard-wired instincts is to feel safe. We will go to great lengths to feel safe.
The opposite of autonomy is intimacy. Intimacy is when two (or more?) people purposely let down their emotional defenses and temporarily surrender their autonomy. When we do this we become vulnerable.
Vulnerability is a big subject these days. In the old days vulnerability was a bad thing. If you were vulnerable it meant you had let your guard down and you would probably get whacked by your enemies or killed by wild animals. In those days couples got together to make children, grow food and ensure their survival. Gender roles were much more fixed and there wasn’t much time or bandwidth for romance and what we now call chemistry.
Nowadays psychologists, counselors and coaches advise us to be more vulnerable! They preach this because most of us crave love and intimacy in our lives and feel like we’re not getting enough of it. But being vulnerable is risky, and as I said we are hard-wired to stay safe.
By the time most of us reach our 30’s we have already experimented with intimacy and found out just how risky it is. Many women moan to their girlfriends about how men are so unfaithful, self-absorbed or wimpy. Men keep their guards up because of the world of pain that their former GF’s laid on them from the last bastard who mistreated her. (Of course these are just stereotypical examples. It can be all kinds of ways.)
In Western “first world” countries we have the luxury of choosing a mate for reasons other than survival and procreation. Now we choose them hoping for “great chemistry” and lots of shared interests. We can go online and look through extensive catalogues of human beings (such as Match.com) to seek an ideal partner. We look at their pictures and read stats about their height, weight, income, educational level, exercise habits, favorite books and movies, spiritual beliefs and how much they like hiking (Yay!). We do all this seeking that elusive chemistry.
I have been through all the things I just wrote about, of course. I have searched for that ideal partner for decades and gone through what seems like lots of disappointments with some patches of bliss thrown in. There has been a purpose for all this. After a ten year marriage, divorce and a series of post-divorce relationships a lot of rough edges of my personality and ego have become smoothed off. As I followed my path of personal healing my formerly shut down heart has opened a lot more.
Now I am in a relationship that actually has a healthy balance of autonomy and intimacy. My GF and I each have our own businesses, and between those, keeping up with our friends and family and pursuing our own interests we are very independent of each other most of the time. Yet when we are together we are able to shift into exploring intimacy. My GF is actually a self-described tomboy, and has a well-developed male side that can deal with heavy technical equipment for her photography business, fix things around her house and out-hike most people half her age. Yet given the right atmosphere and nurturing she can let that go and be in her feminine glory.
My GF told me that she had not been intimate with another man for 10 years before she opened up to me. While it wasn’t that long for me, I was in another relationship a few years ago that seemed like a crash course in aggravation and abnormal psychology. I did get triggered often in that one.
So how were we able to go from lives with very little male-female intimacy to this?
It seems to me that it’s because we both have done a lot of work on ourselves. Not all of this was deliberate – like lifting up the hood of the car and doing a tune up. A lot of this work happened through the good old school of hard knocks. Some of it was from growing older. A lot of it happened for me because of my meditation practice – learning to stay grounded in my peaceful calm center, no matter what. This gives me a much longer fuse than I used to have. I have never been a rage-a-holic, but I did get triggered much more in past relationships.
I have felt some of those same buttons being pressed in this relationship, but my responses have been way different. Now I am much more able to touch with my calm center, breathe and just be with the feelings. Knowing my inner calm center gives me that “safe” feeling so that I can afford to do that. I am a lot more convinced that I am love, so I don’t need to try so hard to get it from the outside.
I guess I felt less safe before and safe enough now to vulnerable. Another thing that could be helping – she and I share the same birthday!
No, it’s not always easy, but so much better.
What is your experience about autonomy and intimacy? Please share.
Children model what they see in their parents. Studies have shown that children who grow up in cohesive, non-abusive families are much more likely to end up in functional long-term relationships. Children who were traumatized by physical abuse or incest have a much harder time being intimate with others, or even themselves. I will explain why in my next blog post Three Ways Trauma Hijacks Intimacy.