Celebrating Your Independence
One of the most important qualities you bring to a relationship is yourself. Maintaining your identity and independence while cherishing and respecting your partner promotes healthy boundaries, and allows you to enjoy your similarities, while respecting your differences. Many couples focus on the positive ways in which their differences are not conflicting, but complementary.
In addition, individuals are often happier with partners who respect their autonomy within relationships.
In a study appropriately named “Loving Freedom: Concerns With Promotion or Prevention and the Role of Autonomy in Relationship Well-Being” (2013), Hui et al. examined the extent to which close relationships fulfill particular needs.[i]They begin by recognizing prior research that demonstrates how close relationships help individuals fulfill a variety of important personal needs, even including the verification and expansion of identity.
Their research focused on the maintenance of a sense of autonomy within a relationship, which is related to relational stability and health, and whether this sense of self-direction was respected by their partner. They found that the more people felt their autonomy needs were supported by their relationship, the better their relational well-being.
They also found, however, that the larger motivational context within which a relationship is evaluated impacted the degree to which autonomy needs contribute to the feeling of well-being. For example, they found that individuals with promotion concerns, who were motivated to grow and achieve personal aspirations, placed greater value on autonomy as it relates to relational well-being.
When Supporting a Partner´s Interest is Threatening to the Relationship
Some couples worry that growing individually means growing apart. Sure enough, research indicates there is a limit to supporting a partner´s interests when they are perceived as threatening to the relationship.
In “The Manhattan Effect,” (2014), Hui et al. studied the extent to which partners support each other´s personal interests.[ii] They found that relationship commitment promotes support of the personal interests of a partner, unless those interests threaten the relationship. They describe the Manhattan effect as the “reduction or reversal of the positive link between relationship commitment and propartner behaviors.”
The dynamics tested in the study were inspired by the movie Manhattan, where Woody Allen plays Issac, a 42-year-old writer dating a woman 25 years his junior. He initially encourages his young girlfriend to take advantage of the wonderful opportunity to attend college in London, believing they do not have a future together. When he changes his mind, he views her leaving the country as a threat to their relationship and begs her not to go.
Similarly, the research by Hui et al. demonstrated that highly committed individuals value their relationship over their partner´s personal interests when those interests present a threat to the relationship.
Consistent with their research findings, they reflect on the specific objections Issac makes to Tracy´s departure in the movie: “in 6 months you’ll be a completely different person,” and “I just don’t want that thing about you that I like to change.” In other words, the concern is not that Tracy will fall in love with another man, but that her personal growth or maturity will alter the quality of their relationship.
Healthy Relational Independence
Outside of the context of planned separations, which always present relational challenges, individual autonomy and independence can add value to relationships. Although you no doubt relish each other´s company, you and your partner do not need to everything together. If you decide to continue to enjoy your own hobbies and interests solo, whether you are into sports or the symphony, you are not headed for a breakup. In fact, your partner would probably much rather know you are taking in a performance of Beethoven’s 9th at the concert hall than out with your friends at a pool hall.
Speaking of friends, when you are in a relationship, do not neglect friends and family. Spending time with others maintains communal and familial bonds, which allows you to preserve a strong support system that can function as an objective sounding board to use when discussing issues, both personal and professional.
And even though relationships require you to attend to the needs of your partner, take care of your own needs and interests as well. There are limits to relational self-sacrifice, particularly if it impacts your own physical and emotional health. When you are feeling good, you are better able to promote the well-being of your partner.
Personal independence combined with healthy and supportive interdependence creates relationships that are worth celebrating—every day.
[i]Chin Ming Hui, Daniel C. Molden, and Eli J. Finkel, “Loving Freedom: Concerns With Promotion or Prevention and the Role of Autonomy in Relationship Well-Being,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 105, no. 1, 2013, 61-85.
[ii]Chin Ming Hui, Grainne M. Fitzsimons, Eli J. Finkel, Madoka Kumashiro, and Wilhelp Hofmann, ”The Manhattan Effect: When Relational Commitment Fails to Promote Support for Partner´s Interests,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 106, no. 4, 2014, 546-570.