Navigating the complex dynamics of multiple romantic relationships while making sure all the romantic partners involved are being fulfilled can be tricky. Interpersonal relationships are complicated at the best of times, let alone when intimacy is involved. One of the biggest challenges in nonmonogamous relationships is balancing the need for mutuality, or shared decision making and consideration for others, with the desire for autonomy, or individual freedom and control. In this post, we will explore the tension between mutuality and autonomy in nonmonogamy, and how finding a healthy balance between these two elements can lead to fulfilling and sustainable relationships.
The Mutuality/Autonomy Spectrum
Have you ever noticed that sometimes in a relationship, there’s a struggle between being together and being independent? There are a lot of ways people talk about this struggle: behaving relationally vs. behaving autonomously; avoidant attachment vs. preoccupied attachment. People sometimes use the term “codependent” when they’re on the mutual end of the trauma spectrum. Relationship Anarchists and Solo Polyamorists might consider themselves on the autonomous side. I find visual cues are especially helpful, so let’s start by drawing this spectrum out.
Finding The “Sweet Spot” in Romantic Relationships
You know when you’re in a good relationship and everything just feels safe and balanced? That’s what we call the Zone of Safety. There’s actually a wide range of what could be considered healthy between mutuality and autonomy, especially if you can find someone that’s on the same side of this line as you. It’s a place where Autonomy and Mutuality are in harmony, and we negotiate what we’re willing and able to do for each other to everyone’s mutual satisfaction. It’s flexible, and we’re checking in with ourselves during times of tension to see if there’s a pull too far in one of the directions. We’re not afraid to communicate our limits to our partner, and we’re cool with hearing “No” from them too. We understand that if something we desire and our partner can’t or won’t join us, we might not be compatible. And that’s okay! We accept that sometimes relationships end, and we move on. But even in healthy romantic relationships, there can be some frustration and misunderstandings about how much time to spend together or how to show support, especially when the two of you exist on opposite ends of healthy. It’s all about finding that sweet spot between independence and togetherness.
Going To Extremes
When we go through some trauma in our childhood or have a string of not-so-great relationships, we might end up going to extremes to try and meet our needs. When repeated neglect happens in our childhood, trauma beliefs may take on the form of: “I can’t trust others to be there for me,” or “I shouldn’t rely on others to help”. On the other end, especially when we have inconsistent or extremely emotional caregivers our beliefs may look like: “It’s my job to manage the emotions of others,” or “I don’t know how to handle my own emotions, so I need to look to others to manage them for me.”
One won’t necessarily know from behaviors if someone is operating from extreme independence or extreme mutuality. Not asking for help sits on the independent side if you do it because you don’t trust anyone to help you, or you think you should be able to do everything yourself. Not asking for help on the mutuality side comes in the form of fearing that you’ll impose on another person some hardship, or fearing that you will come off as needy or “too much” to someone. The difference between these two sides can be more a matter of motivation. Are you behaving in a way because you think you should be on your own to take care of the problem or manage the situation? Or do you behave that way because you fear how your actions will bother others, or how others will perceive you?
Flexibility is Healthy
People don’t always stick to one end of the spectrum. Some highly traumatized individuals might flip back and forth between the two extremes in an effort to find balance. It might seem odd to outsiders, but it’s actually a pretty smart coping mechanism. If one strategy isn’t working, why not try something radically different? To an outsider, this behavior may look confusing, inconsistent, or hypocritical. In reality, it makes perfect sense and actually points to someone who is more flexible and creative in their thinking in trying to adapt to their circumstances. So don’t judge too quickly.
If you are sitting in the healthy space on this spectrum, you are good at appraising where something might be best done independently, or where you may need to ask for a little help, and you don’t care shame or contempt at others who might operate differently than you.
Where Are You Finding Yourself?
You know you are operating from the Autonomy/Autonomous end of the trauma spectrum if you carry any of the following beliefs, or behave in the following ways:
- “I can’t rely on people, they are only likely to hurt me.”
- “I shouldn’t need to ask for help.” or “I’m a burden if I ask for help.”
- “My partner is too clingy, can’t they just leave me alone?” (and you’ve said this about every one of your partners.)
- “I can’t handle how much others need from me.”
- “Fine, I’ll just do it myself. It’s easier that way anyway.”
- Inability to be vulnerable with others in any way other than sex.
- Putting up rigid and impenetrable boundaries to protect yourself from others.
- Pushing others away or leaving relationships the moment things go wrong or get difficult.
- Feeling out of control and isolating yourself to regain control.
- Feeling resentment over how much others try to take from you.
- Difficulty identifying your own emotions and often the emotions of others, often minimizing the effect or impact of emotions.
You know you are operating from the Mutuality/Mutual end of the trauma spectrum if you carry any of the following beliefs:
- “I need my partner(s) to feel good, or I won’t feel good.”
- “I can’t live without my partner(s).”
- “I’m worthless without a partner.”
- Only being able to emotionally regulate with another person.
- Attempting to “rescue” or “fix” others.
- Difficulty making decisions without the input of others.
- Fears of abandonment and any behavior that attempts to alleviate that fear.
- Difficulty saying No to others when you are asked for help.
- Difficulty putting up or maintaining healthy boundaries.
- Feeling out of control and attempting to control others to alleviate the feeling.
- Feeling resentment over how much you do for others that they don’t appreciate.
- Minimizing problems or frustrations in the relationship to maintain the peace.
- Difficulty accessing your own emotions while soaking up the emotions of others around you.
Moving from the zone of trauma to the zone of safety after spending so much time in the trauma zone is no easy feat. First things first, you’ve got to identify the beliefs and behaviors that aren’t serving you or your intimate relationships anymore. Then, you need to unlearn those bad boys and replace them with new and improved beliefs and behaviors. But let’s be real, it can feel totally unnatural and tough. Some folks even say it feels like they’re lying to themselves when trying to relearn new beliefs. But fear not! EMDR or Brainspotting can help you process past traumas and see things in a new light. Learning new behaviors is like learning a new skill, and like any new skill, it takes practice and patience. So don’t sweat it if you’re not perfect at first, failure is just a natural part of the learning process.
Change is Hard and That’s OK
In nonmonogamous relationships, there is an expectation is that people move more towards the Autonomy end in their relationships. However, they might also end up moving more towards the mutuality end in the continuum overall. I have seen many people learn to be more autonomous by not relying solely on their partner for emotional regulation. By learning to be with themselves to get over their fears of abandonment they increase their overall self-worth and potential for better emotional attachments. I’ve also seen people move more towards mutuality by learning to communicate more honestly about their emotions, reaching out and asking for help from multiple people, and coming out of isolation. However it’s just as easy to find yourself carrying old beliefs and behaviors into new relationships if you haven’t done the work to understand and dismantle them.
The struggle between mutuality and autonomy is a common pattern in many healthy relationships. People who have a securely functioning romantic relationship operate in this zone, where they negotiate through explicit agreements what they are willing and want to do for each other based on their motivation and capacity. However, when traumatized, we may resort to the extreme ends of the scale in an attempt to get our needs met, which can lead to unhealthy behaviors and poor relationship quality. It is important to be aware of these patterns and to work towards finding a balance between autonomy and mutuality in our intimate relationships for a more fulfilling and healthier experience.