Counseling Center

Autonomy and Intimacy

Let's start looking at how we make meaningful relationships. Our relationships, including those with friends, family members, and romantic or sexual partners require a balance of intimacy and autonomy to thrive.  

Intimacy is our closeness or connectedness with others. It develops via a wide variety of experiences, like exchanging thoughts and ideas, enjoying mutual activities, creating memories together, and empathizing with and trying to understand the feelings of the other person. Of course, intimacy can include physical intimacy, like hugging or sex, as well.  Intimacy is not just one thing; people develop feelings of intimacy through a combination of experiences. Autonomy, on the other hand, refers to a person's level of independence or separateness from others. 

Some relationships may have high levels of both intimacy and autonomy, while others have low levels of both intimacy and autonomy. Others may have high levels of one and low levels of the other. In relationships, we hope to find a balance of both intimacy and autonomy. This means that each person in the relationship feels supported and connected while retaining some independence and feeling of autonomy at the same time.  

The levels of intimacy and autonomy may vary across relationships. For instance, you might have more intimacy with a long-term partner or siblings and a greater level of autonomy with a lab partner in one of your classes. The level of connection versus independence from relationship to relationship can vary for a lot of reasons, including the length of time that you've known the person, the amount of contact, shared goals, etc.  

Let's take a moment to reflect on the levels of intimacy and autonomy in the different relationships in your life. Please click here and complete the first half of the page, entitled “Levels of Intimacy and Autonomy Snapshot.” If a relationship does not apply to you, just skip it.

Just like the balance of intimacy and autonomy shifts from relationship to relationship, the balance may ebb and flow within the same relationship! 

For instance, within the same long-term relationship, you may notice that at different times a greater amount of intimacy is present, while at other times there is more independence. Midterms are a good example of a time when this balance may shift. During exam week, some people may require greater levels of support and validation. Others might need to have way more independence as they focus on their own academic responsibilities. When exam week is over, the levels of intimacy and autonomy may revert back to their previous levels.

Okay. Let's pause again to think about the ebb and flow of intimacy and autonomy levels in a particular relationship in your life. Please complete the second section of the worksheet here titled "Ebb and Flow in My Relationship."

While the level of intimacy and autonomy may vary from relationship to relationship and even within the same relationship, one of the core things to remember is that the balance is created between the people within the relationship. That is, the balance is a collaborative process in order to ensure that the relationship feels good for everyone involved. We can imagine how it might feel if your partner demanded a level of intimacy that was dramatically different than you would like? And what if your partner was unable or unwilling to work with you to find a balance that met both of your needs? This likely wouldn't feel very good, would it? Would you feel unheard? Frustrated? Suffocated or, conversely, uncared for?  

So in fulfilling relationships it’s important to have a mutually agreed upon balance of intimacy and autonomy. And, as we discussed, the balance may ebb and flow and may require continued negotiation between the partners.


Last Updated: 6/27/22