Fear of Commitment, or Striving for Independence? The Battle Between Autonomy and Relational Worth

Wednesday, November 01, 2017 by Meg   •   Filed under Sexuality/Relationships

We evolved to be initially leery of strangers. But over time, we grow to see those around us as parts of our group, an evolutionary predisposition to attach to another which would have been our greatest method for survival within our ancestral past. It is no wonder that we panic a little at the thought of being alone

But what happens when the commitment itself is threatening to us? 

We have all heard someone say, “Never again.” Never again will they count on someone, for life has taught them that others are not worthy of trust. Never again will they open up about their feelings for it only opens the door to pain. And many of them close off sooner because their earliest experiences reflected these notions as well.

Counting on others is hard if you grow up knowing that you cannot. We are often pushed towards premature independence, a reflection of our culture that tends to place value on independent achievement instead of relationships. From our first break from England, Americans have been nation of those who will not have our freedom altered, our choices taken.

I mean unless you’re a woman, in which case politicians will try to do all kinds of shit to make choices for you, but that’s for another time. 

Today the point is this: we are taught to believe that autonomy is synonymous with independence, that we cannot possibly strive for individual growth while relying on another. That to attain autonomy and independence we must devalue our relationships and differentiate ourselves from them,  because we cannot possibly retain autonomy and grow as individuals if we are too dependent on someone else. 

There’s just one problem with that. It isn’t true. 

Autonomy, Independence, Interdependence and Relationships

Gloria Stenham once said, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” Well, that’s almost true. I mean if by bicycle she meant another fish with whom to embrace self actualization as well as coupledom.  

Now clearly we don’t need one another. But just because we are able to survive without emotional connection doesn’t mean we evolved to do it well or that this will lead us towards our personal best. Through connections we grow internally, we foster security and find the freedom to explore ourselves from our earliest relationships with our mothers and other caregivers to romantic relationships later. Historically and currently, the way we grow has much to do with those around us especially with our relationships whether those with caregivers our our romantic partners. 

Dr. Peter Kramer, author of Should You Leave? believes that the main way we screw shit up is to see ourselves as inherently independent as opposed to beings who grow as individuals within relationships1. As social creatures we are not completely independent, but rather interdependent entities intricately connected to those around us, as doctors Christakis and Fowler explain in detail in Connected2. Our happiness, no matter how much we are taught the opposite, is based partially on our relationships with others, including intimate partners.

“Autonomy is far from being a unique marker of social worth,” says Kramer1. People tend to be drawn towards mates who are autonomous as opposed to dependent. Those who are secure. And we tend to be attracted to what we need to do this growing, a sentiment shared by Kramer and Dr. Michael Bader, author of Arousal3

But why would this be? Are the independent better at relationships? Instead of autonomy being something that makes us better on our own, is autonomy something that develops within relationships and leads to better connections instead of more differentiation and independence? Is there any reason it can’t do both?

Many believe that this model of closeness coupled with autonomous growth is a hallmark of good relationships. A place for us to sculpt our ideal selves in conjunction with our partners, leading researcher Carol Rusbult to coin the term, “The Michalangelo phenomenon”5. In these cases, partners promote ideal traits in one another as opposed to hindering our movement towards these goals. 

However all this sculpting occurs within mature relationships, where partners are not worried about losing one another to all this growth. In insecure relationships, partners may try to manipulate the other as a way to keep them, to promote their own security and growth at the risk of their partner’s. Partners who enhance and encourage the other, who are happy in themselves and their own lives tend to be more able to provide this. 

So what about when our personal sculpting ends up looking less like Michaelangelo’s David and more like a Picasso?  

Commitment Issues, Early Attachment Problems and Projective Identification

Our earliest examples of personal growth come out of our earliest relationships, specifically those with early caregivers. But those early relationships are often far from perfect. And in those with insecure attachment models may end up with trouble attaching to others in later life.

Mary Ainsworth, one of the original attachment researchers found that there were three primary styles of attachment through use of a strange situation test (where children were observed in the lab, with the mother, when the mother left and when she returned)6. A fourth, disorganized attachment, was added in the nineties7 and later still, reactive attachment disorder8, a more recent, but rare diagnosis usually categorized by severe withdrawal and depressive symptoms.

So what are these attachment styles? 

  • Secure Attachment – Parents tend to be responsive to children’s needs and foster emotional regulation through connection. Children see parents as a secure base from which they can explore their world independently. Secure attachment fosters independence through providing a place where it is safe to be independent because someone will be there to help you if you  mess up, ie, “I can go look around this big scary place by myself, because mom will make sure nothing happens to me”.  
  • Ambivolent Attachment - These children tend to be anxious about mothers leaving and have less confidence in their independent play. They may approach their mother when she returns but may resist her when she gets close to them. 
  • Avoidant Attachment - Children seem ambivalent when mother leaves (though their stress hormones show high anxiety). They may play with stranger without mother present, ignores mother when she returns.
  • Disorganized Attachment results when children are both frightened by and comforted by the parent and are unsure which one will show up at any given time. This usually occurs in cases of abuse and Disorganized adults tend to be insensitive, abusive or explosive and may have major trust issues even though they seek security or reassurance. In extreme cases, you sometimes see babies crawling backwards to their mothers, which is completely heartbreaking. 

Okay so early relationships lead to styles of attachment that are negative for kids. But what about grownups? 

Adult Romantic Attachment Styles

There is not a great deal of longitudinal evidence to show that the attachment style from adulthood translates directly into a specific attachment style in adults. However, it is generally accepted that attachment security in childhood leads to better outcomes in adults in everything from personal emotional regulation to better relationships, with some studies noting attachment security as a factor in regulating cortisol and the HPA axis9, which is related to both anxiety and depression.

So it’s not a huge shock that adults with secure childhood attachments are more likely to following secure patterns in adulthood, if only because they have a basis for trust in others. Those with secure adult attachments tend to offer assistance when their partner is distressed and going to their partner when they are upset for comfort. In addition, those with secure attachments tend to have higher rates of marital satisfaction10, fewer negative behaviors or explosive responses11 and less sexual dissatisfaction13. Those with secure attachment styles may also be less likely to remain in unhappy marriages12 possibly because they understand that there is something better out there from early childhood models.

See? Independence through relationships. Who would have thought it? (Said no shrink in recent years.)

  • Anxious Preoccupied Attachment, which is categorized by emotional desire for bonding as opposed to real trust or closeness,  seeking a partner who might be able to rescue them or complete them, seeking safety through another person when they lack it and general possessiveness or clinginess though they may try to push their partner away at the same time. 

“You can’t go out with your friends tonight! I want you to stay home…because I said so. Hey, wait…where are you going? I KNEW people were untrustworthy! If only I were more independent. Never again…at least not until tomorrow.” 

  • Dismissive Avoidant Attachment, is a style where individuals distance themselves from their partner through isolation or by saying things like “I’m just very independent.” They may convince themselves that others are not useful or be dismissive of others including those close to them and may train themselves to shut down.

“Oh, you’re leaving me? I never needed you anyway. I’m just very independent.”

  • Fearful Avoidant Attachment. These folks tend to have a lot of anxiety and no organized strategy for getting their needs met. They might want to be close to others, but fear this closeness at the same time and might go between ambivalence and being overwhelmed by their feelings. Struggle with closeness, going between clinging to them out of deep rooted fears of being alone or abandonment and pushing them away because they feel trapped.  

“Please stay home, I need you tonight. But also, fuck you.” 

Obviously there is some overlap between the childhood patterns and the adult romantic styles. But how much those actually end up coming out may depend on how similar your partner actually is to your early family, though Michael Bader believes that in order to heal emotionally, we may push parts of our histories onto our parters giving them recognizable but unappealing roles as a way to try the whole things again and get it right. 

So while we might not marry our fathers, if we need to heal we might make whoever they are with into our early caregivers. We might also use projective identification, a defense mechanism where we push the parts of ourselves and our pasts we find most threatening onto someone else. By recognizing this when it occurs, we may be more able to accept our independent baggage and promote differentiation by taking our shit back and looking at it for what it is. Differentiation of the self and autonomy works to resist projective identification and might be more effectively done within the context of a relationship. Understanding the self through understanding what it is you’re responding to in someone else. 

Tricky stuff. 

I think the point is this: relationships can be a bitch. It is often hard to understand what we are responding to and why. But our own histories can lead us to develop ideas about what independence and autonomy look like that might not be the most accurate reflection of psychological health. And luckily for us, through healthy relationships, attachment styles can shift into ones that allow us the autonomous growth we seek. By understanding what type of attachment style you might be looking at you may be able to figure out whether your current relationship stacks up, and how your history might be playing into how you see your current partner. And perhaps in these recognitions there is an opportunity for growth as well, not through changing a partner but through identifying the pieces of us we like and what we’d like to change, the goals and dreams that are being embraced within our coupled state and that which are being hindered both by us and our partners. 

If nothing else, relationships can show us where we want to be, both as a person inside a relationship and as one outside of it. For both are inherently the same individual, born of early connection, striving for these connections again both with others and within ourselves. For it is our inherent ability to connect that may enhance our deepest notions of worthiness, as it was from our earliest memories. We were born needing validation, to be taught we are worth loving. And while that sustains us well, there exists a drive for this security outside of ourselves. For it is easer to heal in love. It is easier to love oneself when we see someone else loving us. And no matter how secure we are in our histories, in our value, we all want to be loved.  

Related Posts: 

  1. http://www.amazon.com/Should-You-Leave-Psychiatrist-Autonomy/dp/0140272798
  2. http://www.amazon.com/Connected-Surprising-Networks-Friends-Everything/dp/0316036137/
  3. http://www.amazon.com/Arousal-Secret-Logic-Sexual-Fantasies/dp/0312302428/
  4. http://www.amazon.com/Seven-Principles-Making-Marriage-Work/dp/0609805797/
  5. http://faculty.wcas.northwestern.edu/eli-finkel/documents/47_RusbultFinkelKumashiro2009_CDir.pdf
  6. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/5490680
  7. Main, M., & Solomon, J. (1990). "Procedures for identifying infants as disorganized/disoriented during the Ainsworth Strange Situation". M.T. Greenberg, D. Cicchetti & E.M. Cummings (Eds.), Attachment in the Preschool Years (pp. 121–160). Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
  8. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11232086.
  9. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3114075/ 
  10. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3061469/
  11. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2771542/
  12. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11584789
  13. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22533869

Topic-Relevant Resources

Arousal: The Secret Logic of Sexual Fantasies
Everything you ever wanted to know about the psychological causes of fantasies. How to use them, when to lose them and what they mean.

Should You Leave?: A Psychiatrist Explores Intimacy and Autonomy--and the Nature of Advice
Psychiatrist Peter Kramer on the complex relationships between two people and how personal assessments of situations may lead to better overall functioning within couples...or the drive to separate.

I Hate You--Don't Leave Me: Understanding the Borderline Personality
A look inside Borderline Personality Disorders and effective treatments.

Redemption: An Ash Park Novel
Ashes to ashes... The final installment of the Ash Park series