Connectedness, Tension with Autonomy

Gary W Peterson. Encyclopedia of Human Relationships. Editor: Harry T Reis & Susan Sprecher. Sage Publication, 2009.

In a symbolic sense, humans, like birds, need both a nest for stable connections and wings to soar freely toward greater autonomy. This comparison underscores how important it is for people both to become securely connected and to explore greater autonomy within marriage, parent-child, dating, friendships, workplace, and other intimate relationships. Consistent with these ideas, this entry describes autonomy and connectedness, with a special focus on whether individuals experience either tension or compatibility between these aspects of their intimate human relationships.

Autonomy is a component of individualism, or an assortment of socially valued qualities that allow a person to become more self-directed and self-governing. The development of personal autonomy consists of several aspects of relationships including (1) affirming one’s personal rights, (2) exercising freedom of choice in life decisions, (3) demonstrating self-initiated behavior, (4) experiencing and controlling personal emotions separate from the emotions of others, and (5) developing one’s own system of values and beliefs. Autonomous qualities are believed to be central features of relationships in Westernized societies such as the United States and Western Europe but are present in other cultures to a lesser degree. In contrast, connectedness is a component of collectivism, or an assortment of socially valued qualities that emphasize the importance of social responsibility, attachment to others, and group togetherness. Personal connectedness involves several aspects of relationships including (1) seeking frequent contact and emotional closeness with others, (2) expressing affection, (3) striving for harmony within groups, (4) emphasizing one’s responsibility to other group members, and (5) complying with group expectations and promoting group interests. Aspects of connectedness are believed to be most common among members of Asian and Hispanic societies but are present in other cultures to a lesser degree. Evidence is growing that people in most, if not all, societies encourage some degree of balance between autonomy and connectedness.

Different Views of Autonomy and Connectedness in Relationships

How a person experiences autonomy and connectedness within intimate relationships is commonly described in terms of three perspectives: (1) tension or conflict, (2) compatible development, and (3) mixed patterns of tension and compatibility.

Tension between Autonomy and Connectedness

The belief that people experience tension between autonomy and connectedness is the traditional and increasingly the most criticized of the three perspectives. A tension point of view represents autonomy and connectedness as general aspects of relationships that are in conflict with each other. This means that increases in autonomy of any kind often lead to proportionate decreases in connectedness of any kind.

A tension viewpoint is illustrated in classical and more recent versions of psychoanalytic theory, which propose that gains in children’s autonomy occur as they separate from earlier bonds they have formed with parents. During childhood and adolescence, this separation process is a normal feature of growing up that is proposed to have positive consequences for the progress of youth toward adulthood. During adolescence, for example, the young are supposed to gain autonomy by separating or becoming less connected to parents as they spend more time with peers, begin to date, experiment with sexuality, and become committed to their own values. They also learn to make more of their own lifestyle choices about such things as entertainment, music, and styles of dress.

A tension viewpoint portrays adolescents as achieving autonomy through a separation process as they spend less time with and reduce the quality of ties they have with parents. Gaining autonomy through separation provides the young with greater freedom from the physical and emotional controls of parents so they can make their own life decisions and engage in intimate relationships with people outside their families. A common feature of parent-adolescent relationships that fosters this separation process is the increased level of tension, conflict, and turmoil that is supposed to be common during this developmental period. Conflict and turmoil contributes to increased adolescent separation, which creates the conditions for greater youthful autonomy at the expense of connections with parents.

Compatibility between Autonomy and Connectedness

Contrasting with a tension perspective is the more recent viewpoint that people experience autonomy and connectedness as compatible and as developing together. A compatibility perspective proposes that individuals do not routinely become more autonomous by sacrificing connections with others. Instead, some degree of balance or essential harmony between autonomy and connectedness is a normal experience within intimate relationships that are healthy. Humans are viewed as products of both their individual or private experiences as well as their connections with spouses, children, work colleagues, friends, and others within relationships. A compatibility viewpoint focuses primarily on how people experience autonomy and connectedness in similar ways and less on how these aspects of relationships differ from one circumstance to another.

An example of a compatible viewpoint is provided by Attachment Theory, which can be used to explain how people develop and experience connectedness and autonomy during the entire lifespan. The emergence of attachment behavior by infants, an early form of connectedness, contributes to close ties between infants and attachment figures (e.g., parents) or people who serve as sources of security and protection. Infant-to-parent attachment involves such behaviors as crawling and eye contact to maintain close proximity, clinging responses for protection, and affectionate behaviors (e.g., cuddling, snuggling, and smiling) for emotional support. Attachment relationships also may provide the young with an internal working model or a set of beliefs about what to expect from relationships and how they will work in the future. These expectations for relationships are believed to provide a basic model for later life about how to balance connectedness and autonomy within dating, marriage, friendship, and other intimate associations.

Concerning the compatibility issue, Attachment Theory offers the idea that most people who have experienced secure attachment relationships are less likely to experience conflict between autonomy and connectedness in either their early or later relationships. Instead, autonomy is not only portrayed as being compatible with connectedness but also as springing from the close ties that a person has experienced in secure attachments with others. Autonomy begins early in development, as infants gradually expand the distance they crawl away from their parents to explore objects in the environment. During childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, the process of gaining autonomy retains this common theme of constantly expanding explorations through increasingly more complicated behaviors. Individuals use parents, friends, dating partners, and spouses as sources of security and springboards for more elaborate excursions into the social world. For example, most teenagers do not simply reject positive relationships with parents as they gain greater freedom from parental connections. Instead, teenagers often expand the number and complexity of their peer relationships, while maintaining close ties with parents. Greater autonomy is not achieved, therefore, as a zero-sum game in which gains in self-direction necessarily mean losses in connections with parents. Most adolescents report that they value making more of their own lifestyle choices and desire to spend more time with peers but without suffering dramatic declines in the love and respect they feel for parents. The development of autonomy and connectedness are not in conflict but indeed are compatible and essential aspects of human relationships that develop together.

Mixed Patterns of Compatibility and Conflict for Autonomy and Connectedness

A third perspective is that both autonomy and connectedness may occur in mixed patterns from one culture or circumstance to another. Although recognizing that autonomy and connectedness are experienced in most if not all cultures, a mixed pattern viewpoint questions the idea that autonomy and connectedness are always experienced in the same way from one culture to another. This perspective combines elements from both the tension and compatibility perspectives but without proposing that autonomy and connectedness necessarily develop together in some general way. Instead, these aspects of interpersonal relationships may contradict, complement, or function independently of each other. In doing so, greater attention is focused on the differences rather than the similarities about how autonomy and connectedness are experienced.

A mixed pattern occurs in societies that have a dominant way the majority experiences autonomy and connectedness as well as different patterns of experience within ethnic-minority communities. A specific example is the dominant experience of the White, middle-class population of the United States, which often balances these relationship qualities by assigning priority to autonomy over connectedness within family and interpersonal relationships. In contrast, the Chinese-American ethnic community within the United States often places greater value on connectedness by assigning priority to group interests, supporting family cohesiveness, and seeking harmony with others over autonomy. Given their minority status, however, Chinese Americans often benefit from adapting to both cultures and by shifting back and forth in mixed patterns between the dominant and ethnic expressions of autonomy and connectedness as circumstances require. Consequently, Chinese Americans may practice a mixed pattern by emphasizing strong bonds of connectedness within their family lives by deferring to parental authority, avoiding conflict, and maintaining harmony among family members. However, when Chinese Americans venture into the individualistic world of the U.S. workplace, they often recognize the benefits of becoming more autonomous. Specifically, they pursue their individual self-interest by striving for personal success and competing energetically with colleagues for career promotions.

A mixed-pattern perspective also proposes that some cultures emphasize different kinds of connectedness and autonomy that may be in conflict, compatible, or some combination of the two. For example, when cultures vary in the type of connectedness they emphasize, that is, either trust or assurance, mixed results often occur in the relationship between autonomy and connectedness. Although both forms of connectedness are probably present to some degree in most cultures, other circumstances often lead to either trust or assurance being emphasized more strongly than the other.

A key factor that determines whether either trust or assurance is favored depends on how much value also is placed on autonomy. Trust is the kind of connectedness that most people prefer to express in Westernized cultures where people also place high priority on becoming autonomous. Often expressed as encouragement and affection, trust supports the development of autonomy by seeking to build a person’s confidence, tolerating relationship changes, and supporting the formation of new relationships. In contrast, assurance is a form of connectedness that is more common in collectivistic societies and involves communicating about the need for cooperation, togetherness, harmony, and loyalty within groups. Assurance conflicts with autonomy by emphasizing the importance of conforming to group interests, stability in relationships, resistance to changes in relationships, and interpersonal harmony. When assurance is emphasized, autonomy and connectedness are likely to be experienced as conflicting, but when trust is favored, people often become autonomous without reducing their connections with others. Thus, exactly how autonomy and connectedness are experienced in a particular culture may depend on the specific types of these relationship qualities that are emphasized.

Debates about the meaning and the degree of compatibility or conflict between autonomy and connectedness are likely to continue in the future. Putting together the autonomy-connectedness puzzle may rely on pieces from the tension, compatibility, and mixed-patterns perspectives. A working conclusion is that most relationships can be understood, in part, as a nest that provides secure connections and wings that make greater autonomy possible.