Supporting Your Partner's Autonomy
If you hear your partner say things like, 'You always make demands', 'You're pressuring me', 'I just need my freedom', 'You can't control me'; then it is likely s/he is needing more support in staying connected to their own sense of autonomy. They may say that they have more of a need for autonomy, but really what's this means is that a sense of autonomy is more easily threatened than other needs.
Let's look at three specific opportunities to provide support for your partner's autonomy. First, let's look at how taking responsibility for reactivity helps. Imagine your partner says something and you feel yourself get tense and defensive. You remember not to talk while you're reactive so you take a timeout and check in with your feelings and needs. You come back later to debrief your reaction with your partner. Your honest expression sounds like this:
"This morning when you said 'I can't just stand here. I need to get to work', I had a thought that I am not important to you. Thinking that I feel sad and hurt because I need connection and respect. The next time I start to share something with you in the morning and you don't have the space to hear it, would you be willing to tell me I'm important and that you would like to listen after work?"
As far as the syntax of Nonviolent Communication goes, this is perfectly constructed honest expression. However, it is hard for your partner to hear. Your partner hears you demanding, "Behave a certain way so that I don't get triggered." You taking responsibility for your trigger is missing here. When your partner hears you do this, s/he will naturally access compassion.
Taking responsibility might sound like this:
"This morning when you said 'I can't just stand here. I need to get to work', I could feel myself react so I took a timeout. Upon reflection, I realized I had a thought that I am not important to you. That's a trigger I work with a lot. So instead of believing it as truth, I thought about what was going on this morning. I was asking for your attention while you were in the process of getting ready for work. I was feeling excited to share something with you and you were focused on your need for reliability regarding getting to work. Understanding it this way, I realize that in the future I want to honor me and you by making sure you have the space to hear me before I start sharing something. Would you be willing to tell me what you're getting from what I am saying?"
In this case, you acknowledged your thought as a habit you are working with rather than truth. You identified your need for honor as well as your partner's and then decided how you would handle it differently next time (request). When your partner hears that you have done this internal work, s/he will most likely feel relief because a need for mutuality is met. Then it is likely that s/he will naturally acknowledge his or her own part in the interaction.
A second opportunity in which you can more directly support your partner's connection to their own autonomy involves making decisions. As partners you make many decisions together. It can be easy to get lost in the land of ideas, agreement, and disagreement. When your partner shares a decision they have made for themselves or the family, your first response is likely to be one of evaluation. You share your opinion, approval/disapproval, or advice. While this kind of input may be useful at some point, when it is the first thing given you miss an opportunity to understand and honor your partner's world before sharing your own. Tending to and supporting your partner's autonomy in decision-making might sound like this:
- Good for you. You seemed pleased about that.
- Sounds like you are really clear that that's the best way to take care of yourself.
- You know what's right for you.
- Help me understand what needs you hope that will meet.
- Are you feeling nervous about that?
- I'd love to hear how that went for you when you get back.
- Have I understood what you want me to understand?
- So I hear you saying …
When you have given plenty of space for understanding your partner, rather than automatically switching to your evaluation or ideas, ask your partner if s/he is in a space to hear you or wants input. Consciously switching might sound like this:
- I would like to share what comes up for me. Are you ready to hear?
- Are you wanting input from me?
- I am not sure if you are just letting me know or you are wanting dialogue?
- I have some ideas are you interested in hearing them?
- I am wondering about how some particular needs will be met. Are you up for talking about that?
A third opportunity to support your partner's autonomy involves invitations. You can support your partner's connection to autonomy by being clear that it is okay to say "no" to your invitations. The most basic way to do this is to express your own enthusiasm for him or her accompanying you and also express your caring about what's right for them. It might sound something like this:
"I would love to have you with me and I am also okay if you say no. I really want you to do what's right for you. Take your time to sit with it and get back to me later if you want."
For folks who struggle to stay connected to their own autonomy, the impulse to please and make others happy in the moment is often very strong. Encouraging your partner to take time allows her or him to get connected with their heart rather than their habit. Over time with consistent support for your partner's autonomy and your partner acknowledging and receiving this support, autonomy will become less of a hot button in your relationship. Your will rest more and more in a sense of confidence that they are free to choose.
This week notice when one of these three opportunities to support your partner's autonomy presents itself and, if you can do so from a place of generosity, offer support.