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Autonomy and Affiliative Relationships – Getting the Balance Right

Updated: Aug 26, 2020

As we look at the Matrix of Needs, the foundation provided by a strong sense of safety and having the foundational needs – Subsistence, Attaching Relationships, Communication, Achievement, and Social Relationships – is a prerequisite for people to begin developing a sense of maturity in their lives.

The structure of the Matrix of Needs starts with safety, physically and emotionally, in all areas of a person’s life. With that safety in place, the Core Needs of Subsistence, Attaching Relationships, and Communication begin to be met while the child is still in the womb. People ask how being in the womb could be unsafe, and the answer is found in research-based articles documenting the effect of maternal stress on the infant. This research has a long history, with David Peter’ 1988 article in the journal Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Behavior stands out with good information on the subject.

After Core Needs come Growth Needs – Achievement and Social Relationships – which provide stability for the next processes in human development, Maturity Needs. The two Maturity Needs are Affiliative Relationships, and Autonomy. One question that arises often is about the difference between Social Relationships and Affiliative Relationships. The central core for all relationships goes back to Attaching Relationships, which is well documented in research from John Bowlby and others. Social Relationships develop when people, starting in early childhood, are in social settings – preschool, houses of worship, extended family gatherings, kindergarten and elementary school, etc. These relationships begin as choices made for the person by others, and are necessary for the person to make choices for themselves.

Affiliative Relationships, on the other hand, are the result of choices made by people. What jobs you apply for and take, what sports you play, what restaurants and coffee shops you go to, college or university you attend, what groups you join, etc. These relationships are deeper than social relationships are, and become part of your own self-definition. When you identify yourself with a group of other people, these actions and interactions become more meaningful, more mature, than the many social relationships we have. Social Relationships and Affiliative Relationships occur at the same time. Social Relationships can be had with many different people, but only a handful of Affiliative Relationships are possible for most people. Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist who has researched how many relationships people can maintain, says that 5 is the number of people that can be called intimate friends, 15 people can be held as good friends, 50 people as friends, and 150 people as meaningful acquaintances.

Autonomy is the second of the Maturity Needs. Autonomy is the ability to make decisions about your life independent of the control of other people. You come into your own, so to speak, and are now your own woman, your own man, your own self. When a person is autonomous it means that their actions start with their decisions and no one else’s. In relationships, whether personal, work, or school, the autonomous person chooses how they will respond instead of being told how they will respond. Being autonomous does not mean, in emotionally healthy individuals, that you don’t need other people. It does mean you accept responsibility for your own decisions and live with as well as learn from the consequences of those decisions.

The process of Autonomy is rooted in Achievement, being able to point to something and say “I did that” with a sense of pride. The autonomous individual builds on Achievement to develop mastery of skill, knowledge, and action. There is also an ability to be alone with one’s self, without feeling loneliness. When people feel lonely, it is an indicator that there are unmet social needs in Attaching Relationships and/or Social Relationships.

True autonomy is built on the emotionally safe experiences of Achievement, Social Relationships, and Attaching Relationships. Without the gift of Autonomy, one cannot enter into Affiliative Relationships because they will be using those relationships to meet their own needs and thus become manipulative of others. At times this manipulation may appear to be positive and whole, but in the end, it is still manipulation.

Getting this balance between Autonomy and Affiliative Relationships right is the path to maturity. When we are overbalanced in Autonomy, relationships become tools to use to advance our own interests. When we are overbalanced in Affiliative Relationships, we lose the ability to act independently and are always asking what other people want as we make decisions in our lives. Finding this balance is the journey of a lifetime, and well worth the effort.

Bob Bowen



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