Autonomy is Sexy, So Why Do We Try to Change Our Lovers?


Photo from blvcktruth

From the moment I first laid eyes on him, he had a way about him. Cool, calm, collected. Zen without pretentiousness. Worldly and wise and charming. I perceived all of these things from just looking at his picture.

I liked him instantly for who he was: different from me; not necessarily opposite, but more advanced, more far along. His music choices, the books he read, his taste in movies, his spiritual practices—he was no one like I’d ever met before.

Then we spoke on the phone. His surroundings were busy—I could tell from the background noise—but he managed to hold his attention on me, asking me about myself, telling me he wanted to meet me. He articulated and enunciated his words with such deliberateness that it sounded like he had an accent, and I asked him if he wasn’t American. His laugh was good-natured, his voice smooth and playful.

And then we met in person, and I was inundated with his third dimensional characteristics. He looked dangerous in a non-threatening way; very unlike a bad boy caricature and more like a man who housed the ability to move the planet with his own hands. His smile was brightening and warming, a kind of light in darkness. There was a subdued confidence about him—not cockiness, more like self-assuredness. He spoke and moved as though he’d been an adult for all of his life.

We began a rapid love affair shortly after this, our first date. In the early, early stages of our love, everything about him was enchanting, mysterious, novel.

Slowly, I began to learn about the silly little quirks he had—the exciting idiosyncrasies of his character, the subtle and not-so-subtle tendencies of his self-expression. He had his own rhythms about him, his own routines, nuances, likes and dislikes.

He was a smoker at the time—not super heavy, but he smoked enough to earn the title. And the way he formed his mouth to expel the smoke out of his lungs wasn’t in a typical “O” shape; more like a horizontal lowercase “L.”

His clothes were usually stained and worn, sometimes with full-fledged, strategically placed holes in them. I was attracted to this particularly because it reiterated his carefree, non-self-absorbed nature, something that I, a fussy, put-together, strait-laced young woman, found appealing.

And while his energy was profound—he could walk in a room and seemingly shift the direction of the mood toward lightness, gentleness, kindness—he never used it against anyone, never exerted his will. Truly, he was gentle, even a little soft spoken, though sitting next to him or just speaking with him for a few moments gave you an impression of subdued bigness.

But mostly, he owned who he was—his smoking, sloppily dressed, slightly broodish self. He didn’t try to be anything but what he already was. He didn’t apologize for the holes in in shoes. He didn’t backtrack when his voice didn’t raise itself to match the uproarious voices of others. He didn’t shrink away from his bigness, from the bright energy he could conjure. I adored that.

Which is to say that I adored him—his independence, his self-sovereignty, his unique way of moving in the world. That is what wooed me most, above his gentle hands and his protective nature and the sensual way he nursed a cigarette.

I was attracted to his beingness; I was attracted to his independence and the mystery housed within it.

Our love was founded on that—the entrancement of silly quirks, the bliss of the soon-to-be discovered; a lot of love is. Love is nourished by these things, and also by projections and lavish fantasies about the other, but most especially by autonomy.

But as time passed, autonomy (at least for me) wasn’t being made the priority thriving force behind our relationship. Security was; I didn’t want to lose him, naturally.

Autonomy is the antithesis of security, because where there is unpredictability, there is the loss of stability. And it is stability (i.e., predictability) that essentially keeps a couple together. Suddenly, individuality began to become less important to me and that stability—security, predictability—was the new underlying motive in building a life together.

And how does one create stability? Many, many ways, but unfortunately the most common way is by nullifying their partner’s autonomy, or individuality.

For me, it started small, insidious. Suggesting that we replace his grungy, holey shoes or getting him an expensive peacoat in exchange for his worn and weathered bomber jacket (for me, security meant uniformity in all aspects, but particularly in the way he dressed himself up); making snide comments about his tastes in movies and his tendency to spend too much time socializing in bars—all of which translated into me craving a sense of reliability.

Of course, not all suggestions to make tweaks to his character were harmful—on the contrary, most of them were quite healthy, like inciting him to quit smoking or to use the money he spent buying rounds at bars towards a better apartment for him to live. But the line between inspiring him to better himself and controlling, as best as I could, his image to offer me the security I craved began to become blurred, and our union began to strain.

And it wasn’t just in my beloved that I began to inflict predictability; I did it in our relationship as a whole: creating the habit of eating dinner with the television on; spending the weekends holed up with each other, rather than with our friends individually; stepping into roles that didn’t truly fit us but we did so anyway to preserve the security we craved. The patterns, the routines, the mindless chatter about things that didn’t really matter.

No more wooing; no more puffing up our feathers or embellishing ourselves creatively. We were steadily finding more and more predictability, but our relationship was beginning to drift a bit lifelessly. We began to fight, and we began to have less sex.

We’ve all done this to some degree, because we all crave security, continuity, reliability. And yet at the same time we desire mystery, the very thing that brought us to our beloved’s feet in the first place. And therein lies the rub.

Esther Perel puts it best. . .

“There’s a powerful tendency in long-term relationships to favor predictable over the unpredictable. Yet eroticism thrives on the unpredictable. Desire butts heads with habit and repetition. . . . So where does that leave us? We don’t want to throw away the security, because our relationship depends on it. . . . Yet without an element of uncertainty there is no longing, no anticipation, no frisson.”

Quite the conundrum. So how do we fix it?

By breathing autonomous breath into the relationship again. By reminding ourselves that lasting, erotic desire thrives better in an interdependent relationship. By admitting aloud, to ourselves and to our romantic partners, how, in our quest to feel safe and secure, we’ve imposed and succumbed to routines to dull unpredictability.

But especially by realizing that our relationships are not cemented in place, that they are in a constant state of evolution, of refinement. As long as you are breathing, you are transforming, blossoming—both of you are. This transformation often goes unnoticed and can even seem to lie dormant, but it’s in there, waiting for you to pull the weeds and clear the debris (i.e., routines, habits, fears of loss) so that it can burst through and begin to unfold into the open air.

That’s a start.

And then of course there’s this dance of balance that needs to happen—the dance of Security and Autonomy. It’s very, very possible for these two things to be harmonious. Perhaps that means setting up borders in a familiar place and inviting the unknown to play within that safe, designated space. Or maybe that just coming to terms with our fear of loss, of rejection, of disconnection, of death, can be enough to shift the perception and begin a healthy balance between predictability and novelty.

As for me, I’m happy to report that after realizing the direction we were going in, we abruptly changed course and began the trek toward both interdependence and healthy, good ol’ fashioned security.

Security is scrumptious, to be sure. And autonomy is devilishly sexy. Both are needed to make a romantic partnership healthy, loving, fulfilling. One over the other ensures a demise. Begin the dance, find the balance, and celebrate your beloved’s idiosyncrasies, her funny little quirks and differences, that drew you to her.

That’s where the magic is.

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Does this topic intrigue you? Check out Esther Perel’s book Mating in Captivity. This writing was conjured through reading her prose.

© 2018 Ev'Yan Whitney. All rights reserved.