Expect Autonomy

In my adulting adventures, I’ve been lucky enough to find myself in several communities that have high expectations of autonomy and accountability. To this end, one of the groups I had the pleasure of belonging to phrased this expectation as “be your own camp counselor” which, while self explanatory, has some layers.

I write a lot about autonomy without actually using the word, but I’m going to hammer it pretty hard this time around because autonomy is the foundational principle upon which I structure relationships. And autonomy is very much about being one’s own camp counselor. In relationships, we shouldn’t expect to be managed by our partners and we shouldn’t expect to manage our partners in return.

More to the point: when we expect our partners to modify their behavior to address our insecurities, we’re asking to be managed. Partners are not camp counselors, and we should not expect them to change anything about themselves that isn’t causing harm. We can ask, of course, and it’s our responsibility to advocate for ourselves by asking for what we need. But we always need to be okay with a “no” so long as what we’re asking for is not a reduction in harmful behavior.

For example: if every time my partner picks up a cookie I ask them how their diet is going, they’re going to be justified in asking me to knock that the fuck off. However, if every time I go on a date with another partner they text me and ask me to cut my date short, they are going to have to do a little self-wrangling to get to the bottom of why that request feels reasonable to them. It isn’t my job to modify my behavior in the meantime; they will need to be their own camp counselor.

Furthermore, if I were to modify my behavior to address their insecurities, that would be me infantilizing them and taking away an opportunity for them to grow. Autonomy is a great defense against future resentment. To deprive yourself of experiences that cause no harm simply because someone else is struggling to allow you to fully utilize your autonomy is a sure fire way to grow a great big resentment garden out of a well-meaning seed of consideration.

On the other side of things, there is a lot of dignity to be found in managing your own shit. When a partner attempts to tailor my experience with them to match some imagined version of what I might be feeling, it takes away my ability to show up authentically. Not everyone will find comfort in every aspect of non-monogamy, but if they’re never allowed the opportunity to develop those muscles, they’ll remain in a static state of discomfort.

Once upon a time, I had an agreement with a partner that we would give each other a “heads up” if another relationship progressed to the point where sexual activity was on the table. I think the reason we felt this was reasonable is because there was some discomfort around the idea of the other one getting to that point with someone else. Knowing about it ahead of time might allow us a chance to work through any feelings that came up for us before *it* happened. But . . . why? Why did we feel like we needed to wait until someone new came along before we did that work, and why did the work need to be done each time? I don’t recall how we justified that, but I can tell you the person giving the heads up ended up feeling like they were reporting to a supervisor, and the person receiving the information lived in a state of waiting to be hit with it. We decided pretty quickly that it felt icky to treat each other like children, and it felt a lot more dignified to deal with whatever came up for us naturally as the other person did what people do when they date new folks – have sex sometimes, or not. Whatever. Being our own camp counselors in this regard felt a lot better than being each other’s.

Autonomy is a gift we give not only to ourselves, but to each other. Each time I feel compelled to ask someone to do something differently, I try to take a moment to ask myself if what I need is really within my own abilities to provide; it usually is. I feel best building my own fires, leading my own hikes, and picking which obnoxious songs to sing. Being my own camp counselor may include handling the occasional garter snake, but when it’s all said and done, I can be proud of the path I’ve forged and the way I’ve shown up in my life and the lives of those I care about more often than not.

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