Autonomy & Intimacy: “‘Two sides of the same coin”


By Clint Hamm, Refuge Intern

“I too am not at home
When you are gone
And I am here alone.
Until you come
I am as dead, condemned
To fractionhood,
A stillness of the blood,
Dark in the ground
But I rise up alive
When you come near
Our place of flowers where
Alone I live.”
-Wendell Berry (poem V, 1992)

I’d like to offer the following interpretation of this beautiful poem by Wendell Berry: My relationship with you (dearest friend) helps me to know who I am. Or, perhaps, better yet: I am more “me” because of my connection with “you.” More on this later.

In case you weren’t aware and happen to care, there is a debate taken up by some in the field of Family Therapy that centers around two technical terms: attachment and differentiation . As it turns out, there’s plenty of common ground for everyone to “play nice
and get along” when this debate is viewed from a middle-position looking out; however, as is often the case, those who shout the loudest and, thus, define the terms of the debate, prefer the polemic of extremes. The result is an unfortunate turning of two perfectly complementary ideas into diametrically opposed ideologies.

Those on the far end of the “attachment” camp stress the importance of intimate (especially primary caregiver) relationships as the sole basis and indicator of healthy mental functioning. While those at the extreme end of the “differentiation” camp cry out for the primacy of the individual – loathing anything that resembles “dependence” on another. On one end, then, it’s all about dependence on primary relationships, and on the other, it’s all about “number one.”

What these two caricatured positions miss is the messy richness of the in-between. They miss the heart of the issue, which – if understood – expands the potential of, both, differentiation and attachment exponentially. When I feel the safeness of trusted friends and family around (and within) me, I have the confidence to “go it alone” and break out upon a previously uncharted path. With the choir singing steady behind me, I can boldly belt the solo. Do you see it? I am more “me” because of my connection with “you.” What we’re dealing with here is a delicate interplay , an artful dance . Instead of warring enemies, these two dynamics become, themselves, the very evidence of the existence (and vitality) of the other.

Family therapist Dan Hughes keenly observes, “Optimal family functioning, along with optimal neurological functioning, considers autonomy and intimacy, as well as self and other, to be two sides of the same coin. The family is entrusted with the responsibility
of nurturing both sides, and when it does its job well, these dichotomies fade” (Hughes, 2009). Now, for the sake of full disclosure, I suppose I find myself just barely left of center on this question. I do extend some privilege to the primary role of attachment , that is, to the centrality of relationship, of communion , as a defining characteristic of what it means to be a human person. But that’s just it! Once the ball gets rolling, once I’ve found security in safe relationship, then BOOM! – I’m more myself than ever. And when I’m more myself than ver, I move freely toward meaningful relationships. I’m no longer requiring others to be anything they’re not, because my insecurities have faded. And the ball keeps rolling.

An interesting point: the ball often gets stuck. We find ourselves, at times, scoring “zero” on self confidence, or our relationships seem to be falling to pieces. It’s normal! At such a time, you might consider reaching out toward a new relationship to get things going again. We hope you’ll consider reaching out to the Refuge Center. Call us at (615) 591-5262, or visit our website at .

for further reading…

  • Berry, W. (2013). This day: Sabbath poems collected and new , 19792013. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint.
  • Hughes, D. (2009). The communication of emotions and the growth of autonomy and intimacy within family therapy. In D.
  • Fosha, D. J. Siegel, & M. Solomon (Eds.), The healing power of emotion: Affective neuroscience, development, and clinical practice . (280303). New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

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