You know, I’m a BIG advocate for personal autonomy – in ALL areas: bodily, emotionally, sexually, relationally, medically, politically. It’s one of the things I have come to embrace and value late in life, and I even identify as a Relationship Autonomist (as my husband, Greg, calls it – see our EMPOWERED POLY podcast episode on it here). Why? Because I want FULL and COMPLETE control over all of my personal decisions.
HOWEVER when I am working with my clients and I come across someone who is, what I call, “weaponizing autonomy”, I am so deeply saddened. I think it hits particularly hard because I have struggled my entire life to feel entitled to my autonomy, and now that I finally DO, I find people are out there wielding autonomy around like a razor sharp knife claiming things like “I’m entitled to do as I please, and any reaction you have to what I’m doing has NOTHING to do with me, and is YOUR sole responsibility!” UGH!!! Makes my skin crawl, and brings up so many feelings.
First of all, yes, you are absolutely entitled ALWAYS to decide for yourself what you want to say and do. You have FULL CONTROL over that. That’s 100% true.
AND you also have a responsibility as a human being to treat the people in your sphere well, SIMULTANEOUSLY as you exercise your autonomy.
I was taught in Social Studies in high school that “My right to swing my fist ends when it comes into contact with your face.” And I think about that often. I think about it now as “I still have the right to swing, but if I hit your face in doing so, it’s important I take responsibility for that impact and the consequences.” It clarifies how autonomy and freedom DO impact others and are NOT without consequences.
Off-loading responsibility for outcomes of your behaviour and words onto others is NOT emotionally mature; it is usually a sign of lacking empathy. Now, there may be many reasons for someone to lack empathy, and if they want to dismiss the impact their choice has on a particular person because they have, say, experience years of neglect from them, that’s understandable.
BUT if you’re either claiming or wanting to be a secure/evolved/caring /ethical and empathetic human AND you still disregard the impact your choices have on others, then you have literally dropped the ball and ducked responsibility.
It’s okay to be fine with causing others discomfort, if that’s a natural outcome due to a misalignment in beliefs or values. An example of that is, you and your friend have different political values. You vote for a candidate running against the person your friend voted for. You decide to tell them who you voted for, and they’re now uncomfortable with you as a friend. That might be a very natural outcome of the realization that you’re just not on the same page politically. It may deeply impact your relationship permanently or temporarily. If you YELL at your friend for exercising their political autonomy, that’s unacceptable (and vice versa). Understanding that having autonomy is something we ALL are entitled to is VITAL.
On the other hand, if you decide to announce to your partner that you’re going to no longer honour the agreements of your relationship… that, let’s say, you’ve decided you’re going to have multiple partners even though you and your partner agreed to be monogamous, then you have a certain responsibility (in my mind, based on my values and ethics) to hold space for their reaction. Their confusion, fear and anger are all part of a natural consequence of changing that deeply-valued agreement. You have a responsibility to understand the rupture in trust your announcement has created and work (if you want to keep the relationship) on repairing that with them; to give them TIME to adjust and to learn about what you are seeking and what you need, and to process the information. Without stepping up to be there for them, then you are, in my opinion, weaponizing your autonomy against them.
Additionally, if they then decide they also want to be non-monogamous, but you say “I’m going to be non-monogamous, but you can’t date others because it makes me uncomfortable” then you’re being hypocritical by wanting a double standard. OR “you can only date people of a certain gender”. If your partner is bisexual or pansexual are they supposed to restrict their sexuality to one gender because YOU SAID SO? No. Their body their choice. These are more cases of a belief that “my autonomy matters but yours does not”, which is, in my view, another way to weaponize autonomy.
I support the idea of “my body my choice” and especially when it comes to safer sex protocols. Absolutely it’s truly your choice. AND if you and your partner have differing views on what you’re comfortable with regarding barrier use, testing frequency, disclosure protocols, number of partners or partnering with those who have a higher risk tolerance, it’s going to be very important to be clear on your personal boundaries/needs/wants so you both see where the other is at. Then you can assess the relationship to see if it’s still one you wish to continue, or perhaps you need to redefine it or renegotiate your agreements.
Just please don’t get MAD or upset when you bump up against a partner who advocates for their need to feel safe and decides to either use barriers with you during sex or doesn’t want to continue having sex with you. If you are angry with them for exercising their autonomy to make decisions about how and with whom to have sex, you’re missing the point of autonomy and weaponizing it! Autonomy isn’t a one-way street! It goes both ways!
I get it! If you, like me, struggled to feel okay with having autonomy at ALL, then it can be a radical shift in thinking, take a lot of effort to advocate for, and you may WANT to be very strong to combat internal feelings of unworthiness or to counter criticism and judgement from those who aren’t used to you having autonomy. Do your best to resist being dismissive of those who might have feelings in response to what you’re doing for yourself.
Please, folx, let’s start recognizing that in ANY relationship, we have a responsibility to step forward EMPATHETICALLY when our choices and words have impacted another negatively. Throwing around that you’re “just being my true self and exercising my autonomy” doesn’t excuse treating people poorly.
– From your frustrated poly coach.