Most theories regarding love relationships focus on the need for intimacy, security and responsiveness.


In the self determination theory this is just one of the needs that gets addressed (the need for relatedness). Besides this need for relatedness, it turns out that the degree in which the need for autonomy is fulfilled is a strong predictor of relationship satisfaction as is the fulfilment of the need for competence.

Autonomous functioning

The self determination theory distinguishes autonomous functioning from controlled functioning. You may want to be in the relationship and choose to stay in the relationship volitionally, because you are completely behind maintaining your relationship. In that case you are autonomously motivated for your love relationship.

Controlled motivation

On the other hand your motivation to maintain your love relationship can also be controlled. In that case you stay because you feel a pressure to do so, for instance for fear of social rejection or for financial reasons.

Integrated self

People who are autonomously motivated for their relationship and who function generally autonomously in life, respond less defensively during arguments with their love partner and are more open to their partner’s perspective. The reason for this is that autonomously motivated people have an integrated self concept, which is authentic and genuine, instead of an ego which has to be protected. This enables them to respond reflectively and regulate their emotions when they disagree with their partner, instead of responding in an attacking, defensive or aggressive manner.

Within my control

Autonomously motivated people also attribute failures and successes in equal measures to their own actions, whereas controlled motivated people attribute successes to themselves and failures to circumstances outside of their control.


Apart from the need for relatedness, the need for autonomy and the need for competence also play a major role in relationship satisfaction. If within the relationship the need for autonomy is fulfilled, this predicts higher relationship satisfaction, more commitment to the relationship and less conflicts.

It turns out that how one love partner experiences the fulfilment of their need for autonomy not only predicts how satisfied that person is, but also predicts how satisfied their partner is.

Not independence

Autonomy is not the same as independence, avoidance of intimacy, lack of interest and care or rebellion. Instead, autonomy is a deeply felt personal endorsement for your own actions and your commitment to other people.

You could see it as the difference between reactive autonomy and reflective autonomy. Reactive autonomy refers to actively resisting the other person, trying to be independent of the other person, not being prepared to take anything on board what the other person tries to tell you.

Reflective autonomy refers to making informed decisions which you fully endorse and which are firmly grounded in your awareness of your needs, interests and values. Included in this is an openness to your partners needs and a full willingness to take into account what he or she wants and needs.

What can you do?

So what can you do to fulfil your partners need for autonomy? The answers is to take into account and acknowledge your partners perspective without judging, offering choice and encouraging their initiatives, letting them be a self-starter and being responsive to them.

The effect will be that your partner feels his basic needs are fulfilled, opens up emotionally to you, feels safe in your relationship and is more committed to the relationship. He or she will be more open to your needs and more responsive to them, will be better able to adjust himself or herself to the different needs of the both of you and will integrate you as a part of his or her own self.

Based on: self-determination and regulation of conflict in romantic relationships, Knee, Porter, Rodrigues in Human Motivation and interpersonal relationships

Read more about the progress focused approach here