Agency in Relationships

How Being Healthy and Happy Goes Hand in Hand with Getting Good at Your Relationships

Everyone wants to be happy – or at least have a reasonable level of contentedness. But we live in a world where there is no clear path to happiness. There are as many theories as there are books in the self-help section of the library. One of the biggest confusions is about whether we find happiness within, or whether we find happiness through other people. People these days are very wary of being co-dependent, but they also want to feel connected with others and to experience intimacy with their loved ones.

Happiness from within and happiness through others goes hands in hand. You can’t get one without the other. Developing individual wellbeing is intertwined with developing effectiveness in your relationships, particularly your close attachment relationships.

“Agency” is a word long used in psychology. It refers to our sense of our own effectiveness in influencing both our behaviour and the responses we get from others in our relationships.

The relationship context – particularly attachment relationships – is where agency is born and where it finds expression. In secure attachment relationships we learn that by expressing our feelings – both good and bad –we can bring about positive experiences of being responded to and cared about. We learn that we can get what we need emotionally from important others. We learn to go about initiating these experiences, rather than staying passive, holding our feelings inside or pretending our feelings don’t exist. This is the essence of Agency in Relationships and it is the cornerstone for being effective in general relationships and activities.

The good news is that we can develop Agency in Relationship at any point in our life. Although secure attachment as a child is crucial, we can develop the attributes and learn the skills to turn our closest relationships into secure attachments that will help us to develop Agency in Relationships.

Being able to depend on your relationships actually allows you to be more effective out in the world in your general relationships and activities. This is counter-intuitive for many people. It also goes against the grain of our culture that likes to tell us to be independent and self-sufficient. But by having attachment relationships that we can depend on for getting our needs met, we actually simultaneously become more independent and more able to function autonomously.

There are specific relationship attributes that we can develop to become more effective in our relationships, particularly our most intimate attachment relationships.

“Agency in relationships” implies that we are not passive players in our relationships but actively contribute (either wittingly or unwittingly) toward the quality of our relationships (Bandura 2006). We have the ability to act on our relationships either positively or negatively. Even though there are givens in our interpersonal world out of our control, we do have the ability to shape our relationships positively.

The Markers that indicate whether we have attained Agency in our relationships include the following:

1) Developing Secure Attachment Relationships: being able to develop a sense of belonging as a secure base from which to explore – and perform in – other relationships and activities in the world.

2) Needs: being able to actively access others for appropriate needs and being able to appropriately meet the needs of others

3) Authenticity: being able to actively promote one’s appropriate needs when they are in competition with the needs of others and being able to negotiate a resolution of competing needs that involves an adequate consideration and satisfaction of both sets of needs

4) Equanimity: managing oneself effectively during real or potential rupture in an important relationship, especially when critical issues of personal integrity are at stake

5) Clarity: being able see others accurately, particularly during conflict. This involves not having your view of others distorted by feelings or prejudices, or by your patterns of interpreting others.

6) Meta-Conversations: being able to reflect on one’s own reactions, feelings and thoughts and, moreover, being able to facilitate others to joins you in a conversation that reflects upon both person’s contribution to the interaction.