Steven Spotts, PsyD
Agency, One of 16 Essential Ingredients in Healthy Relationships
Updated: Apr 21, 2018
This is number 5 of 16 characteristics listed by Dr. Nancy McWilliams at a recent conference that helped define “mental health.” It prompted me to think about how our expressions or limitations of these traits impact the development of our intimate relationships.
The fifth trait to consider is “Agency.” It's a word that we don't commonly use in our day to day language, at least in the sense that I am using it here. The first use that spontaneously came to my mind was as a noun used to label a business like a "real estate agency." It describes an organization which helps facilitate successful, important transactions between people. The "agent" usually is someone who acts on behalf of a customer to assist them in the buying, selling or leasing of property. He or she represents the interests of the customer to achieve the desired result.
Less often we think of agency as a verb. In those instances we may be thinking in terms of how something or someone initiates or carries out a particular action, intending to bring about a specific and desired result. For our purposes here, "agency" has to do with our capacity to effectively regulate and manage the self, helping it navigate through a complex and occasionally hostile or dangerous environment. It describes the ability of a person to initiate and carry out actions on the environment to produce a particular and (if all goes well) desired result.
I suppose you could say that agency is referring to the difference between acting on the environment and having it act on us. Psychologists sometimes describe a person as having an “internal locus of control.” It is the capacity to be self-governing; to make personal choices in order to change outcomes in a meaningful and desired way..
When I was a freshman in college, a mentor of mine challenged me with the notion that there are three kinds of people in life. There are those that make things happen, those that watch things happen, and those who say, “What happened?” He then asked me, “What kind of person are you?”
I don’t remember if I was honest with him or not but I do remember thinking, “I’m a watcher.” The real challenge was when he asked me, “What kind of person do you want to be?” I knew where he was headed. I knew that if I answered, “I want to make things happen,” he would give me the opportunity. I remember being afraid—afraid of giving in to being a “grown-up” and taking on actual responsibility for my life. In retrospect, I suppose I was even more afraid of living my life as a watcher. As much as I "liked" the feeling of being an irresponsible adolescent, there was something deep inside of me that wanted to make good things happen.
Agency is a part of the self that can very easily become lost during addictive behaviors.
When we are addicted, we feel compelled to do things that we know are not in our best interest or helpful to ourself or others but we do them anyway because, in the moment, we feel powerless to change it. Powerless to be the agent of change in our own life, we look to someone or something else to do that for us. A chemical, sex, work, money, fame, notoriety, or even an addictive relationship is seen as that which will give us what we long for. This is the opposite of agency and is called dependency.
However, agency is NOT living as though we are an island and without need for others. In fact, it often acts on those relationships in intentional ways to access needed resources so that we can achieve desired outcomes. Agency can be as simple as asking for help when our own limitations are reached; or as complicated as leading another in a mutually desirable and advantageous goal.
Early in my married life another friend and mentor who knew me well challenged me to display a little more “gumption”. That was the word he used but he was talking about agency. He picked up on the fact that what I saw as my easy going nature was sometimes a cover for passivity in my important relationships and that it was getting in the way of achieving some of my stated goals. I had a hard time admitting it but he was right. It felt safer to take the backseat in a relationship rather than risk sticking myself out there in terms of expressing my needs, longings or desires. It was also safer to let others lead rather than risk a failure in my decision making or direction.
Deep inside most of us is a desire to know and live out our "why?" or purpose.
On the first page of the biblical story a creator God declares the purpose for his new creation, humanity. In short, He says, "Be fruitful, fill the earth, subdue (bring order to it), and rule over it. You could say that he is giving us the directive and authority to be agents of change in his world. We are meant to be co-creators, co-rulers, and tangible representatives of him on earth. But with this profound purpose also comes the constraint of acting on the world in the context and motivation of love.
Strangely, a personality often overlooked in the study of mental health is that of Jesus. Even for those who don’t recognize or acknowledge the supernatural aspect of his character; it is clear that his enemies, friends, and those who spent the most time with him knew that he claimed and represented himself as equal to God. As crazy at that might sound to some, it is hard to deny the mental and interpersonal health he exhibits in the records we have of his relational encounters. He always acted rightly and justly with others. Both friend and foe were amazed at his fearlessness, wisdom, insight, and the authority with which he spoke. Like him or not, he acted as an agent in the world on behalf of both God and humanity in a way that still reverberates today. Agency is clearly one of the many traits he powerfully models.
Luke, the physician, historian, and gospel writer states in relation to Jesus (who knew the time for his crucifixion and ascension was approaching) “...He resolutely set His face to go to Jerusalem” (Lk 9:51). In the political context of the day, it would be akin to someone "deciding" to go to Washington DC, enter the White House, and declare himself president of the United States. Certainly, this would be the act of a crazy man if it was untrue and or he was not able to back up his claims. And, even if true, the hostile response of the current authorities would be predictable.
This is just an example, but a powerful one, of how agency and its associated characteristics are displayed. Those who don’t know the Scriptures may think Jesus stumbled and bumbled his way into a terrible ending. However, just the opposite was true. Jesus acted on his environment (one hostile to him) in both a purposeful and courageous way to fulfill what he knew was his ultimate purpose.
For most of us, our sense of agency is far less dramatic. For the most part it refers to how we seek to effectively manage our lives (i.e. cope) when life kicks us in the teeth or presents us with difficult challenges. But, it also reflects on our ability to act in bringing about positive outcomes between ourself and the interpersonal environment we live in. It is our effort to fulfill our purpose by living justly, relating rightly, and extending mercy to those around us.
Agency improves our intimate relationships by helping us take genuine responsibility for our actions and the consequences they incur.
If you currently are stuck in an unhealthy marriage or relationship and thinking about what it takes to have meaningful and intimate encounters with your partner, you may feel like you are stumbling and bumbling toward a terrible end. However, it is possible to experience so much more if you develop your capacity for agency. But this often means having to lean into some of your greatest fears, like failure, shame, inadequacy, etc.
Real intimacy doesn’t happen accidentally. It requires intentionality. This gets to the very heart of what its means to be an agent of change in your relational life. It's no small thing. You will need to be resolute in setting your face toward the goal of intimacy, courageous in laying aside your fear of it, and willing to pursue it wholeheartedly. Intimacy always requires vulnerability and not too many of us naturally want to sign up for that.
Or...the other option is we can watch and wait. Watching from the sidelines, waiting passively, hoping and depending on our partner to take responsibility for cultivating intimacy is more likely to result in resentment than relational improvements. If we want to establish relational well being, we need to be agents of change to bring that about; and it starts with changing ourself, not our partner.
Next, we will move on to the 6th of 16 items in this series on mental health —Self & Object Constancy. What does THAT mean, you say? Well, check back soon to find out.