symbiosis and autonomy

This is an extract from my forthcoming book, The Heart of Things: Understanding trauma, working with constellations, which is due out next month (October, 2013)

3.1   Symbiosis and Autonomy

“…Over and over again a violent struggle rages between these two basic aspirations… the very fabric of the drama of human existence.” (Ruppert, 2012)

The term symbiosis originated within the field of biology and covered the ways in which Front coversmorganisms relate and live together to some advantage. Ruppert’s latest book in English, Symbiosis and Autonomy (Ruppert, 2012), gives a detailed account of the symbiotic nature of everything in life and on the planet, including humans; symbiosis as “an evolutionary principle” (ibid).

The word ‘symbiosis’ comes from the Greek word meaning ‘living together’ and there  are different types of biological symbiosis which broadly speaking cover:

  • Mutualism – where both organisms benefit
  • Commensalism – where one organism benefits and the other, while not benefitting, is not harmed
  • Parasitism – where one organism benefits and harms, or even kills, the other

While historically, symbiosis seems to have received less attention evolutionarily than other interactions such as predation or competition, it is becoming increasingly recognised as an important selective force behind evolution, with many species having a long history of a symbiotic interdependent co-evolution.

The notion of ‘interdependent co-evolution’ involves several or many species existing within the same ecosystem, in some way contributing to and/or benefitting from the overall dynamic symbiosis, at the same time affecting, and changing the environment in which they live. In some studies of large ecosystems there are many, sometimes thousands of intricate ultimately beneficial relationships that work consistently towards a dynamic equilibrium. And we human beings are as much a part of this as anything else: we simply cannot not live in symbiosis; there is no existence in life that is not in some kind of symbiosis.

Ruppert looks at the transfer of the term ‘symbiosis’ from the field of biology to the field of psychology, and discusses the different perspectives taken by several people[1] in adopting this term. However, Ruppert critiques these perspectives as not “measuring up to the far-reaching meaning of ‘symbiosis’ as an evolutionary principle, which has a fundamental meaning for the existence of us humans and our co-existence.” (Ruppert, 2012)

The main reason for this is that most discussions of symbiosis within the psychological field refer either to the symbiotic relationship between mother and the newborn child only, or to the kind of merged adult relationship between two people where the autonomy of one or both is severely restricted: both people talk and think of themselves as ‘we’ rather than upholding their individuality. Ruppert, however, is looking at symbiosis as “a permanent challenge of how we get along with other humans and other creatures and all life on the planet, and how these intertwined life-concerns are reflected emotionally in each one of us.” (Ibid)

So symbiosis as Ruppert uses it, and I am using it here, covers two interrelated meanings:

  1. The first is that period of our lives when we are not physically, emotionally or psychologically separate from another being, our mother, and to a lesser extent, our father. This, for the baby, is a state of dependence on the life and living of another, where we have no choice as to the nature and psycho-physiological state of that other living being.
  2. The second is a more general understanding of the state of existence as being always in dynamic tension between our symbiotic interdependence – our need for relationship with others, with the world and our environment – and our autonomy, our separateness, individuality and uniqueness. These two poles of existence, symbiosis and autonomy, are always in a dynamic interplay, with one or other being more figural while it’s partner is more in the background. In fact our autonomy and our symbiotic existence may at times oscillate from figure to ground and back quite rapidly. We can see this dynamic interplay represented well in the yin yang symbol (below), where the black (let’s say autonomy) begins small and then moves to take the major space, but always with the seed of its opposite (symbiosis) within, which in turn will also then grow and take the major space and so on.

YinYangTransparent1 Figure 4. Yin Yang symbol

Another way of seeing this is in this infinity diagram:

Autonomy-Symbiosis-2Figure 5. Relationship between Autonomy and Symbiosis

“The paradox between separateness and union can [only] be temporarily bridged where and when the walls of individuality remain strong enough to hold the sense of self together, yet permeable enough to allow the sense of what is other to be experienced.” (Stevenson, 2004)

Our whole life is played out between these two poles of existence and their constant interchange. Autonomy is our ability to make independent choices, to be ‘self-governing’, self-responsible and self-authoring of our lives, and yet this must always take place within the context of our symbiotic existence and need for relationship and interdependent co-evolution, just as all of our relating and interdependence can never be a perfect merging since we are also always separate, and as such, alone. So our autonomy and independence is always functioning within a context of interdependent symbiosis. We are never completely separate and we are never completely merged. We can never be fully autonomous because we are also interdependent, and we can never be fully interdependent because we are also autonomous beings. We can only ever make autonomous decisions within an interdependent framework, and we can only ever be part of collective decisions within an autonomous reality.

In a healthy dynamic interplay between symbiosis and autonomy there is a feeling of freedom and flowing between and within each, a clarity of purpose and ethics. This last is very important, because the danger in group situations is that we lose connection with our autonomy and agree to group decisions that may go against our autonomous beliefs and ethics. This idea is in common with Hellinger’s ideas about belonging and conscience, as I described in my previous book. (Broughton, 2010 Chapter 1) The force of our need to belong will at times invoke compromise with our autonomy. This is particularly so if we have experienced an early trauma in our symbiotic relationship with our mother, because then our need to belong, to attempt to gain what we never had, dominates our life at the expense of our autonomy (see my post on ‘autonomy and belonging‘).

Extremes of Symbiosis and Autonomy

While in reality we can see that there can be no such thing as absolute autonomy or absolute symbiosis it is worth looking at such polarities in order to complete our understanding of these concepts. Both involve a high degree of dissociation and delusion. Extreme (psychopathological) ‘autonomy’ would be psychopathic tyranny, where others are not permitted any kind of meaningful autonomous existence and the reality of life is denied. This extreme existence is psychopathic and sadistic, and is only possible in a highly traumatised person for whom empathy with others is impossible, because all access to meaningful emotions and feelings has been split off. Of course this is not real autonomy, because real autonomy must always include and acknowledge symbiosis.

Extreme symbiosis, apart from our initial state after conception, would be the total giving up of one’s individuality, a kind of complete slavery to another, and is also delusional and a denial of reality. The two exist in a sadomasochistic complementarity that is completely abstracted from reality.

Trauma and Autonomy

If we hold that ‘life-threat’ is a defining feature of relational trauma, then in the trauma event another person holds my life in his or her hands, and I am helpless and without choice. The balance and oscillation of autonomy and interdependence then is likely destroyed, and as an early life event it has devastating implications for one’s ability to mature into an autonomous adult. Trauma seriously affects our ability to be truly autonomous, so we can begin to see the extreme and serious potential effects of very early attachment trauma.

Healthy Symbiosis:

“Constructive symbiosis is beneficial to all involved. It promotes the development of everyone as far as is necessary and possible for the particular stage of …. development [of each person].” (Ruppert, 2012).

A good and healthy symbiosis between two people is first and foremost natural and supportive of evolutionary growth and creativity. It is rooted in a healthy and wholesome attachment process between mother and child, where the child does not experience the symbiosis with the mother as traumatic: any separation from the mother is tolerable because sufficient experience of her ‘thereness’ is established during the pregnancy and in the first moments, days and weeks of life. However it is important to state that we do not know the point at which sufficient ‘thereness’ can be established for a separation not to invoke terror of death for the infant.

There is mutuality in the adult symbiosis, when it is creative and healthy, that does not require an unequal or burdening degree of compromise. All parties benefit and are able to fulfil their own creative and productive needs. Both can be fully present to each other without the shadow of past entangled relationships; they see each other clearly as they are, and without illusion, and are able and willing to be open about themselves. Both people are able to express their feelings authentically as appropriate to the present situation, and both are able to value their own and the other’s separate autonomous existence. Any disputes or difficulties between people in a healthy symbiosis are open to discussion in an environment where both people feel heard, valued and understood, and take place fully in the present with a minimal shadow of past entanglements. Both people see each other as they are, not confused with people and situations from the past, and in this way disputes can find resolution.

Entangled Symbiosis:

The word ‘entangled’ here means a confused and unclear connection as opposed to an autonomous clarity of one’s relationship to another. Entangled symbiosis originates from the symbiotic trauma of the child, confused by entanglement[2] with the mother’s and/or father’s unresolved traumas, and even those traumas of the family with which the mother or father are themselves entangled from previous generations. The result is an inability to develop autonomously, and a persistent legacy of unresolved trauma and entangled, confused and confusing relationships that never satisfy the primal need for good, healthy loving connection. Since the original attachment process was traumatic, the child does not have the support and framework to develop independently, and stays helplessly entangled with the mother and/or father, constantly yearning for the satisfying relationship  that he never could have, and projecting this early entangled relationship onto all later relationships.

As discussed previously in the section on splitting in the face of trauma, the psychological structure after a symbiotic trauma is reified: stuck and resistant to real change. Since unresolved trauma underlies the whole sense of being, relationships are confused by survival strategies and illusions (“this time I will get the right relationship, this time it will be different”). Entangled symbiotic relationships are dogged by projections, with the other person rarely seen for who he or she actually is, but always confused with other, earlier important bonded people. Intimacy is terrifying because it always re-stimulates the trauma feelings, which sets in train the defensive survival strategies. We shall discuss this more later.

True Autonomy

“True autonomy… means saying an unconditional ‘yes’ to oneself and to the reality of one’s own life… taking full responsibility for living it, whatever may have happened in the past.”
(Ruppert, 2012)

The word ‘autonomy’ is from the Greek, meaning ‘one who gives oneself their own law’, in other words the capacity of a rational individual to make informed and un-coerced decisions and choices for him or herself.

“In relationships based on dependence and subjugation, it is difficult to develop this form of autonomy and assert ‘one’s own law’ against the demands and pressures of others.” (Ruppert, 2012)

True autonomy requires clarity of thought, an ability to be in touch with reality as it is, including the fact that everything in one’s life is not always as one would wish it to be. It is in effect within the domain of the healthy aspect of the self, rather than the survival aspect. The survival self cannot act autonomously, since its nature is reactive and unthinking, and it comes into being in the original trauma situation and at any later time of re-stimulation. Any reactive action is by definition not an autonomous act, even if life-saving.

The healthy aspect of the self is likely to be able to act with autonomy, but only insofar as it is able to be independent of the survival component at any particular time.

Saying an “unconditional ‘yes’ to oneself” means seeing clearly and accepting the things about oneself that one cannot change, but also not hiding behind certain things about oneself by saying “I can’t change this or that”, when that is not true. Something similar goes for our partner. It is a very common occurrence that when two people come together and decide to live together, to make a permanent life together, that once they do so they begin to see the things that are less acceptable about the other, and often set about subtly to change him or her. This takes the place of being able to see the person clearly for who they are, and often involves whatever is unresolved in our own background influencing our ability to be in relationship in the present.

Pseudo Autonomy

Everything we are and do in life can be in the service of health or in the service of survival, and so we can develop a survival self that looks autonomous but is not. Even autonomy can be distorted into a survival strategy. For example, a high-ranking corporate figure may appear autonomous, and will be insofar as his autonomous behaviour is not operating to protect him from his trauma. But his position and authority may operate as a primary means of keeping him from connection and intimacy, as those situations are more likely to take him close to his unresolved trauma. Many a successful business person or politician may have become successful precisely as a means of unconscious protection from trauma, just as much as the person addicted to drugs or alcohol may take drugs or drink to dull the senses and keep the trauma unconscious.

[1] Erich Fromm, Margaret Mahler and Martin Dornes.

[2] The New Oxford American Dictionary defines ‘entanglement’ as ‘A complicated or compromising relationship or situation’ New Oxford American Dictionary.


Ruppert, F. (2012) Symbiosis and Autonomy: Symbiotic Trauma and Love Beyond Entanglements. English translation edited by V. Broughton. Green Balloon Publishing, Sussex, UK.
Stevenson, H. (2004) Paradox: A Gestalt Theory of Change. The Cleveland Consulting Group.
Broughton, V. (2010). In The Presence of Many: Reflections on Constellations Emphasising the Individual Context, Green Balloon Publishing, Sussex, UK.

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