The Five Levels of Intimacy

In my previous post you could read about intimacy and today I’m sharing more about it with you. Psychologists have identified 5 levels of emotional intimacy we all move through as we get to know someone. It shows how intimacy develops over time.

Level One: Safe Communication – Cliché-Conversation

Level one is the lowest level of communication. We call it safe because it involves the exchange of facts and information. There are no feelings, opinions or personal vulnerability involved, and therefore no risk of rejection. This is the kind of interaction we have with people we don’t know well. It’s the chitchat we share with the clerk at the market or a stranger at a party. People communicating at this level share minimal intimacy.

When couples remain at this level, it leaves a frustrating, unrewarding, and meaningless marriage.

Level Two: Others’ Opinions and Beliefs – Factual Communication

At level two we start sharing other people’s thoughts, beliefs and opinions. We are beginning to reveal more of ourselves through our associations. We say things like, “My father always says…” or “One of my favourite authors said…” Such statements test the other person’s reaction to what we’re sharing without offering our own opinions. This is slightly more vulnerable than level one, but because we’re not sharing our own opinions we can distance ourselves from the opinion if we feel threatened by criticism or rejection.

Factual communication are necessary to make our relationship and family life run like exchanging information about your family members or planning up on weekend. But when communication get stuck at this level, just like with cliché-conversation, it leaves a marriage unrewarding and meaningless.

Level Three: Personal Opinions and Beliefs

We start taking small risks at this level because we begin to share our own thoughts, opinions and beliefs. But like the previous level, if we begin feeling too vulnerable, we can say we’ve switched our opinions or changed our mind in order to avoid conflict or pain. Here the importance of self-esteem appears.

Level Four: My Feelings and Experiences-Sharing of Emotions and Feelings

At this level, a spouse begins to show not only what’s in his head but also what’s in his heart. Sharing feelings and experiences is the next level of vulnerability and intimacy. Verbalizing feelings of happiness, disappointment, hurts and anger. At this level we talk about our joys, pain, and failures; our mistakes in the past, our dreams, and our goals. What we like or don’t like. What makes us who we are. This level is more vulnerable because we can’t change how we feel about something, the details of our past or current experiences. If we sense we may be rejected or criticized all we can do is try to convince others that we’re no longer impacted by our past. We’re no longer that person. We’re different now but also important highlighting that, this is who we are.

It is when we share our emotions with our spouse that we feel loved, valued, seen, and cared for. Alternating between sharing of opinions and emotions is a good combination in marriage communication. Here we have a deeper understanding of our spouse, how he/she thinks and how he/she feels.

Level Five: My Needs, Emotions and Desires

Level five is the highest level of intimacy. It is the level where we are known at the deepest core of who we are. Because of that, it is the level that requires the greatest amount of trust. If I can’t trust that you won’t reject me, I’ll never be able to share my deepest self with you. Unlike the other levels, there is no escape at this level. Once I let someone see who I really am, I can no longer convince them otherwise. Communicating at this level means we offer someone the most vulnerable part of ourselves. And the greatest fear is that they could use it against us later. When we share things like, “I’m hurt when you don’t call,” I need to feel respected by you,” or “I want to spend my life with you,” we’re sharing not only our hurts but our desires and needs as well. It’s also the level where we let others see our emotional reaction to things, which if you’re like me, isn’t always a pretty sight. Maybe that’s why we save those for the ones closest to us, like our families.

Real Intimacy

It’s important to understand that true intimacy in a relationship happens over time…not in a day, week or even a month. But another important element is needed for true intimacy…both people in the relationship need to move through the levels together. If I’m sharing at level four with someone (feelings and experiences) but my partner is sharing at level three (opinions and beliefs) we’re not experiencing true intimacy. I may feel closer because I’m sharing at a higher level, but in reality what we have is a false sense of intimacy.  Intimacy is measured by the person with the lower level of vulnerability.

What can we do if we realize that, there is no intimacy in our life or having a block at one of the level and we can’t move on?

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First thing what we can do is to identify at which level our relationship is blocked. The second step is to see from whose side this block is made. It’s possible we feel that we are opened but our partner doesn’t. If we can see the block is set up by us without causing by our partner, self-knowledge is our best tool to recognize, understand and change it. However to change it often requires professional help. Also numerous times people don’t have a picture about how an intimate relationship is and how it works because they have never seen or experienced it.

One of the typical intimacy blocks is fear.

Here are some common ways people distance themselves emotionally as a result of a fear of intimacy:

  • Holding back affection
  • Reacting indifferently or adversely to affection or positive acknowledgement
  • Becoming paranoid or suspicious of a partner
  • Losing interest in sexuality
  • Being overly critical of a partner
  • Feeling guarded or resistant to being close

Fear of intimacy begins to develop in our early childhood. As children, when we experience rejection and/or emotional pain, we often shut down or believe in those negative feedbacks/reactions which mean we are not worthy to be loved, we are bad or deffective. We learn not to rely on others as a coping mechanism. After being hurt in our earliest relationships, we fear being hurt again, it’s a circle where we can get trapped. We are reluctant to take another chance on being loved. Intimacy requieres bravery as I wrote in my previous post but we should not minimize the power of fear as well.

If we felt unseen, misunderstood, unloved or deffective as children, we may have difficulties believing that someone could really love and value us. The negative feelings we developed toward ourselves in our early years, became a deeply embedded part of who we think we are, as part of our self. (This embedded part of our self most of the times is deep and difficult to change.) Therefore, when someone is loving and reacts positively toward us, we experience a conflict within ourselves. We don’t know whether to believe this new person’s kind and loving point of view of us or our old, familiar sense of our identity. So, we often react with suspicion and distrust when someone loves us, because our fear of intimacy has been aroused. Also can appear here that we start to set up a mask, acting accordingly to our belief which is how our partner wants to see us. We don’t show our real self, just a development of a created perfect self which is suitable to our partner’s need and image (Co-dependency).

Even though the fear of intimacy is a largely unconscious process, we can still observe how it effects our behavior. Acting on our fears preserves our negative self-image, keeps us in an unhappy circle.

However, we can overcome fear of intimacy. We can develop ourselves to stop being afraid of love and let someone in. We can recognize the behaviors that are driven by our fear of intimacy and challenge these defensive reactions that preclude love. By taking the actions necessary to challenge our fear of intimacy we can expand our capacity for both giving and accepting love.

Picture: http://www.shutterstock.com

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