In modern day relationships intimacy is the name of the game. But what exactly does intimacy mean? Barbara Wilson has identified that there are actually 5 levels of intimacy, that we move through as we get to know a new partner or friend.
Level One: Safe Communication
Level one is the initial and lowest level of communication. It is considered safe because it really just 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 very well. It’s the chat we have with the supermarket checkout girl. People communicating at this level share minimal intimacy. An example of this level would be, “Looks like it’s going to rain”” This is great Indian”
Level Two: Sharing Other peoples’ Opinions and Beliefs
At level two we begin to share other people’s thoughts, beliefs and opinions. We are beginning to reveal more of ourselves through our associations. We say things like, “My mother always says…” or “One of my favorite 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.
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.
Level Four: My Feelings and Experiences
Sharing feelings and experiences is the next level of vulnerability and intimacy. 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.
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.
It’s important to understand that true intimacy in a relationship happens over time…not in a day, week or even a month. Think of your best friend…how long did it take before you felt at the highest level of intimacy with them, where you were able to trust them completely, or share your deepest self? It’s the same in romantic relationships…true intimacy develops over time.
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.
In truth, intimacy is measured by the person with the lower level of vulnerability.
Sex can be a False Sense of Intimacy
Level 5 is the healthiest, safest and most intimate place to have sex. When we feel loved unconditionally, and have the highest level of trust, we’ll be able to give ourselves completely to each other, increasing intimacy and the enjoyment of sex.
We can have sex at the other levels, but without that same level of trust the vulnerability of sex may be associated with anxiety, fear and distrust.
For further help with intimacy and communication, please see our relationship counselling services.
More on balancing intimacy and closeness with individuality in our next blog.
If you are in Sydney and are experiencing intimacy problems, check out our team of Sydney Relationship Psychologists.