In marital and relationship therapy, there are some topics that, as therapists, we can almost guarantee will come up with every one of our clients:
- reflective listening
There is one topic, however, that seems to be more mysterious than the rest:
The word “intimacy” can be tossed around in therapy quite easily, with everyone knowing it is something they want to deepen, but not quite knowing how to have it, or even how to define what it is.
The simplest way to put it is this: intimacy is to know and to be known. It is to know not only your partner’s likes and dislikes, but to know what their current interior life looks like including their struggles, fears, regrets, hopes, and dreams for the future, and it is revealing your interior movements to them. Intimacy has the power to strengthen any relationship, increase marital satisfaction, and make sexual intimacy even more bonding. You can survive without knowing and being known, but you cannot thrive without it.
Now the question is, how do we get there. Remembering that intimacy can be somewhat elusive in its definition, it is helpful to look at some guides to help us. One of the clearest roadmaps to intimacy was developed by a man named Matthew Kelly, who gives us a very clear and practical guide to intimacy in relationships in his book The Seven Levels of Intimacy. In it, he describes seven stages in our communication that leads us deeper into intimacy with our partners. Each level gets progressively deeper and more revealing about ourselves.
The first three levels of intimacy are typically very familiar to us. They each have the potential to lead to deeper intimacy, if we intentionally allow them to, or they can be used to avoid intimacy.
We see this basic level of intimacy in many social interactions with anyone from coworkers to strangers at the grocery store. A classic example of how we use clichés is in the interaction most of us are all too familiar with:
“How are you?”
“I’m well, how are you?”
Words that show up in this level of communication include: good, fine, don’t know, I guess, etc. This level is the basis of most communication, but if we stay here, we remain disconnected and surface level.
Talking about the weather, sports, and the stock market are all examples of conversations that are included in this level of intimacy. These conversations are more interactive and engaging than clichés, however they still don’t reveal too much about the person or ourselves.
This level of intimacy begins to reveal a bit more about what we think and believe, and hence, reveals a bit more about us than facts or clichés. Asking “what do you think about (insert topic here)” can help move conversation from facts to opinions quite seamlessly. Be aware that if we stay in this level too much, it could be a sign of avoiding moving forward into the deeper levels.
Sometimes we use these first three levels to resurface the conversation when it seems to get too vulnerable or too “risky”. On the other hand, if we move through these first three levels, it can lead into the deeper 4 levels and enhanced intimacy.
Hopes and dreams
Sharing about our desires, hopes, and dreams can be a great turning point to deepen intimacy. To share and listen to others about their dreams can reveal quite a bit and help to grow a sense of knowing and closeness.
As we continue to go deeper into the levels of intimacy, we are bound to hit the level of feelings. Sharing emotions reveals a lot about a person’s experience of the world. Emotions such as happiness and joy can be much easier to share with others than feelings like disappointment and sadness. The key to this level is to share the more difficult emotions at the right time, in the right place, with the right person. Sometimes it is difficult to understand why we might feel what we feel, but remember that when talking at this level of intimacy, it is about accepting the emotion, not necessarily understanding.
Fears, faults, and failures
The opposite of intimacy is isolation, and the typical reaction to fears is to isolate. Our natural inclination is not to share our fears, regrets, and feelings of shame with others, however when we do, it lessens the intensity of our experience of them. For some, sharing these types of things might seem unthinkable. Many of us try to avoid humility and vulnerability because it feels weak, but these are two keys missing in many relationships. This level of intimacy encourages us to reveal our own humanity and to give others permission to be human.
The seventh, and final level of intimacy can feel like the most vulnerable, and that is to ask for what you need physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. To share deep needs to a partner and for each to prioritize the needs of the other is the peak of intimacy. It takes really knowing the other and listening carefully when they speak, making it the culmination of all the other levels.
These seven levels of intimacy are meant to be gone in and out of with the flow of life. The key to it is that you and your partner are willing to go to the deeper levels when they are relevant, such as to share that you felt hurt when your boss was unsatisfied with your work, or to admit that you feel overwhelmed and need your partner’s help. These levels offer a guide to help you to know how to direct the conversations with your spouse to facilitate deeper intimacy, as well as to encourage you to share with them your deeper thoughts and feelings.
Intimacy is a choice, not a feeling. It takes conscious attention to guide conversation to deeper levels of intimacy. So, next time your partner starts talking about the facts of the day to maybe throw in a question like “what was it like for you when your boss yelled at you,” or “are you feeling overwhelmed by running the kids around to all their activities” to deepen the conversation to a more intimate level. Thus, allowing your partner and you to grow in knowing each other on a deeper level, even amid daily life.
Perspectives Therapy Services is a multi-site mental and relationship health practice with clinic locations in Brighton, Lansing, Highland, Fenton and New Hudson, Michigan. Our clinical teams include experienced, compassionate and creative therapists with backgrounds in psychology, marriage and family therapy, professional counseling, and social work. Our practice prides itself on providing extraordinary care. We offer a customized matching process to prospective clients whereby an intake specialist carefully assesses which of our providers would be the very best fit for the incoming client. We treat a wide range of concerns that impact a person's mental health including depression, anxiety, relationship problems, grief, low self-worth, life transitions, and childhood and adolescent difficulties.