There are four possible levels of relationship.

There are four possible levels of relationship.

I went to see my counselor recently for a check-in—no big agenda, just a friendly chat to catch up.

The talk quickly turned, as I imagine it does in counselors’ offices everywhere, to relationships.

I was explaining a befuddling situation to my counselor, when she interrupted me with a question: How close are you to this person? 

I didn’t know what to say, because the answer was frustratingly ambiguous. Sometimes, this person treats me as an intimate friend, and sometimes like she barely knows me.

I explained this to my counselor, who frowned, and pressed: Yes, but how close do YOU think you are? It’s important to know. 

I fumbled a bit, trying to explain. My counselor saved me by grabbing her legal pad and drawing up this little chart:

four levels of relationship

There are four levels of relationship, she explained. They range from shallow (our acquaintances) to deep (our intimates). I’d never had anyone break this down for me before, but of course her little chart correlated with the unarticulated ideas about relationships I’ve been carrying around in my head for a few decades.

Those four levels can be further subdivided: we can be the barest of acquaintances, or pretty good ones. We can be borderline-close with someone, or borderline-intimate. Even intimacy has its gradations.

My counselor’s little chart was so simple, but it made so much snap into place for me.

Every relationship we have, she went on to explain, can be plotted on this little chart. This status is, in and of itself, emotionally neutral. We run into trouble at the point where our behavior and our relationship status diverge.

This happens most often with familial relationships. When someone is our blood-relative, or longtime friend, our natural inclination is to treat them as an intimate—because we expect them to be, or we want them to be—when really, we’re only at the “acquaintance” level with them. So we bare our souls and spill our secrets, and then feel like crap when we get acquaintance-level behavior dished back to us.

It happens all the time; we don’t even realize we’re doing it, or why it makes us feel so uncomfortable.

Or viewed from another perspective: do you know that horribly awkward feeling that washes over you when someone overshares? It happens when someone treats a casual acquaintance as a confidant: the behavior doesn’t match the relationship status.

Just wanting to be intimate with someone—even if it’s someone we feel we should be close to—doesn’t make it so. Nor does history forge communion. It seems so obvious when we think about it—but we don’t.

The bar’s pretty high for true intimacy, which has 7 necessary characteristics:

• emotional safety
• consistency
• love
• compassion
• understanding
• mutual respect
• freedom to be yourself

(Even when we are intimate with someone, we’re not perfectly so. We’re always disappointing one another somehow.)

I’m sure when other people—with different personality types, and different backgrounds—go to counseling, they get different advice. I’m an INFP and a 9, and my counselor tells me to try not to give people my heart and the hammer to smash it with all at the same time. I’m sure when others go to counseling, their counselors give them completely different advice that’s exactly what they need to hear.

This is what I needed to hear, and I hope some of you find it helpful.

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60 comments

  1. That’s so true about family. Just because someone shares blood with you doesn’t mean your necessarily more intimate with then than with a non-relative friend.

    I tend to keep my cards pretty close to my chest, so there are just a few people I really open up to. And now that I think about it, I’m not related to any of them physically (though all of them share my faith).

  2. Keri Misawa says:

    Wow, this could not have been more timely! I have been confused and pondering this week about my familial relationships. There’s been this big unexplained cloud over my head giving me this feeling that these relationships just aren’t what I think they should be, or what they think they should be. This was really helpful, thank you! If you have any further resources regarding this idea of the different levels of relationship, I’d love to know! Thank you!

  3. Jenn says:

    I learned this the hard way with in-laws. Just because they act intimate toward you doesn’t mean they will uphold ALL the characteristics of intimacy. And when you overstep that boundary you get into trouble. I’ve learned to keep them at arms length, or at “casual” if you will, despite what I feel the relationship should be or what they would like.

  4. Amy says:

    This is so fascinating and actually explains a lot of things about my relationships with others. Now I’m realizing that a lot of the relationships I maybe would have labeled as “intimate” are probably just “close,” and the ones I might have labeled as “close” are really more like “casual.” There are times when I’ve wondered why I couldn’t bare my soul to a particular person, but now it makes sense–it’s because my relationship wasn’t really at the level I thought it was at.

  5. Tessa~ says:

    What I love most, about this post, is that you are so open and casual, about saying that you see a counselor.

    I have seen a psychiatrist off and on, for years. But only recently, have I been open about this, somewhat. Not really o-p-e-n. But not keeping it a total secret either. And of course, my age has a lot to do with this. Being 77, I have lived through totally different public attitudes, concerning seeing a psychiatrist.
    -sigh-

    Happily, it no longer has the awful stigma attached to it, that it once did.

    But… So far… I have not shared this fact about myself, in Pretty Blog Land. Innnnnnnnteresting… 🙂

    Tessa~

  6. Anne says:

    I agree with Tessa. It is generous of you to speak about counseling this way; it is encouraging! It is probably time for me to check in with someone again, but I get all gun shy and feet draggy. Thanks, Anne!

  7. Katia says:

    This is excellent advice. As another INFP, I have a tough time trusting people completely. So, I ensure that I also speak about private matters with my most intimate friends (I can think of only two such people in my life at this time). Even so, as parents, we can be so busy that it’s difficult to not only maintain but especially to form intimate friendships. There are so many issues I want to share with my closest friends, but I leave those discussions for the times when we can see each other in person, without the kids anywhere near our vicinity, without feeling rushed. Those types of meetings don’t happen frequently.

  8. Erica M. says:

    When I was younger, I had a tendency to do this. I was, as one author described it, “looking for that perfect friend”. Unfortunately the rebuffs have caused me to revert to the opposite behavior-I tend to keep things bottled up even when I shouldn’t. Not to mention a friend once told me I seem really reserved and standoffish when I first meet people, even if I’m not really like that. I’ve been trying to strike a healthy balance, and so far it’s been working.

    As for keeping things bottled up, it helps to have a husband who can pinpoint that’s something wrong with me from a mile away. And he won’t stop asking what’s wrong till I tell him. XD

  9. Kate Frishman says:

    “my counselor tells me to try not to give people my heart and the hammer to smash it with all at the same time”

    I love this line. It expresses every fear I have when I open up to someone.

  10. Faith R says:

    Yes, yes and yes. I think as someone who is intuitive we shy away from actually talking about relationships with other people. At least, I know I do. Every once in a while I have to just talk to my friend and ask what is going on. I hate doing it, but it usually helps me. I’m good at reading too much into relationships and expecting too much from other people. I swing from wanting everyone to be my best friend to being too reserved and keeping every relationship casual.
    Also – I love the way you shared about giving people your heart and the hammer with which to break it. I used to think that this was a bad thing about me. I’ve learned to see it as a strength that I need to keep an eye on so it doesn’t go into overdrive and become a weakness.
    Anyway… thanks for writing about this. Love love love this post.

  11. Alyssa says:

    I’m often surprised at the things people share with me. People I just met will tell me these deep, personal things. Sometimes I can’t even believe what casual friends will tell me. I often feel that it’s “too much information” and wonder if something about me says “good listener, accepting, will give advice”. I am not a person who opens up easily with many people and certainly not with people I barely know about things like medical issues or parenting challenges. This article makes me think that, sadly, there must be many people who don’t have an intimate relationship in which to safely bare their heart.

  12. Stephanie says:

    This is so good to read. I have been living in Germany quite a while and since being here, I have met people to whom I would say I am very close, but there’s a certain something that I haven’t found with my really close friends back home. I guess I’d say I don’t have any intimates here. I like this categorization. Thanks for sharing.

    • Anne says:

      Your comment reminds me of this post; have you seen it? I’m wondering if it sounds at all like your own experience. (This is about Berlin, specifically; I’m not sure what city you’re in.)

      http://joannagoddard.blogspot.com/2014/07/20-surprising-things-about-parenting-in.html

      “I find that while German women aren’t as outwardly friendly as American women, the moment they decide to open up to you, a far deeper and more meaningful friendship can develop quite quickly.”

      • Stephanie says:

        Thanks for posting the link. I think this is very true. It does take longer for German people, men or women, to open up. And they do not call you a friend lightly AT all. My husband has many people that I would consider his friends, but he does not. As for me, I have friends and they are wonderful. But the shared experiences I have with my old friends from home…friends from high school, college, law school…well, that is something that is hard to duplicate. Additionally, I came to Germany (Hamburg) later in life, and that may make the difference. It’s easier when one is young, I think. Luckily, there is Skype and going home is easy enough for me, so I am fine. And I always have the hope that one day I will meet that perfect person who will become an intimate. 🙂

  13. Tristan says:

    For a very similar description of this situation, with different terms, check out this
    Friendships Don’t Just Happen , by Shasta Nelson.
    http://www.amazon.com/Friendships-Dont-Just-Happen-GirlFriends-ebook/dp/B00B032E0A

    I stumbled across this book at the library, and found it pretty enlightening.
    She describes relationships in terms of 5 circles, moving from very casual on the left to intimate on the right (she has different names for them), very similar to what your counselor described.
    She asserts that problems arise if both parties are not in sync about in which circle their friendship lies, which i think is similar to talking about where behaviour and relationship status diverge.

    Well worth a read, I think…

  14. Candice says:

    Wow. I’m seriously obsessed with this. I think as an ISFJ, a big part of my hardwiring is loyalty and responsibility. I get discouraged when people don’t return these, and I really need to evaluate if it’s because they are on a different part of the scale than I expect them to be. At the same time, I really and truly don’t mind or feel remorseful about showing loyalty and responsibility to others. It’s a joy for me even to be sweet to strangers. Just need to be careful about the expectations I place on others.

  15. Shauna says:

    This post is SO helpful. My son died two years ago, and I chronicled his birth, illness, death, and my grief on my blog. It was (and still is) quite therapeutic to work through my grief in that manner, but I kept expecting my openness on my blog to transfer to my personal relationships and being very hurt when it didn’t. While I will never pretend my son didn’t exist or downplay the effect his death has had on me, I can keep the grief discussions at the corresponding relationship levels, which have consequently moved up and down.

    • Anne says:

      I can only begin to imagine the layers of pain that would result from losing a child. When our son had cancer, my husband and I were constantly floored at the differing ways our friends we responded. Several couple we thought we were “close” with never mentioned our son at all, or his illness, and we were stunned and hurt by it at the time. I can only imagine what it would be like to experience something similar, though far more painful, as I’m imagining your experience must have been. I’m so sorry that that was and continues to be so painful.

  16. Wow, Anne, as always, this article just gave me that Aha moment, and I just figured out something I had been struggling to understand for awhile! This really helped me understand some of the difficulties I’ve been having with one particular relationship. Thank you to you and your counselor! It’s amazing how an outside perspective can really help.

  17. Jeannie says:

    I connected strongly with what you wrote here, Anne. Over a year ago I experienced a “breakup” with my most intimate friend after 25+ years and am still (as the Brits might say) gobsmacked by the whole thing. I know she considered me an intimate friend because she shared deeply, welcomed my sharing with her, spoke frequently of our closeness and my importance to her, and included me in her special “inner circle” gathering at her 50th birthday. Yet when I attempted to speak to her about some issues — issues she had drawn me into — she responded with rage, rejection, and eventually an end to our friendship, despite my efforts to reconcile. So when I read your post I think, yes, it is very important to be aware of how we view the relationships we are in and what we are (perhaps even unconsciously) expecting from them and putting into them; but the “two solitudes” will always be there, no matter how close we are. I hope that doesn’t sound jaded! But I’ve certainly been reminded of that.

    • Anne says:

      “perhaps even unconsciously,” that’s the kicker. I can understand how one would feel gobsmacked after a stunning and painful experience like that. God bless the Brits and their turns of phrases. You don’t sound jaded, just reflective, and I appreciate your thoughts after coming through such a hurtful experience.

  18. Amy says:

    My goodness, so true. As a small-talk shy introvert, I often have to give myself permission to keep what I share with acquaintances to an acquaintance-appropriate level. Saving the deep stuff for deep friendships doesn’t mean a lack of authenticity on my part, and it’s certainly nothing to feel guilty about. 🙂 Thank you (and your counselor!), Anne, for putting this into words!

  19. Ann says:

    Terrific post! I would love any book recommendations for that chart! You’ve given me something to seriously think about.
    (I’ll definitely check out the book mentioned a few posts above)

  20. Keri says:

    This post keeps bringing up more thoughts! I am one of those “over-sharers” and have never felt awkward when others I barely know share things with me. I’ve only been confused why not many people do. It’s uncomfortable, but good to realize I’ve probably made a lot of people uncomfortable by assuming sharing my heart will automatically equal intimacy.
    This has got me thinking more about how to know what to share on my blog although I think I’ve been a little more guarded since I have no idea where my writing will travel to. I’m an INFP and find it difficult to write on the surface.

  21. Faith says:

    How did you go about finding your counselor? It’s awesome your counselor gives you advice knowing your tendencies as an INFP and a 9. It seems like in a counseling relationship you can get into deep issues but with the distance to be able to observe from a detached perspective.

    This helped clear up confusion for me! I’ve been feeling guilty that maybe if I’d done more in relationships I would be more close to that person. Now I can look at what type of relationship it was in the first place and know that the lack of closeness now makes sense, and the lack of closeness in new friendships makes sense too.

    Greatly appreciate this post!

    • Anne says:

      I was lucky; counseling was an employee benefit at my husband’s old job, so I didn’t have to choose the practice, just the individual. When he left his job, I stayed with the counselor: switching felt too daunting!

  22. Deborah says:

    How interesting! As a TCK who is raising a TCK, I think that there is another layer for us. TCKs tend to go deep fast, and we are frequently surprised when people in our home countries do not. TCK, stands for Third Culture Kid, and it refers to children who spend part or all of their formative years living away from their home culture(s).

    • April says:

      I was thinking this as I read this article. How often have I made someone uncomfortable because I was going “too deep” for them when I thought I was being reserved? As a TCK and now as an adult expat, I am so used to opening up to people I’ve met only recently. It’s hard to break that habit when back in our homeland, especially when I’m trying to make new friends.

  23. Anne,
    I am just so grateful for your posts. They are so worthy of being read. I really really appreciate you writing such well-thought articles. (And I suspect that part of what makes them so awesome is that you still start with pencil & paper! 🙂 ) As always, thanks for sharing!
    P.S. How is that fairy door? Did they pick up their milk? 🙂

    • Anne says:

      Thanks so much, Suzette!

      As for the fairy door: the milk is gone but my helpful daughters have built a LEGO swimming pool and lounging area in case the fairies want to have a pool party. 🙂

  24. Lori says:

    This article and subsequent comments are so interesting to me. This year, I too have had a “breakup” with my most intimate friend outside my family. Aside from losing my dad 19 years ago and watching my oldest child go through a difficult illness several years back it has been the most painful experience of my life. But I think the most difficult thing about it has been the realization that while she was an intimate friend for me, I was clearly more of a casual friend to her as evidenced by how disposable a friendship it has been for her. “Gobsmacked” really is the perfect word to describe feeling. It does leave one feeling stymied about how to determine how our friends view us.

    Thanks for the thought provoking post.

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  26. Melinda Stanton says:

    Brilliant. I remember reading this when you wrote it but I’m glad I saw it today. A high school friend (and that’s been a LONG TIME LOL!) has recently moved back to town. We were “situationally close” but never really intimate, and now that she’s back she’s been behaving and talking like we are, and it’s really been bugging me. This explanation clarifies why it’s bothered me so much!

  27. Kate says:

    Thank you for this post. Relationships – female friendship in particular – at this stage of my life – three kiddos, out of the baby stage – has been on my mind and heart lately.

  28. Sara says:

    I keep coming back to this blog Anne, and I’m so glad you wrote it. In September I was having a hard time with friendships and how they keep changing. Now I know that cycles happen and friends fill various needs in our lives. Some people will always be on the intimate level, even if you haven’t seen them for 20 years, because of what you experienced together. Others will just be casual forever, perhaps they’re parents of your child’s friends or people you see each week at church. Thanks so much for writing this!

  29. Bethany S says:

    This post was timely for me to read, as we (my husband and I) are experiencing family conflict with his brother and wife. I’m officially in love with the word gobsmacked and felt just that when his brother completely thrashed me and my character over the phone because we invited them to our house and wanted to know why they couldn’t come. We have never had a close relationship, but my husband and I have reached out over and over and over again, only to be consistently rejected. It occurred to me, as I read this, that perhaps we have been pushing for an intimate relationship (Because that is what family should be, right? Intimate?), when they want nothing more than a barely more than an acquaintance relationship. We finally pushed so hard that he snapped, apparently. Somehow, putting it in this context hurts less. Kind of.

  30. Wendy says:

    Super interesting, and now the list-maker in me immediately wants to sit down and classify every single person I know into one of these categories.

    Moving from one level to the next is an interesting process also. Sometimes it happens organically, with time. I can think of a few times, though, when someone has basically invited me to the next level (sounds like a teenaged romance!), and since I liked the person, it was very flattering. That first time a work acquaintance asks if you want to get coffee, or when a casual friend offers concrete support during a crisis. I try to remember to be proactive about those things as well. As another INFP, it can be hard to reach out, but since I don’t like being surrounded by just acquaintances and casual friends, I know I need to make close friends.

    It can also be disconcerting when a friendship drifts the other direction. Time and distance can do that, or significant life changes. I know I’ve had trouble maintaining the close friendships since I became a parent to two kids with significant trauma in their past. I have enough energy for casual friends and acquaintances, and my intimate relationships aren’t going anywhere, but I feel like I’ve really neglected to maintain some close relationships that were also important to me.

  31. Anne, just wanted to chime in and say that this post was SO helpful for me. Thank you for writing it!

    This past week, I’d realized that my beliefs about a relationship (“We should be BFFs forever”) did not align with the reality of the relationship as it actually is now. And I’d been stuck in the disconnect between the belief and the reality.

    Your post helped give me a framework for understanding this tension, and it was SUCH a relief to read through the comments and see examples of this same dynamic in other people’s lives too. So, thank you!!

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