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. 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.

  2. 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. 🙂

  3. 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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  5. 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!

  6. 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.

  7. 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!

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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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