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:
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
• 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.