Intimacy is essential for us to thrive. It is being able to share all parts of yourself, both the strengths and the flaws, both the successes and the failure. It is sharing our story with people. Intimacy is being fully known, and fully accepted. Our culture thinks that intimacy is sex, but it is really much more than that. There are four kinds of intimacy. Physical intimacy is touch, not just sex. Emotional intimacy is knowing how we are experiencing events and sharing that with others. Intellectual intimacy is knowing how someone thinks, understanding their philosophy of life; it does not require both people having the same view. Spiritual intimacy is knowing that the other person desires us to be the-best-version-of-ourselves.
There are a number of prerequisites for intimacy. One is that you must be comfortable with yourself before you will be able to share yourself with others; becoming comfortable with yourself is the purpose of solitude. Another prerequisite is that your relationships are built on a desire for the other person to become the-best-version-of-themselves. Common interests are not enough; when the common interests diverge, the relationship ends. This is why couples whose shared purpose is raising kids disintegrate after the kids are grown. Discipline is another prerequisite, because excellence in any area requires discipline. Discipline is also necessary because love and intimacy requires giving yourself, which is only possible if you are free. Our culture thinks that freedom is doing what we want, when we want to, however long we want to; this is not freedom but adolescence. Freedom is the ability to defer gratitude, so that we are able to do what is right, and to always be the-best-version-of-ourselves. Finally, intimacy requires unstructured time, time unplanned. Kelly recommends two hours per week, one day a month, and one weekend a quarter, of unstructured time in a primary relationship to build from this level.
The first level of intimacy is clichés, the small talk about things that are safe. They help us connect with people initially, and also help us do transactions with people. It is not good if a relationship gets stuck here, however, since neither party is sharing anything of themselves.
The second level of intimacy is impersonal facts, like what we did during the day. This level is also good, and can spark deeper interest. For instance, a conversation about going to the art museum can spark an interest in why the person went, what the person’s values are, or what kind of art the person likes. But again, nothing personal has been shared, so staying at this level is very lonely. Sharing personal facts can help move the relationship deeper. An example of a personal fact is “I accidentally bought a ticket to the art museum for Friday instead of Saturday, and I was really disappointed when I was turned away because I love art and have not been able to visit the museum for a year, so I was looking forward the visit all week.” Buying the ticket on the wrong day is impersonal, but the how this affected you is personal.
The third level of intimacy is sharing opinions. The previous two levels are safe, but sharing your opinion gives the option for the other person to disagree with your opinion and reject you. Usually a disagreement of opinions leads to either someone using a surfacing technique like making a joke to bring the conversation back to level one or two, or an argument breaks out. “Arguing is the intellectual equivalent of having a temper tantrum” (152), and arguments are usually clashes of worldviews, so you are not likely to actually change someone’s mind with an argument; instead, arguments tend to degenerate into personal attacks. Both surfacing and arguing are not helpful to intimacy. Instead, level three is where you accept people even though you disagree with their opinion. You can learn why they have this opinion, and what events in their life brought them to this opinion. In fact, all relationships have unsolvable problems, so acceptance is essential to healthy relationships. The challenge at this level is are you willing to reveal your opinions, and accept those whose opinions are different?
The fourth level of intimacy is hopes and dreams, which more deeply reveals who we are and what we value. Discussing each others dreams is a great way to deepen your primary relationship, but make sure to keep current, because hopes and dreams change. Discuss your hopes and dreams for the relationship, too. Not all hopes and dreams can be pursued equally, so pursue the ones that make both of you the-best-version-of-yourselves. This will take sacrifice and discipline, which is an act of love. The challenge in this level is, will you look past short-term gratification and build a future together?
The fifth level of intimacy is sharing feelings. Feelings are the reactions to the events that we experience, and we need to be able to express them to others in order to thrive. But it is helpful to realize that feelings are only reactions. Sometimes we feel something that does not logically follow, or for which there seems to be no reason. That does not invalidate the feeling. However, neither should we put too much weight on the feeling. For example, waiting until we feel like we love someone before we will act lovingly to them is like telling a stove “I’ll give you wood when you give me heat.” The challenge in this stage is, will you be vulnerable?
The sixth level of intimacy is sharing our fears, faults, and failures. This stage is the emotional equivalent of nakedness. In the previous stages you have learned that the other person accepts you, desires the best for you, and cares about how you are experiencing life, making it safe to share your dark side with them. The other person already knows your fears, faults, and failures—especially your faults—by now, but humbly admitting where you are weak is very endearing. It also provides the other person with ways they can love you, as you humbly ask for help.
The seventh level of intimacy is sharing our legitimate needs. Love is the dynamic collaboration of helping the other person become the-best-version-of-themselves, and we all have legitimate needs that need to be met for us to thrive. We have physical needs for food and water and nutrients. We have emotional needs to be accepted and to be listened to, as well as emotional needs that vary from person to person. We have intellectual needs to encounter new ideas, but interests vary widely between people. And we have spiritual needs to for silence and solitude. Note that needs are different from wants. We can thrive without our wants as long as our needs are met, but no amount of meeting wants will cause us to thrive if our needs are not met. Aside from the universal needs, we each of unique needs that the other person can meet. For instance, Kelly needs to have ten minutes after he wakes up and after he returns from a trip to decompress, because he literally is unable to think coherently until then. Or maybe one day work is really stressful, so planning for the vacation is not something you can do; calling your wife to let her know beforehand that work was stressful can avoid a big argument. Or vice-versa: maybe one day the kids took everything out of you, so calling your husband to let him know that you do not have the energy to make dinner allows him to provide for your need, perhaps by ordering pizza, or even by cooking himself. Communicating these needs to each other enables the dynamic collaboration of love.
Great relationships do not happen by accident, or because we hope that they will. We need to make plans for having a great relationship. Kelly gives a ten step plan, which largely boils down to identify what a great relationship looks like for you, prioritizing it in your life, and setting SMART goals to evaluate how you are doing and course-correct.
The Seven Levels of Intimacy offers an insightful model of intimacy that is both explanatory and actionable. His insights explain why some of my relationships have been good, while some longstanding friendships have felt empty. The levels give direction on becoming more intimate. And his idea that the primary goal of life (and therefore, relationships) is becoming the-best-version-of-yourself is quite insightful. Similarly, his definition of love as being willing to (healthily) subordinate your own personal goals and desires in service of helping the other person become the-best-version-of-yourself brings the sort of clarity in thought that also makes clear the sort of things that acting this out would involve.
This is definitely a “pop” discussion of the topic. He just makes huge assertions like the meaning of life is to pursue being the-best-version-of-yourself, or how relationships work, without any justification whatsoever. This raises the question, why should I believe him? He was only about 30 when he wrote the book, why should I believe he has insight that somehow people with decades of life have frequently not acquired? What he says sounds true, but he gives nothing to back up his argument, not even the unsatisfying “I have thought about this topic for a long time and these are the conclusions that I have come to.” It sounds like he probably has read a lot on the topic, but he does not even provide a bibliography of where one might get more information. We just have to trust that he is right. I think he is probably right, but I think it is inexcusable to not tie down his ideas to something that is rooted somewhere.
Although there is not a single justification given for his assertion and the ideas are kind of jumbled around, Kelly does present an insight model of relationships. I wish I had encountered it much earlier, and I will be using it to guide my relationships in the future. The writing is terrible, but the ideas are good, and I recommend adopting them.