Friday, July 13, 2012

Levels of Intimacy and Relationships - A Guide from Terry Gorski

In general, the following information comes from Terry Gorski's book, Getting Love Right: Learning the Choices of Healthy Intimacy. In this book he shares his point of view on the different types of relationships that people can have with varying levels of intimacy. (Some of it I have paraphrased from a lecture he gave on the same topic that I had the opportunity to listen to many years ago.) As Gorski explains: It is one of the hallmarks of dysfunctional (unhealthy) relating to believe you either have to be totally, intimately involved with someone, from the beginning, and it has to be seen as a serious or potentially long-term relationship, from the beginning, or you have no relationships at all. In other words, there is no "middle ground" - it's "All or Nothing".

One of the things I have come to appreciate about Terry Gorski is that he pretty much sees the realities of relationships for what they are and he addresses those realities as they are rather than making a lot of moral/value judgments about the people having various types of relationships. He basically says, "Look: It's obvious not every relationship is meant to be a serious long-term, committed relationship. People actually relate at a lot of different levels and for different reasons, and for different periods of time, which includes different expectations and different levels of intimacy."

In the original lecture I heard of Terry Gorski speaking on intimacy, he outlined several different levels of relationship as follows:

a) Casual - the type of relationship you have with the cleaning people at your workplace; in this case you'd have a very low level of intimacy, you may or may not even know each other's names, but you may say "Hi" to each other and interact in a very superficial way.

b) Acquaintance – someone you know a little better than a casual relation, but still with very little regular interaction. Maybe you know each other through other closer friends and relationships.

c) Functional Association - this form of relationship includes people that you work with and possibly people that you share housing with, clubs or social organizations of which you are a member. These are "functional associations" in that the individuals share responsibilities to maintain a given circumstance or to accomplish specific goals. Interactions are more task-oriented. Again this usually involves little or no intimacy in the sense of their being discussions about personal matters; although, it is common (though maybe not necessarily healthy) for those lines to be crossed.

d) Companionship - In a companionship, "the activity is more important than the person". In other words, the reason two people get together is to share an activity that they both enjoy. However, if Joe doesn't want to go see the latest Leonardo DiCaprio movie then you call up Steve and see if he wants to go instead since he also likes Leo. If Steve can't go, you move on to Alan, etc. For heterosexuals, it is probably easier to negotiate "companioning" activities with the same sex; however, negotiating motives and expectations can get a little trickier when companioning with the opposite sex. Same goes for homosexuals only in reverse, i.e. it's easier to companion with the opposite sex than it is to companion with the same sex. It is possible, however, in all cases as long as all parties involved understand at what level they are relating. In terms of intimacy, there may be a little more personal interaction between companions, but again, the focus is usually on the activity rather than the person with whom you are sharing the activity.

e) Friendship - Friendship is basically the opposite of companionship. In a friendship, spending time with the person becomes most important and the shared activity becomes secondary. Friendships involve much more focus on interpersonal communication, sharing of feelings, wants, hopes, dreams, desires, fears, etc. Friendships include emotional and psychological intimacy, but not necessarily physical intimacy. I think it is worthwhile noting that I have already discussed three other levels of relationships and we are just now getting to a level where intimacy becomes a more defining element.

f) Although at this point Terry Gorski would have defined the next level of relationship as a "Romantic Relationship" which would be further defined as "having a sexy friend"; I'd rather define this relationship as a Physically Intimate Friendship (especially given the info I shared in these blogs: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love - Part I and Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love - Part II). I'm beginning to feel whenever you throw "romance" into the mix, you open the "Big Romantic Myth Box" (not unlike Pandora's) and the relationship will be undone by all the cultural and archetypal expectations that come spewing forth as a result. For me, at least, at this point in my life, I would rather have a lover who was first and foremost a good friend than anything mythically "more" than that (which would actually end up being less, as far as I have experienced it).

In further consideration of what it means to be a good friend; I would say it involves being able to maintain a balance of giving and receiving of energy and attention and a mutual meeting of love needs (See Also:Understanding Basic Human Love Needs). You can have friends who meet your love needs for togetherness or companionship, and you can have other friends who meet your love needs for communication or talking, and you can have still other friends who meet your love needs for physical intimacy and/or caring. If you happen to find a relationship where one other person can satisfy many or all of your most important love needs and you can satisfy all or most of their most important love needs, then I'd say that is a good basis for a longer-term, committed, relationship; if practical circumstances support that as well.

In Getting Love Right..., Gorski divides "love relationships" into four types: experimental dating, transitional and committed relationships, and intimate encounters. He says:

"Experimental dating, transitional relationships, and intimate encounters are all short-term relationships that last from several days to several months and are generally not expected to grow into long-term committed relationships. These short-term involvements each meet particular relationship needs. Experimental dating relationships give us new experiences that allow us to gain the knowledge we need to make sound relationship choices in the future. Transitional relationships provide valuable support during the difficult period after the end of a long-term committed relationship. Intimate encounters are unique relationships outside the normal context of our lives that meet our here-and-now needs for intimacy." (p. 91)

(This last statement is one that has sold me on Terry Gorski - the fact that he acknowledges a functional, relational place for "one night stands"! Granted, they're not what I'm really "into" anymore, but I've definitely had my share and I think I would have been able to truly enjoy them for what they were if overriding "romantic/all or nothing" expectations had not already been programmed into my brain by both religious and secular elements of society!)

Gorski continues:

"Two essential factors in all healthy relationships are awareness of your own and your partner's expectations and your honesty of motive. You must first be aware of the type of relationship you are or are not looking for and then be willing to discuss your expectations with your partner in the early stages of the relationship. If you are unsure of exactly what type of relationship you want, you can communicate that, too. Your partner also must talk about his or her expectations. This will give both of you an opportunity to decide if involvement, under those terms, will meet your relationship needs. This is especially important in transitional relationships and intimate encounters, when a misunderstanding of expectations and motive can be emotionally devastating." (pp. 91-92).

I can only say - how true, how true?! And here's some more:

"Although you think you know what type of relationship you are ready for, your relationship goals may change when you become involved with a particular person and your feelings toward him or her evolve. You can never be certain at the outset how a relationship will turn out. Don't be afraid to change your expectations as your feelings change, but realize that if they do, you need to let your partner know and renegotiate the terms of the relationship. Remember, just because you change your expectations doesn't mean your partner will change his or hers.

"These relationship categories are not absolute. They are important primarily to help you clarify the essential nature of the short-term relationships so that you can have a way of determining what you are seeking in a particular relationship and talk about it with your partner. There are times these categories will overlap, and you may find they are less definite in practice than in theory." (p. 92)

Okay - that's probably enough to digest for this blog.

My motives in writing: a) reinforcing these definitions/concepts with myself, and b) offering to my friends and "subscribers" what I consider to be some very practical understanding for healthy intimate relationships. My hope is that they will learn from this information as well, thus increasing the chances for them to also have healthy, functional relationships if they are not experiencing them already. And if they realize that what they have is/are already healthy, functional relationship/s - then this will help to reinforce and validate their experience in a way that all our media propaganda about the "romantic myth of love" cannot.


  1. This was a very helpful article to help me understand the different dynamics my relationships have. I feel like I interact the same with all of them, but there actually is a huge difference based on the categorizations that best suit the ones you've listed.

    I can see what it is about heterosexual-opposite sex interactions being a bit tricky. I have to female friends, and one I've had an explicit conversation about our romantic relationship needs. Although we connect on many fundamental levels, we just don't have that romantic spark that would complete it since we've been friends for so long, or some better reason I may not be aware of. But either way, because we are so clear about our friendship and what it means to us, my interactions with her are invigorating, open and honest.

    Whereas there's this other woman I'm platonically friends with, but we are unclear on what we mean to each other, even though she has a boyfriend. I personally don't have an interest in her romantically due to some bad dating habits she has, however, when she cannot get emotional needs met by her boyfriend she comes to me to get that. That confuses my logical faculties and I suppose it's time that I define my relationship with her to avoid further miscommunications...

    Whoa didn't expect to open up so hugely but there you have it! How I related to this post and how it has helped me. Thank you.

  2. Thank you for the feedback. I'm glad this post has helped and I hope you will consider further the other posts I have linked there. With regards to the woman who has been a friend for a long time, and not feeling that "spark"...where I am in my own thinking about these things currently is that that "spark" may be more biologically driven, a "pattern patterning", and in the end, it is our more truly human or higher human needs that we should pay closer attention to anyway. Something tells me that if you both chose to let yourselves get closer physically, say, just start by holding hands, then maybe holding each other in a nurturing way, and let yourselves gradually break down that barrier over time, you might find there is an opportunity for physical intimacy and, even more "romantic" feelings that would arise down the road. Keep in mind, a lot of the "romance" is really about body chemistry, and there are different ways to stimulate the body chemistry intentionally even if it hasn't happened "automatically". Also, look to what is Most Meaningful to both of you that you are able to share in the relationship in a unique way and look at the practical functional opportunities for sharing a life together more intimately if you choose to. A lot of what can make or break a long-term intimate relationship is the "functional association" part; i.e. managing all the details of "co-habitation". Nothing really "romantic" about that, but finding practical ways to do that will make a big difference in the Long Run, if you want there to be a Long Run, and if you decide you do want that level of relationship.