The Five Levels of Intimacy

by | Mar 9, 2020 | Emotional Intimacy, Marriage, Sex

First comes love… or sex?

“First comes love, then comes marriage, then here they come with a baby carriage.”

You may recognize this little rhythm my generation used to sing to embarrass each other. Based on today’s culture, it could be changed to: “First comes sex, then comes living together, then the baby carriage could happen anytime or with anybody, as does the sex.”

Casual sex has changed the landscape of relationships and marriage. Before 1960 most people saved sex for marriage, but now according to a recent survey, most people have sex before marriage. So how has this new trend impacted today’s marriages?

Prior to 1960, the divorce rate was less than 25 per cent, but today it’s closer to 50 per cent. Furthermore, and what this article will discuss, casual sex has inhibited our ability to build emotional intimacy into our relationships.

The Five Levels of Intimacy

Psychologists have identified five levels of emotional intimacy that a person experiences as they get to know someone.

Level One: Safe Communication

Level one is the lowest level of communication. We call it safe because it involves the exchange of facts and information. There are no feelings, opinions, or personal vulnerability involved, and therefore no risk of rejection. This is the kind of interaction we have with people we don’t know well. It’s the chitchat we share with the clerk at the grocery store or a stranger at a party. People communicating at this level share minimal intimacy. Examples of this level would be, “Lousy weather we’re having,” “This is great pizza,” and “My team won last night.”

Level Two: Others’ Opinions and Beliefs

At level two we start sharing other people’s thoughts, beliefs, and opinions. We are beginning to reveal more of ourselves through our associations. We say things like, “My mother always says…” or, “One of my favourite authors said….” Such statements test the other person’s reaction to what we’re sharing without offering our own opinions. This is slightly more vulnerable than level one, but because we’re not sharing our own opinions we can distance ourselves from the opinion if we feel threatened by criticism or rejection.

Level Three: Personal Opinions and Beliefs

We start taking small risks at this level because we begin to share our own thoughts, opinions, and beliefs. But like the previous level, if we begin feeling too vulnerable, we can say we’ve switched our opinions or changed our mind in order to avoid conflict or pain.

Level Four: My Feelings and Experiences

Sharing feelings and experiences is the next level of vulnerability and intimacy. At this level we talk about: our joys, pain, and failures; our mistakes in the past, our dreams, and our goals; what we like or don’t like, and; what makes us who we are. This level is more vulnerable because we can’t change how we feel about something or the details of our past or current experiences. If we sense we may be rejected or criticized, all we can do is try to convince others that we’re no longer impacted by our past. We’re no longer that person. We’re different now.

Level Five: My Needs, Emotions, and Desires

Level five is the highest level of intimacy. It is the level where we are known at the deepest core of who we are. Because of that, it is the level that requires the greatest amount of trust. If I can’t trust that you won’t reject me, I’ll never be able to share my deepest self with you. 

Unlike the other levels, there is no escape. Once I let someone see who I really am, I can no longer convince them otherwise. Communicating at this level means we offer someone the most vulnerable part of ourselves. And the greatest fear is that they could use it against us later.

When we share things like, “I’m hurt when you don’t call,” “I need to feel respected by you,” or, “I want to spend my life with you,” we’re sharing not only our hurts, but our desires and needs as well. It’s also the level where we let others see our emotional reaction to things, which if you’re like me, isn’t always a pretty sight. Maybe that’s why we save those reactions for the ones closest to us, like our families.

True Intimacy

It’s important to understand that true intimacy in a relationship happens over time — not in a day, a week, or even a month. Think of your best friend. How long did it take before you felt at the highest level of intimacy with them, where you were able to trust them completely, or share your deepest self?

It’s the same in romantic relationships. True intimacy develops over time. But another important element is needed for true intimacy: both people in the relationship need to move through the levels together. If I’m sharing at level four with someone (feelings and experiences) but my partner is sharing at level three (opinions and beliefs), we’re not experiencing true intimacy. I may feel closer because I’m sharing at a higher level, but in reality what we have is a false sense of intimacy. In truth, intimacy is measured by the person with the lower level of vulnerability.

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Sex: A False Sense of Intimacy

When you look at the five levels, I’m sure you’d agree that the fifth level is the healthiest, safest, and most intimate place to have sex. When we feel loved unconditionally and have the highest level of trust, we’ll be able to give ourselves completely to each other, increasing intimacy and the enjoyment of sex. 

We can have sex at the other levels, but without that same level of trust, the vulnerability of sex may be associated with anxiety, fear, and distrust. As I’ve led women through healing, I’ve discovered that they have the hardest time with sex if they’re not at this highest level with their partner, and if they’ve been wounded by sex with others in lower levels of intimacy, whether through abuse or their own choices.

So what happens if we have sex outside marriage before reaching that highest level? Sex by itself is an intimate act. God designed sex to bond two people together spiritually, emotionally, physically, and mentally.

In Genesis, God said that sex makes two people one. In essence, He’s saying sex “glues” two people together. Research on the brain and sex has validated God’s plan to bond people together. During sexual arousal and release men and women produce an amazing hormone called oxytocin. Scientists call oxytocin the hormone of love, the superglue that creates strong relational bonds.

Releasing this hormone increases trust in a relationship, bonds people together, and causes intimacy. Oxytocin is also released in women when they give birth and when they breast feed their babies. You can see how God designed us to bond together in families to love, support, and provide for each other.

When we have sex outside marriage before the highest level, we are creating a false sense of intimacy in our relationship. The sex makes us feel closer than we really are. Let’s say we’re at level three, where many couples start having sex outside marriage. We’re only sharing thoughts, opinions, and beliefs at this level. Of course we may occasionally move up to the next level as we’re building trust, but until we’ve built enough needed, we’ll always gravitate back to where we feel the safest. 

The sex makes us feel close, but in reality, we don’t know each other very well. We’re experiencing a false sense of intimacy. We’ll use sex to express our love, communicate, and resolve conflict. And now it’s at this level of emotional intimacy that we’ll most likely stay.

In other words, emotional intimacy can get stalled at the level where we start having sex. Let me explain why. Emotional intimacy requires being able to risk conflict in order to move to the next level. Handling conflict in a healthy and safe way without being rejected is what allows us to build the trust needed to communicate at higher, more vulnerable levels.

But now that we’re having sex, we feel close, and we don’t want to risk losing the other person. We also may feel that this is The One, and we won’t want anything to threaten this relationship. And so, although we may occasionally move to higher levels, we’ll continue to fall back into that safe zone to communicate. We may sense that there’s something missing, but then with sex, we’ll feel that surge of closeness again, making us feel all is well.

And Then We Get Married

When I first learned about intimacy levels, I was a sexual health educator going into schools and colleges teaching young people about saving sex for marriage. But God, the ultimate multi-tasker, began using what I was teaching others to show me what was happening in my own marriage.

My husband and I had sex before we were married — very early in our relationship. Here we were now, having been married for about 20 years, and I was struggling with two things. First, I didn’t enjoy sex and couldn’t understand why. Second, I didn’t feel emotionally close to my husband. In fact, I often felt lonely in my marriage and desired that we could share more deeply with each other.

This was making me question a lot of things. I felt shame and regret for my past sexual partners, for having pre-marital sex with my husband, and I wondered if I’d married the wrong person. Why didn’t I enjoy emotional and physical intimacy with him? I was beginning to wonder if the sex we’d had before marriage had kept me from really discovering if he was my true soul mate.

But God is so kind. Into my heartfelt secret pain that only He knew, He brought the answer. I remember the light bulb going on when I first heard about intimacy levels and sex. Instantly, I understood that our emotional intimacy was stalled between levels two and three, when we first started having sex. This was why I never felt completely known by my husband, because he didn’t really know me, and I didn’t know him. The early sex had robbed us both of experiencing the highest level of intimacy.

Here we were, 20 years later, still speaking for the most part just below the feeling level. Yes, we’d go there sometimes, but it was scary when it started creating conflict, and so I’d scurry back to that safe place — talking about the kids, money, and what we’d do for the weekend.

Now I knew what was lacking. But how were we to get to that highest level of intimacy now, 20 years later? In my research I came across an author and counsellor who taught on the intimacy levels. He said that he would counsel couples getting married who were having sex to stop and wait for marriage so that they could get to the highest level of intimacy. For married couples seeking his counsel who’d had sex before marriage, he encouraged them to take a fast from sex for a time so that they could get to the highest level of intimacy.

A Sex Fast?

Sounds crazy, right? I thought so, but when I suggested to my husband that taking a fast from sex might improve our sex life, he was all for it. Mutually we agreed to fast for one month leading up to our 23rd anniversary, at which time we could come together.

During that month we talked… a lot. We mostly talked about our sex life, and why I didn’t like it so much. But we also talked about many other things, things we hadn’t ever talked about. During that same time, I allowed God to take me through some sexual healing for my past choices and I discovered why I disliked sex so much. The wounding I’d experienced in past relationships had given me a negative view of sex, and I’d brought that into my marriage. With healing, God exposed all the lies I’d come to believe about men and sex, and replaced them with His truth. And His truth set me free to love my husband, be loved in return, and enjoy sex in a way I’d never known.

Even more, Eric and I grew emotionally. God allowed us to fast-track to that highest level of intimacy. We’re still growing in that area, now at 30 years of marriage. It gets better and better… as does the sex. I’m not saying it’s all perfect, and that we never fight, or that I am always ready for sex. But we both testify to the healing and transformation that God has done in our marriage. It wasn’t an easy journey, but it was so worth it!

What About You?

Can you relate to our story or see yourself in what I’ve shared? If so, regardless of where you are right now in your marriage, God promises even more: more intimacy, more love, maybe even more sex! 

If your marriage lacks emotional or sexual intimacy, pray and ask God what steps He wants you to take. Maybe like Eric and I, He’ll encourage you to take a fast from sex for a time so you can move to the highest level of intimacy. If you’ve been wounded by sex in your past, whether from abuse, trauma, or your own choices, let God show you how He can heal you so that it no longer keeps you from complete intimacy in your marriage.

Whatever it is, God knows all about you and your story. He knows exactly what you need to heal. I know, because He’s done it for us and countless others. And He can and will do the same for you.

He’s just waiting for you to give Him permission to get started. I’m praying you will. I promise, like Eric and I, you’ll reap the benefits of the more God has waiting, just for you.

If you are dealing with issues from your sexual history, there is so much hope for you. Read Barb’s article, “Healing From Your Sexual Past.” For married women who resonate with this article, read Kiss Me Again. Her book The Invisible Bond explores more about sexual bonding, why it is harmful, and how to move freely into your future. For more, visit barbarawilson.org.