intimacyThis article is from the book Building Community by Loughlan Sofield, Rosine Hammet, Carrol Juliano. It deals with the theme of intimacy in community life. The exercises given in this article are helpful for community building.

Jesus wept; and the Jews said, “See how much he loved him!” —John 11:35-36

The issue of intimacy pervades the life of any community and is an essential issue for the group to resolve in order to build commu­nity. As described in the near/far stage in Section I, discovering a level of intimacy appropriate to the community can present a chal­lenge, for within the assembled community, there are differing expectations with regard to intimacy. In addition, each member pos­sesses different needs and capacities for intimacy. Negotiating an intimacy level at which all members can be comfortable is not achieved quickly or without effort. The successful resolution of this stage of development in the group is dependent on whether the members, like Alice, have acquired some capacity for intimacy in their personal lives.

Personal Intimacy Defined

Intimacy is one of our basic human needs. In Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the need for love, affection, belong­ing to and identifying with others is ranked as one of the higher levels of all human needs.

In addition to being a basic need, intimacy is also a stage of psychosocial development. The study of human development by Eric Erikson’ teaches that the stage of intimacy first forms in adolescence but continues to undergo development and to be re-fined as an individual matures. It is at this level of development that an individual can freely enter into partnerships and affilia­tions and can abide by those commitments. Intimacy is a time when a person can share oneself with another without the fear of losing part of that self in the process. The scope of intimacy en-compasses all relationships.

Intimacy is the ability to share oneself with another, to allow another to know some of what self-knowledge has revealed. Self-disclosure calls for a willingness to let an outsider into one’s personal space. Openness and freedom are also needed, for inti­macy involves risk and leaves a person vulnerable. Security and comfort with one’s own identity permits sharing parts of self with another. To establish any level of intimacy in a relationship re-quires knowledge of that other person over time so that some degree of trust can be built.

Intimacy and Community

Members bring to community their varying needs and expe­riences of intimacy. Some members may expect all their intimacy needs to be addressed in community. These unrealistic and unhealthy demands will place pressure on the community, creating a tension that drains the group and detracts from its mission and purpose.

Other members have little or no expectation of intimacy needs in community and therefore stay on the periphery of the group with little personal involvement or interaction with other mem­bers. In order to include and involve this type of member, there is need to discuss expectations of relationships.

The community may also include some members who have not developed a capacity for intimacy. Such people have an unclear sense of identity that does not make mutuality possible. Given this range of needs and expectations, some general discussion of ex­pectations of community interactions and relationships is helpful.As time passes and relationships shift, there may be need for fur­ther discussion and clarification.

Spectrum of Relationships

The scope and range of intimate relationships is wide and de­pends on the trust level, knowledge of the other, and the choice ofcloseness desired. Relationships are by their very nature mutual, so the level of intimacy is of utmost importance. Forced intimacy invades privacy, contradicts personal freedom, and leads to a draining and unproductive relationships.

Mutuality and reciprocity are key elements in relationships.

In every life there are myriad relationships. These relation-ships are not identical in importance, duration, consistency, quality, depth, affection, or intensity. The levels of intimacy in this spectrum are not equal, nor should there be a desire to have the same level of intimacy for every relationship. The terms used to de-scribe a relationship frequently denote it’s level, ranging from acquaintance to one’s closest confidant. For example, one can have: a passing acquaintance with the daily postal carrier, a pro­fessional relationship with the medical doctor, a business relationship with a work colleague, a close relationship with a friend, a limited friendship with a community member, a loving re­lationship with a spouse.

A healthy individual has many people from whom to draw. These people form a person’s support network and are available to support the different aspects of one’s life. They provide positive re-sources in times of crisis as well as a necessary context to maintain a healthy way of life.

 Relationship Circles

 The concentric circles in Table 1 represent the different lev­els of intimacy. The center circle symbolizes the self. The outside circles show the degree of relationship by their proximity to the center. Each person has to choose where they would place the in­dividual members of their community, as well as the community as a whole.

Level 5

This is the level furthest away from the self. People in this cat­egory know the basic data: name, occupation, history, background. This group has only surface knowledge of you. An acquaintance relationship may develop from some common association. This group usually contains the largest number of people.

Level 4

People in this category share some common bond. In addition to knowing some of the basic facts about you, the individuals in this level know some of your opinions and ideas. There is sharing at this level, but it is usually related to the common bond, such as among professional or work colleagues, AA members, parish coworkers, neighbors, social contacts. This group contains fewer people than Level 5.

Level 3

The number of people in this circle is becoming fewer. Though they may have the same common bond as some in Level 4, you have chosen to share more of self with these people. Of course, they have the same knowledge as the individuals in the previous two levels, but in somewhat more depth. Mutual sharing of beliefs, attitudes, values, and a spiritual dimension has begun to occur. This group may be comprised of colleagues, family members, as­sociates from civic, religious, or parent organizations, neighbors, social contacts. These people could be considered distant friends.

Level 2

Besides the quality sharing of values, attitudes, and beliefs, there is also a selective sharing of feelings and emotions at this lev­el, a trust and comfort level that permits the revealing of the faith dimension to an even greater depth. There is an obviously smaller number of individuals that will be allowed into this circle. These people are considered close friends. At this level there is increased vulnerability. The material about oneself that is shared conveys a sense of trust in the other.

Level 1

Though the deepest and richest level of relationship, Level 1 contains the smallest number of individuals. At this circle a high level of trust exists, and there is a willingness to share the deepest part, almost everything, about oneself. This degree of vulnerabili­ty is risked because of the strong belief in the other person. This

level of intimacy is special and reserved for very close friends. It may include one or two friends in a lifetime who are in this circle.

Fears of Intimacy

While the human need for intimacy is universally present, there is also the risk of vulnerability that can pose a threat and can stimulate fear. Fears of intimacy can take different forms, as Table 2 illustrates.

Fears of Intimacy

  1. 1.Fear of rejection and ridicule
  2. 2.Misuse of power
  3. 3.Lack of mutuality
  4. 4.Fear of termination

Two of the more common fears are those of rejection and ridicule. Every person has a basic desire to be loved and accepted. The attempt to relate to another can be accompanied with the un­spoken question as to whether this action will be accepted or will be met with rejection or ridicule. This fear can be particularly strong for individuals whose self-esteem is low and who may have difficulty in seeing themselves as acceptable and lovable.

Once the risk to share something of oneself with another is taken, this knowledge places that person in a position of power. If there is some disruption or misunderstanding in the relationship, there can be a fear that the information will be used maliciously.

Another fear stems from the mutuality that is the expectation in any relationship. The question that self-disclosure may not be reciprocated or that one is being used solely to fill another person’s need can be a cause of fear.

Last, the reality of termination which is a constant in a com­munity can make it difficult for individuals to build relationships. This fear points to the importance of a community addressing the departure of members from the community as discussed in chap-ter 1 and in chapter 13. When members can process their feelings of loss and separation, they can overcome more easily their fear of loss and can be free to form new relationships.

The fears of intimacy are numerous and individual. They may change according to the circumstances, and one can experience different fears with different persons. A key factor in establishing relationships is knowledge of one’s personal fears that may hinder developing intimacy.

Defenses Against Intimacy

There are times and circumstances when fears of intimacy can become too great, and the need to protect oneself from a perceived threat prevails. A person then engages in behaviors called “defenses” that serve to protect and defend the self.

Among the more commonly-known defenses are workaholism and intellectualization. For example, some people can become so totally consumed in their work that they have no time or interest in any other aspect of life. By complete absorption in work they can avoid interacting on a personal basis. In a similar vein, focus­ing on facts, data, and information may be a screen to hide ones real self from others. This defense of intellectualization is recog­nized when the only possible conversations with some people are about sports, events, news, and other impersonal facts.

Among the other defenses are: pseudo-asceticism, where God and “holy talk” become an escape; pseudo-professionalism, which hides behind a role; or various types of obsession such as with pets and humor.

Most people utilize defenses periodically or situationally, and it is not problematic. However, whenever defenses become the norm for interacting, they impede individual growth and inhibit building community.


Within every human person there is a hunger for intima­cy and a need to be connected in some way with others. Growth as human persons is through relationship with others. Created as social beings, there is a need to inter-act with others. Through interactions and relationships individuals grow more fully into the person God calls them to become.

Intimacy is the capacity to allow oneself to be known by others and to know others in return. While the desire for intimacy exists, there is also an accompanying reluc­tance. When the threat to one’s vulnerability is too great, a person employs defenses which establish behaviors that prevent developing relationships, whether in family, com­munity, work, or social settings.

In every life there is a variety of types of relationships. The degree of intimacy varies according to the type of relation-ship and the mutual choice of both parties. Within community there will also be a range of relationship levels.

Members of a community bring with them varying needs and expectations of intimacy. Finding a level of intimacy that is acceptable and comfortable for all has to be nego­tiated if the group is to form community. The challenge is a difficult but necessary one if the community is to move toward its purpose and mission.

Reflection Questions for yourself

    1. What is the place of intimacy in my life?
    2. Which are my most common fears of intimacy? Are these fears different with different individuals?
    3. When I experience a need to protect myself, which defenses do I employ?
    4. What are my expectations for intimacy in our community?

Process for Group Sharing

1. Review the levels of relationships given in the table in the article. Identify individuals you would place at each level.

2. Reflect on the following questions:

  • Where did you place the members in your community? Is it different from where you would prefer to place them? Is there anyone who seems to desire a closer relationship to you than you choose to have?
  • Is there anyone in your life now that you would place in Level 1?
  • What are the expectations of intimacy that I hold for this community?

3. As a community, discuss your response to the final question.

– From Loughlan Sofield, Rosine Hammet, Carrol Juliano, Building Community, Ave Maria Press, Notre Dame, 1998