Mar 112008

Interacting with other people can sometimes be almost torture and at other times it can as effortless as thinking. Some of this is dependent upon the type of person you are interacting with. But it goes deeper than that; what makes the difference is the amount of emotional space the interaction has. This emotional space fits into one of five levels, from total lack of emotional space, to a completely safe emotional space that allows you to show your vulnerability.

1. Lack of emotional space. In an interaction that completely lacks emotional space, you will know it instantly. You may feel simply uncomfortable, self conscious, or feel a negative vibe from the other person. You may not be able to put your finger on exactly what it is, but you know it. The other person may be dominating the conversation, criticizing you, or have a superior attitude. You have no qualms about not telling this person anything about your life other than the basics.

I’ve met people that I took an instant dislike to. They didn’t do anything to me, but I just knew that I couldn’t be open with them. Most were coworkers, but others I met elsewhere. I had one coworker who thought she was helpful, but she drained me when I talked to her. She almost delighted in explaining how I was (in her opinion anyway) doing something wrong and how I should be doing it. I got along with her in the sense that I could work with her, but I didn’t share details of my life beyond the surface.

2. Superficial emotional space. The next higher level of emotional space is a superficial level. Here you don’t feel animosity toward someone, but they are more of an acquaintance than a friend. Discussions revolve around interesting stories that don’t show much emotion. Stories of children or pets. You show bits of yourself, a lot more than if there was no emotional space, but still not the deeper issues.

Coworkers fall most often into this category. I had several coworkers I talked to about my wedding plans or my car troubles, but kept my worries about my health or a fight I had with my husband to myself. I would talk about a client who was unreasonable, but not management who was unreasonable. This is also the level you are with most people you’ve only recently met. Unless you take an immediate dislike to them, pleasant conversation is what you engage in. Regardless of whether the person is a new acquaintance or someone you’ve known for awhile, when there is only superficial emotional space, you probably like them, but don’t know them that well.

3. Uneven emotional space. The next level up would be where there is emotional space, but it isn’t even on both sides. The balance may shift, but you will generally be able to sense that one person is contributing more to the relationship. Years ago, I had a friend whom I called my “best friend.” We were very close for a number of years, until she got her first boyfriend. Then there was the gulf between us that we couldn’t really bridge. Looking back, I realize I was envious of her.

Later, I had a friend who leaned on me for her happiness. When we talked on the phone, she would complain about her boyfriend. She only seemed to have fun when she was out with me, and eventually it became clear that she was using my friendship to prop herself up and wasn’t giving back in return.

Another instance of uneven emotional space is when one or the other parties in the relationship puts the other on a pedestal. I’ve done with with at least one person. I refused to see her faults and I admired all her good qualities. I wanted to be like her until she made a decision that totally changed her in my eyes. I felt betrayed, although what she had decided to do had nothing to do with me. The friendship ended, mostly because I wasn’t mature enough at the time to deal with the fall from the pedestal I had placed her on.

4. Emotional space to be yourself. The closer you are to your friends, the more emotional space you have. At some point, you reach a level where you are free to be yourself around the other person. You share pretty much everything with them, but there are a few things you hold back. Maybe your friend would have great advice on a fight you had with your mother, but you wouldn’t feel comfortable crying about a fight you had with a spouse.

I’ve had a few friends over the years where I knew I could talk about anything that upset me, except one or two things. In past romantic relationships, I could talk about other friends, my family, or how I wanted to live my dreams. However, when the heavy tears started, most often during a fight with them, the walls went up on both sides. We didn’t have the emotional space for that level of intimacy. This is sad, really.

This level is the level that many people may be with family. We can talk to them about most of our lives, but know there are a few subjects or feelings that are off limits. We have almost complete emotional space, but not quite. We can be silly and open, but not fully vulnerable. That requires the final level of emotional space – the emotional space to show your vulnerability, or complete emotional intimacy.

5. Emotional space to show vulnerability. The highest level of emotional space is complete emotional intimacy. This is a space that we have with only a few people. These people will be there through thick and thin. We can tell them about anything. If we get a flat 50 miles away in the dead of night and need a lift, they’ll be putting on their shoes before we hang up the phone.

I have a handful of people in my life that fit this description. The first one on the list is my husband. He is the one I can show all my emotions to and share anything with. Even without our marriage vows, he’s there for me in every situation. This is one of the ways I know he is my soul mate, because we have this level of closeness.

I also have good friends who fit this description, although there will always be some things only shared with a spouse. Aside from those things, I feel completely comfortable sharing with these good friends. I can trust them not to betray me and spread private details about me. I can trust them to offer good advice or the motivation I need. They also trust me to do the same. This level of relationship is truly balanced. Sure, the balance shifts from time to time depending on the situation, but overall, the relationship is an even give and take.

The five levels of emotional space are ones we can all understand. However, we may not always be totally aware of which we are in. Having that awareness allows us to choose what level of vulnerability we show. Otherwise, we can get off kilter, sharing too much with the wrong people. By being conscious of how we interact with others, we can know how to change the space, or even if we want to. Full emotional intimacy with someone else isn’t easy and not necessary with everyone. However, if we do wish to reach that level, we can mark our progress as we encounter all the stages.

  4 Responses to “The 5 Levels Of Emotional Space”

  1. Thanks Cathy,

    I think intimacy is helped (not hindered) by respecting privacy and allowing secrets.

    • I agree that intimacy is helped by respecting privacy and allowing secrets. However, feeling that you *need* to hold part of yourself back because you can’t trust the other person *does* hinder intimacy. I apologize if I wasn’t quite clear about that.

  2. Thanks Cathy.

  3. I enjoyed this article. I am an author, currently writing a book that includes a section on sharing space – physically, intellectually, and emotionally. I would like to use part of your article as a quote in my book, but I need your permission, as well as to let you know exactly what I want to use. Please contact me at the email I have entered into this system. Thank you!

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