Intimacy Strategies for Thriving

Love is easy when we agree. Deep, reliable, and loyal love (of ourselves, our partners, and our community) is known mainly through our ability to connect when we disagree. Why? Because this is the hard part of most relationships.

There are two critical necessities for a good relationship: (1) Getting along, (2) Talking skillfully when you can’t. Much of our culture focuses on the first. Thus, we are not good at the second.


Going through the illustration above will help make this clear.

The X-axis: Sometimes life gives us parts of ourselves (Me) or other people (We) who are pretty compatible with how we’d like them to be. For example, if I get an “A” on a test in school, that might be compatible with viewing myself as smart. Or, if someone I’m talking to agrees with me about a topic, that too, is compatible.  Typically, when things are compatible with the way we want them to be, we feel pleasant emotion and try to get more (Buddhists would recognize this as passion, one of the three poisons). We like ourselves and like the other person when we are compatible and it’s easy to get along under those conditions. This is the left side of the x-axis.

Sometimes, though, life gives us situations that are not compatible with what we’d like — that’s the right side of the x-axis. This might occur if we fail a test or if someone we’re talking to disagrees with us. When that happens, we feel unpleasant emotion and try to avoid those things (Buddhists would recognize another poison here, aggression). Makes sense. Who wouldn’t want to avoid disagreement and unpleasant emotion?!

The Y-axis: When we don’t get along, our culture is not very good at skillful disagreement, the second necessity for a good relationship. The reason is that our culture specializes in the training of avoidance strategies (the bottom of the y-axis): distraction, self-medication, dismissing others through criticism or “otherizing”, “letting it go” (which is often just suppression), “positive” thinking, or other forms of legislating emotions or speech: “Don’t be so negative”, “Lighten up”, “We don’t say ‘hate'”, “You shouldn’t feel sad”, “stop whining”, “suck it up”. I think of statements like these as language traps because we are trained in our culture to use these phrases to describe emotion (“I fell apart”, “I lost it”) and unconsciously take them as truth. In fact, they are are actually false criticisms of normal emotion. As such they fall under the category of violence, a characteristic of quadrant 2 (below).

The table below illustrates a range of concepts associated with intimacy or avoidance.


A brief sidebar on so-called “positive” thinking. “Positive thinking” is often a misnomer because something that feels unpleasant to discuss is not necessarily negative for our lives; on the contrary, unpleasant aspects of reality are often positive for our lives (see this article on pleasant negatives and unpleasant positives). With just a little thought it becomes clear that we can have unpleasant positive thinking (e.g., it’s unpleasant to see a rattlesnake on a hike, but being aware of it could very well save your life, a very positive thing) and pleasant negative thinking (e.g., I’m enjoying my hike without stress because I don’t see the rattlesnake). Often people advocating “positive” thinking are simply advocating that we maintain pleasant emotion by avoiding unpleasant reality. More on the orthogonal relationship between positive-negative and pleasant-unpleasant here. Also, see this post on unrealistic optimism as well as a reply to Kahlil Gibrans’ observation about optimism and the rose.

In any case, some of these avoidance strategies, like distraction, are useful, often as a short-term break so we can re-center and then re-engage in more skillful ways. Sometimes these avoidance strategies are not just helpful, they are necessary. Sometimes, however, we can avoid reality so successfully we create more suffering than necessary. The dysfunctional status quo of our current culture is caused by an over-emphasis on avoidance strategies. We are so eager to feel pleasant emotion and avoid unpleasant emotion that we are failing to confront problems confronting our planet, such as deforestation, loss of topsoil, desertification, and climate change. Thus, intimacy strategies are critical for learning to thrive on one planet’s worth of resources, the main theme of this site.

Life is better and more resilient when we also have the ability to engage in intimacy strategies (the top part of the y-axis) in addition to these avoidance strategies. Intimacy is not a euphemism for sex or even physical intimacy though it includes both. Intimacy is much broader: it means dealing with reality, early, often, and skillfully. Intimacy strategies involve being intimate with oneself or the other person we are interacting with. Without intimacy strategies, we’re not going to be very good at speaking skillfully when disagreement, incompatibilities, or unpleasant emotion arise because we will be using avoidance strategies that, by definition, avoid one or more aspects of reality.

Avoidance strategies come with a world view that emphasizes following the rules, authoritarianism, hierarchy, and personal control. Intimacy strategies emphasize using all the data of a moment (as in mindfulness and other contemplative traditions), views rules as guidelines, and emphasize interdependence. Avoidance is associated with domestication, civilization, appropriateness, and an emphasis primarily on knowledge. Intimacy is more about wildness and wisdom and is critical for moving beyond our current dysfunctional status quo toward one planet thriving. Avoidance is a set of strategies best suited for simple situations (e.g., what size coal shovel is most efficient — it’s a 20 lb shovel by the way) or complicated situations (e.g., building a rocket), but not for most of life, which involves complex situations (e.g., raising a child or having relationship). The Law of 3 Choices says that intimacy strategies are the way to minimize suffering in the long run in a complex situations for the simple reason that we need all the reality we can get to navigate them.

Tour of the Four Quadrants

Now, we can take a tour through the four quadrants that get created by the 2 axes. Start in the lower left. This first quadrant is the place where people are feeling pleasant emotion because they are keeping things light and easy, avoiding any unpleasant topics that may cause disagreement or tension. This might occur at a cocktail party or family gathering where we make small talk with someone we don’t get along with or avoid certain topics. Sometimes what we call “polite” conversation or etiquette is a set of rules designed to keep conversation pleasant. Or, the first quadrant can involve the state of affairs when we are so nervous about conflict with someone that we are ultra careful with everything we say or do, trying to avoid a blow-up — some people would describe this as “walking on eggshells.” Being a clown is a first quadrant strategy, using jokes and sarcasm to avoid anything intimate — like a rodeo clown distracting the bull.

An important point is that it is perfectly sensible to engage in these activities sometimes and it’s especially a good idea if all we have in our repertoire are avoidance strategies (i.e., we can’t or won’t use intimacy strategies).

Source: CCA-SA 2.0 per Sander van der Wel.

That’s because if we only have avoidance strategies in our repertoire, then when disagreement or incompatibility occurs (as it always will because no one is 100% compatible with anyone else), we will end up in the second quadrant, characterized by silence and violence, more commonly known as fight-flight-freeze. In quadrant 1, we keep the conversation on safe ground because we fear the reactions of silence and violence that occur with this person if we engage in topics of disagreement.

It goes like this: if someone disagrees with me, I feel some unpleasant emotion (e.g., hurt, anger, sad, frustrated). In order to feel better, I either withdraw from the conversation, lie, run away permanently (all forms of silence), find some way to discredit them or shut them down as a person through criticism (“You’re crazy…stupid…”), shut them down through physical violence, or try to get back to the first quadrant (e.g., by changing the topic). In this second quadrant, we witness what John Gottman from the University of Washington would call the “Four Horsemen“: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Whatever behavior we use in the second quadrant, however, often comes at the cost of failing to understand the other person’s point of view or being able to express our own. It also results in hurt feelings without the healing made possible through the use of intimacy strategies.

Source:; Unmodified under license:

That brings us to the third quadrant where we use strategies designed to help us deal with reality skillfully, early, and often. On the individual level, intimacy means knowing who we are rather than avoiding who we are. More specifically, it means using all the data available to us in a given moment: our body sensations, our emotions, and our thoughts. This becomes difficult to do when the data make us feel unpleasantly. Avoidance culture teaches us that unpleasantness should be avoided. Thus, it can be hard, without practice, to be aware of unpleasant data, like pain (a general label for an unpleasant body sensation), frustration (an unpleasant emotion), or a thought like “I’m such an idiot” or “They don’t like me”. But these unpleasant data are still just data, helping us understand aspects of reality we will not understand if we avoid them. The pain of a thorn guides us to remove it. Emotions are similarly informative: frustration encourages us to recognize some obstacle that needs our attention, jealousy tells us what we want, resentment tells us that we’ve violated ourselves.  Thoughts, of course, are also designed to guide us to solutions. “I’m such an idiot” tells us that something has happened to trigger this thought and can help us assess what to do about the situation that triggered that thought, perhaps helping us with more realistic thinking (a cognitive therapy standby) such as, “I’m bad at math”, or “I didn’t study hard enough”.

Parenthetically, we should note that thoughts in the form, “I’m an idiot”, are always false and don’t readily suggest solutions (for more on this, see this article on the Four Horsemen). They are stable, global, internal attributions that are associated empirically with unproductive rumination and, ultimately, hopelessness depression. Thoughts of this type are actually encouraged in an avoidance culture, an ironic side effect of our pathological emphasis on personal responsibility (more on that below).

In any case, by understanding and naming that I’m frustrated, for example, we an eliminate passive aggressive or other violent avoidance strategies if we, and/or the other person we’re talking to, can use intimacy strategies, like being able to hear our truth and even empathize with it, before presenting their truth. Having access to intimacy strategies doesn’t mean we won’t also use avoidance strategies, it just opens up the full range of options for us. Real resilience and strength, in fact, depend on using all 4 quadrants as appropriate — most often with more deliberate responsivity rather than reactivity. One concrete example of a communication protocol that can work for couples (although emotional reactivity makes it difficult) is the empathy dialog, discussed in this article. Intimacy strategies are difficult, perhaps because they are not habits we cultivate from birth in an avoidance culture or perhaps because they are more nuanced and complex. Thus, there’s a whole book that could be written around these strategies.

For now, though, let’s complete our tour of the four quadrants by talking about the fourth quadrant. Here, we are using intimacy strategies but in conditions of agreement and pleasant emotion. It’s useful to contrast this with the first quadrant in the following chart.

First Quadrant Fourth Quadrant
Small talk to avoid topics Small talk to find connections
Jokes to distract Jokes to connect
Flattery Sincere compliments
Enabling Support
Rule/etiquette-bound Rules/etiquette as guidelines
Insensitive Sensitive

Me, We, Big We

Having completed our tour of the four quadrants, we can now take another pass and 3 levels of its application: Me (the individual), We (in relationship with someone else), and Big We (in connection with our relationship with the rest of the planet).

Me — Intimacy strategies can be used to increase our own awareness of ourselves, including aspects of ourselves that we might not like, aspects that are incompatible with the person we’d like to be, aspects that prime unpleasant emotion. Rather than hiding from these shadow parts of ourselves, we can learn to see them, ultimately using them as data to more skillfully live. Mindfulness meditation, which has Buddhist roots, is one example of a practice (or set of practices) in which we consistently keep returning to awareness of all aspects of ourselves and our environment. Being aware of all the data of a given moment through awareness of our own body sensations, emotions, and thoughts is a pretty good definition of wisdom. “Wild wisdom” reminds us that we have wildness in us too: passion, spark, fire.

3Poisons4QuadrantsWe can relate the 4 quadrants to the 3 Poisons in Buddhism (passion, aggression, and ignorance). The light and easy first quadrant coincides with grasping for things that are “like me”, compatible with me. They are pleasant and I want more pleasant. Alas, there are also life events that are unpleasant. These are “not me” and I try to push them away, using avoidance strategies designed to defend myself. This is where silence and violence occur and where the 4 Horseman of a Relationship Apocalypse live (see below). So, in an effort to defend or build up a stable, continuous self (the third poison), I bounce from light and easy to silent and violent and suffering ensues for myself and others. However, using intimacy strategies, such as mindfulness allows me to start to recognize the delusion of a stable, continuous self and understand both emotionally and intellectually the living, dynamic truth of interdependence where there is no self that needs to be built up (quadrant 1, passion) or defended (quadrant 2, aggression). Instead, I can feel compassion for myself and others: none of us are perfect, none of us asked for our faults or want to suffer. This does not mean the cessation of pain, simply of unnecessary suffering (see this article on enlightenment as the cessation of unnecessary suffering; see John Makransky’s work on compassion).

From a Christian perspective, we can start to know in our bones what Jesus might have called the most important commandment: we are human, not gods. That is, we are flawed and mortal, we get sick, we are not perfect, and life gives us unpleasant stuff along with the pleasant. Given this reality, we’re all doing the best we can. From this, can we start to accept the way we are with compassion and curiosity. Acceptance is a helpful foundation for real change.

We — This leads to what Jesus called the second most important commandment: Love thy neighbor as thyself, which we can interpret as a mathematical equation — Love thy neighbor = Love thyself — that names a psychological truth: you love your neighbor to the extent you love yourself; you love yourself to the extent you love your neighbor. What you hate and attack in your neighbor may be related to the shadow part of yourself that you are working overtime to avoid (because it makes you feel unpleasant emotion).

This connects quite easily with a theme emphasized in Buddhist thought: interdependence. In marriages, families, cohousing and other intentional communities, the skills to communicate during disagreement and difficult conversations, perhaps through decision-making processes like consensus, become important. How else are we going to cooperate with people when we don’t always agree with them? [Note the following avoidance-oriented answers to this question: “We never disagree”, “Just be positive”, “Let it go”, “Don’t have a relationship with that person”]

Intimacy strategies in relationship include a whole slew of social technologies that allow ourselves and others to hear all of the information necessary for a given situation without resorting to avoidance strategies when discomfort arises. These strategies have been elucidated by many different authors in many different contexts, and include non-violent communication, forgiveness, mindfulness meditation, therapy, prayer, “crucial conversations” (a book by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, Switzler, and Covey), marriage communication skills, and more. In relationships, a primary goal is creating the safety to speak our truth and these skills facilitate that. Ideally, we are able to put all the truth on the table and make decisions from that full picture. This article in the Washington Post tells the story of a Ni­ger­ian chef Tunde Wey who travels across the country hosting dinners with good food and uncomfortable conversation about race and violence in America.

The “Empathy Dialog Card Game” is something that I have taught and used with many people, including individuals, families, and couples. It is a simple formula for skillful disagreement that is nevertheless difficult for people to do. It goes along with a host of other principles related to skillful disagreement, such as making sure you have a blank page when you start a conversation, the Four Horseman of a Relationship Apocalypse, and others.

The 4 stages of a relationship (Steven D. Solomon, Ph.D. and Lorie J. Teagno, Ph.D.) map onto the four quadrants (in fact the quadrants are numbers as they are because they then map onto these stages).

(1) The Honeymoon Phase is quadrant 1 (“symbiosis”) where couples feel like they’re perfect for, or at least very compatible with, each other (check out this “Free Hugs” video and this brief film showing what happens when 20 strangers have their first kiss). Some people spend their entire adult lives starting new relationships, staying with them until phase 2, and then stopping that relationship so they can get back to the honeymoon phase (with someone else). According to Barry McCarthy, the honeymoon phase — at least with regards to sex — lasts from 6 months to 2 years.

(2) Soured Symbiosis is quadrant 2. We see incompatibilities either hidden or avoided previously. At this point, if the only available strategies are avoidance strategies, we will fight or flee the relationship (silence or violence), and fail to skillfully engage in the intimate conversations we need to grow beyond or through our differences.

(3) Differentiation is quadrant 3. If we are able to use intimacy strategies (this is greatly helped if the our partner is capable of doing this), not only will we be able to deepen our relationship but will also grow individually in ways that are likely to be helpful for the rest of our lives. This is the stage where we own our issues and understand that although other people push our buttons, they are our buttons to be pushed. We start to work with our issues with awareness, curiosity, and kindness (although probably not with comfort).

(4) Synergy is quadrant 4. What we used to see as incompatibilities, we now understand are aspects of our partner that have helped us round ourselves out, that may continually help us to become more fully human, not without conflict, but through it. Our partners have moved from frustrating obstacles (“Why can’t she just understand that I’m right!”) to respected teachers. In that way, we are all more compatible than we might think. Light and easy things said in this quadrant come from a place of genuine compassion and desire for connection rather than avoidance.

This NY Times article, from a young physician, describes some of the fragility of avoidance strategies characteristic of phase 1, that manifest in phase 2. I describes the fragility that comes from trying to assert that all is well (a phase 1 strategy) instead of confronting things as they are (a stage 3 intimacy strategy):

“As a couple, we did not fight. Our relationship was conceived from a need for security, and stayed small, quiet and safe…from the start we shared a tacit assumption that fighting meant losing love…Our relationship had never developed the vocabulary necessary to express the many colors and intricacies of adult emotion. We had no language for negativity [perhaps he means unpleasantness?]…Our relationship…was like an ornamental piece of crystal: aesthetically pleasing but lacking resilience, and, once shattered, irrecoverable.”

Now, just a little reality check here. Even if you were Buddha-Jesus-Ghandhi-Mother-Theresa, you still wouldn’t be capable of handling everything ideally every time. That’s closer to being a god, and we’re human. So, this is a challenge for a lifetime and requires constant curiosity and forgiveness of ourselves and each other as we simply muddle through the best we can.

Big We — We have been talking about these 4 stages in the context of a romantic relationship. It is useful to consider these stages at one scale up, the level of community and relationships with neighbors, and also one scale down, as stages of individual development as well: can I move from ignorant bliss to tortured self-knowledge to acceptance and growth? Can I forgive myself — can others forgive me? — when I fall down, screw it up, another flawed human doing the best I can? Regarding community, it seems a highly relevant benefit to community to experience the sometimes rough transformative power of other people’s perspectives and feedback — it’s hard to hide and it’s probably better not to.

In a culture dominated by avoidance, one way to get along is to assiduously avoid disagreement or conflict. Be positive, upbeat, and people tend to like it — because we like, and want more, pleasant emotion. This makes sense! Who wants to feel unpleasant emotion?! But life is not, as we know, only the pleasant stuff. The risk in clinging to the honeymoon, where all is sunny and positive and in agreement, is that (1) we don’t really know ourselves or each other (i.e., we are not truly intimate), and (2) we don’t operate from as full knowledge of the truth as possible, a situation that on average will actually increase — rather than decrease — suffering. This is where our failure to use intimacy strategies can have profoundly negative effects on our community (for more on social technologies in community, see this article) and planet — in fact, you could make a good case that our culture is the largest, most unethical failure in human history.

The two-gender problem.

In talks I give, I have sometimes said that “Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus*, but Humans are from Earth”. What I mean by this is that our job (of a lifetime) on this planet is to be fully human which means embodying all the values of being human, values that might stereotypically be associated with one gender or the other.

Strength, nurturing, reason, emotional intelligence, vulnerability, boundary-setting, intimacy, sexual passion, relationship skillfulness — none of these belong to a single gender. They are all a part of being human (and every human may lie on a continuum from stereotypically female to stereotypically male, with transgender and transsexual orientations being part of our diverse human fullness. In this sense, it is absurd to talk about only 2 genders — there are infinite genders).

We are all worse off when we embrace a view that strength is associated with anger, violence, and lack of emotional awareness and that all of these are associated with being male.

Of course we want both men and women:

  • to be able to protect and nurture their children
  • to express their sexual passion without being criticized or abused
  • to know who they are, emotionally and intellectually
  • to draw boundaries, using anger (without violence) if it is required
  • to care for others and to care for themselves
  • to speak articulately about emotions and thoughts
  • and so on…

In summary, of course we all aspire to be fully human and skillfully interact with others in this capacity.

The two-planet problem. There is a way in which Mars and Venus might come into all this, however. It might be more accurate to say that “Quadrant 3 folks are from Mars and Quadrant 1 & 2 folks are from Earth.” This is the two-planet problem. Imagine beings from Mars trying to talk to people from Earth. There would be multiple challenges, from language to basic assumptions that are not shared. Quadrant 3 wants to deal with unpleasant emotions head-on whereas quadrant 2 views such a thing as an invasion, trying to avoid them through silence or violence. A quadrant 3 person might say, “It looks like you’re angry, what’s going on?” The Quadrant 2 person responds, “I’m not angry. I have no problem here” all the while continuing to be obviously angry or perhaps passive aggressive.

What is a poor Martian supposed to do? If using the skills of quadrant 3 can make someone from quadrant 2 feel attacked, and thus elicit more silence and violence, how can the two planets communicate together? Because quadrant 2 folks may view those in quadrant 3 as belonging to an alien race and because intimacy folks are rare (I would guess 10% of the population), it is the responsibility of those “aliens” in quadrant 3 to re-learn how to talk with folks who only have quadrant 1 & 2 skills available. This is a whole topic in and of itself, but perhaps there’s some value to simply pointing out the problem and urging caution and awareness of the two-planet problem in everyday communications. There’s also this post on the Unholy Trinity as an exceptionally hard extreme of this two-planet problem.

* inspired by John Gray’s book with similar title

It is imperative that we move as a culture from denial to responsibility. From denial of planetary realities (like climate change) to addressing these problems by learning to thrive on one planet’s worth of resources. Is it an accident that an avoidance culture has failed to address climate change, environmental degradation, clean air, social justice problems, and a whole host of issues associated historically with societal collapse? Perhaps only by becoming truly resilient, through becoming skillful at intimacy strategies, can we learn to hold, and learn from, the unpleasant emotion raised by these species-significant issues. In that sense, skillful communication within ourselves, with our romantic partner, and our community has planetary significance.




























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