Start by creating your own intimacy gray scale. List the next ten people with whom you interact, and rate your level of intimacy with each one. Ideally, your relationships will be spread across the scale, with a few individuals at either extreme, and most people somewhere in the middle. If everyone you come in contact with is bunched at the low end of the scale, you're probably putting out such strong "keep away" signals that you're overly isolated. If everyone's at the high end, you may be so indiscriminately intimate that you're vulnerable to exhaustion and exploitation.
Both these problems stem from a dysfunctional, all-or-nothing view of intimacy. Dichotomous thinkers habitually shut people out to protect themselves, dive into ill-considered closeness, or both. The solution is to set boundaries that move most relationships into the gray zone. You'll have a few intimate relationships (three or four are about all most of us have) and a few acquaintances that stray through your space each day.
Next consider each of the people you've listed in your "intimacy gray scale" exercise. If thinking about one person makes you irritated or exhausted, you need to create more space in your dance with that particular person at this particular time. Try the following polite request, which I've used on everyone from chatty cabdrivers to my children: "Would you excuse me? I need some time by myself." People who can't or won't step back a bit when you say this are poor relationship risks. Don't try to persuade them to leave you alone. Simply decrease the time and attention you direct toward them until you reach a level at which your irritation disappears. Imagine moving from a cheek-to-cheek tango to a square dance, where you do-si-do with many people for short periods.
On the other hand, if you want to be closer to some individuals on your list, you'll feel curious and interested as you think about them. To increase intimacy, ask the questions that arise naturally: "How are you feeling today? How do you bake so well? Where do you get all your energy?" If the other person is willing to open up, this will trigger a pleasant interchange of gradual, mutual self-disclosure. If your questions are met by curtness, silence, or the phrase "Would you excuse me?" you can gently pull back and go looking for other dance partners.
There is one thing to remember: Social choreography is endlessly changeable. Unlike dysfunction, healthy intimacy pulls away, bounces back, creates infinite fresh configurations. Trusting the rhythm of each relationship, rather than insisting on robotic consistency, will keep you from panicking when someone's boundaries move a bit toward or away from you. Insist on continuous connection with just one individual: your own self, who knows where to draw the boundary lines on any given day, with any given person. Your heart is always listening to the natural beat and melody of relationships, and it always agrees with our man Will: "If music be the food of love, play on."
More Relationship Advice From Martha Beck
We Hear You!