Zones of Intimacy
The Zones of Intimacy is a conceptual framework that helps us intentionally design and structure our relational lives for the most conscious outcomes.
The Zones of Intimacy are best described by the image of concentric circles making up five spaces or zones. In the very center of those circles is Zone 0 and each section outward is marked by numbers 1 through 5. The sections represent frequency of interaction in the social and relational realms. The closer in, the more regularity interaction. The further out the less regularity of interaction.
The Zones of Intimacy are adapted from the Permaculture zones. Permaculture is a design system that helps integrate human settlement into the natural world in a sustainable way. Often called ecological design, Permaculture studies patterns in the landscape and emphasizes integrated and creative design systems for land and home stewardship. Likewise, the Zones of Intimacy studies patterns in our relationships and maps them for more awareness and choice.
The Zones of Intimacy operate with a few core principles:
- The Zones represent a self-determining system. Each person gets to define who and what are in each of their zones.
- The Zones encourage us to consciously manage our time, energy, and interests. It’s up to each of us to navigate how we live our lives.
- The Zones are fluid and ever changing. At any moment, discussions of the Zones are a snapshot in time, of our relational lives. Macro and micro adjustments happen regularly.
- We prioritize and spend time with people who are important to us. The frequency of interaction very often determines our closeness with others.
- Progression outward in the Zones is often marked by the following:
- More accounting of time/energy/money.
- Less interdependence, closeness, familiarity, and comfort.
- Looser feedback loops and slower response time.
- More filtering by external and superficial data (What does he do? How old is she? Are they my type?).
- Relating to each other with more one dimensionality, as in defining them by their role (accountant) or by their characteristics (intellectual) or by their stage in life (elder).
Zone 0: This is the zone of the self. The center of our lives is our relationship with our self. In the Permaculture zones, this area is represented by the house we live in. In the Zones of Intimacy we inhabit ourselves all day, everyday. This is the place of self-esteem, self-awareness, self-care, self-literacy, self-respect, self-direction, and self-determination. This is the baseline of our worldview, our navigation system, and our trust or lack of trust with the rest of life. The quality of all our relating emerges from this place. The healthier our relationship with ourselves, the healthier our relationships with others.
Zone 1: This is the zone of our primary relationships. The zone nearest the center gets our frequent attention, time, and interest. This is sometimes a primary partner or children. This does not have to be another person. It can also be a project or a state of mind/heart or a process. Regardless, this is often an external touchstone for us, a highly important relationship where many of our needs are met. In Permaculture, this zone is directly outside of the house, a place that one visits multiple times a day. Regular and ongoing contact is also true in the Zones of Intimacy. If it is a person/s there tend to be tight and direct feedback loops and “your happiness is tied to mine” mentalities. Separation can tend to blur here.
Zone 2: This is the zone of our closest allies. In Permaculture, zone 2 sits just beyond zone 1 and is visited regularly, anywhere from daily to weekly. It is the place of the garden, compost system, or chicken coop. These regular visits also characterize the components in the Zones of Intimacy as the people or projects in this zone meet significant needs in our lives. They could be business partners, best friends, a close relative, or a cooperative partnership. This zone is important for meeting needs and the touches here are regular but with somewhat less frequency than Zone 1.
Zone 3: This is the zone of community. In Permaculture, this zone is represented by field crops, nut trees, or pasture, and is visited less frequently. Depending on the makeup of one’s life, this zone in the Zones of Intimacy can come into play weekly or monthly or less. This zone needs peripheral tending and once established it provides support, interest, activities, and other needs with minimal intervention and intention. This is connection with friends, family, coworkers, and classmates through interest or affinity groups. Generally speaking this zone represents people that are in each other’s orbit but less regularly and less dependably. Interest in keeping things in harmony and ease here with very little input needed. Depending on the fullness or vacancies in the first three zones (0, 1, and 2) this zone may or may not feature fully in someone’s life.
Zone 4: This is the zone of acquaintances. In Permaculture this is a semi-wild area used for long term timber production, wild food foraging, or occasional visits. There is some interaction here, but minimal. In the Zones of Intimacy, there is very little engagement here and subsequently very little expectation. People in this zone could be friends of friends, classmates and coworkers with less connection, distant relatives, or even a neighbor. You may or may not know their name or even basic details about their life. This is someone or something that you would not depend on, not share deeply with, and not give much consideration to.
Zone 5: This is the zone of strangers. In Permaculture this is the area of wilderness and the only engagement is through observation and distant interaction. In the Zones of Intimacy this could be a store clerk or someone we read about on the news or in fact, most of the 7.8 billion population of the planet. For someone who is whole systems minded, this doesn’t need to lack intimacy. This zone can represent “my people” for example.
The benefits of the Zones of Intimacy are many. From intentionally designing our lives and taking more responsibility for our time to cultivating a deeper understanding of human nature, this model is exceptional at navigating the complex stuff of relating. Here are a few ways in which the tool can enhance our experience as a social and relational being:
- Accepting people for exactly who and what they are gets easier when we realize that we can choose the level of intimacy we want with them. Changing other people is usually an exercise in frustration and impossibility, but if we are able to be present with who others actually are, we can empower ourselves to design our desired closeness. For example, we can choose to put the folks with the highest skill level and most compatibility closest in the zones or in some cases we can navigate tension in relationship with more clear communication and context.
- Without a clear and conscious map, intentionally designing our lives isn’t always accessible. This tool puts our relational lives in visual form, which can guide us in life design. As we ask ourselves questions like “what’s most important to me?,” or “what needs my attention the most?,” or “what’s missing in my life?” we can then play with creating systems for life satisfaction.
- Understanding and navigating the impact of other people on our lives can take decades to learn. With this model we can clearly see that the skill, behavior, and traits of others is paramount to how enjoyable our lives are and we can design accordingly.
- Developing a keener awareness of how to divide our time and what we’re available for can lead to more conscious time management. It also helps us manage expectations both for ourselves and for others.
- Communicating with others about what we design from them or what we can offer them is a crucial part of conscious relating. This tool gives us the language and empowerment to negotiate and navigate both macro and micro movements in intimacy.
There were times, in our not too distance human past, where our life choices were narrow. We were born into families, married off into other families, and embedded into communities that we depended on for survival and for meeting all of our needs. Within these more limited geographical, sociographical, and relational options our choices were largely prescribed and predetermined.
For many of us, the structure and function of our existence is still guided by habit, social expectations, and bonding within specific social groups. Our families, schooling institutions, jobs, and communities shape our lives in foundational ways.
Yet for better and for worse, our lives now contain much more range, choice, and personal determinism. And with this comes an opportunity for elements of conscious design.
When we play with the Zones of Intimacy and map our lives, it is usually quite an intuitive approach. Yet here are some factors that contribute to zone determination.
The Time Factor: Chronological time in relationship to someone or something doesn’t always determine the zone of intimacy. We can know a parent or other relative for our entire lives yet relate to them as a stranger. The amount of time we spent with someone however, often does determine the level of intimacy. In general, we give time to something in proportion to its importance in our lives. More time together usually equates to more shared literacy, more depth and richness, and certainly more proficiency in relating.
The Nourishment Factor: The more nourishing a thing is, the more sustainable it is and usually the more time we devote to it. Nourishing relationships take less effort and often meet a range of needs. The less nourishing, the greater the pressure to move it to a further out zone. There are significant exceptions to this that have to do with trauma bonding in abusive contexts that can keep us compelled to stay in a harmful, toxic, or unsatisfying situation. In an ideal world we will all get the support we need to craft a life where all of our relationships are based in holistic choice.
The Limitations Factor: There are built-in limitations to all of our lives and they include time, energy, and interest. As our lives fill up we learn to discern where to put our attention. This is a sign of a maturity and adulthood. We consciously recognize our limits and navigate our lives for the good of the whole.
The Commitment Factor: There are instances where we have a strong commitment to a relationship that overrides our desire for closeness. We can be committed to a marriage or a relative or a situation because our intention is strong. For example, I have a commitment to health and therefore exercise is in my Zone 0 for self-care. I may not always like it but I do it regularly.
All of these factors and more form a complex and often unconscious algorithm that feeds into the choices we make. You’ll notice there is no love factor. It’s because how we feel about a person or project can vary from moment to moment and day to day. But our actions determine how we presence our actual lives.
Movement between zones happens regularly and throughout our lives. Transitions are shifts or adjustments to the level of intimacy and can happen in either direction. There are a few factors to consider:
- The speed of the transition determines the level of emotional intensity
- The more choice and desire one has for a transition, the easier it is to manage. The less choice and desire, the more stressful it is to manage
- Less overall transition translates to a more stable life. The more overall transition translates to more movement and change in life.
- For conscious relating, movement between zones must include care and integrity.
Some examples of transitions include:
- Falling in love and falling out of love (breaking up) are often marked by fast zone transitions.
- Death of someone close, both expected and unexpected, can lead to significant shifts in zones.
- Divorce can bring joy for some and extreme trauma for others.
- A child leaving home can create an experience of “empty nest syndrome” which usually implies more spaciousness in zone 1 or 2.
- Taking on a big project, like writing a book, or adjusting to a new job, can take up significant space in closer zones.
- A friend moving far away can significantly shift things in many zones.
As we move towards more mindfulness in our lives, managing our own and others’ expectations becomes a crucial part of conscious relating. The Zones of Intimacy give us language for communicating about those expectations. The more we communicate, the less apt we are to have confusion. Some examples of zone confusion include:
- A couple starts dating and have gone out on three dates. One of them wants a sexual partner and one of them wants an intimate/life partner.
- Someone takes a job without a clear job description and the expectations from boss and co-workers contradict each other.
- Two people are part of a committee or a project. For one person the project is in Zone 1 and for the other person the project is in Zone 4.
- Someone moves nearby a close friend in hopes of spending more time together but the friend has a family and a job and doesn’t have much extra space for their friend.
- After decades of marriage, a challenging divorce leaves a person feeling bereft and alone in Zone 0 and Zone 1.
- In a residential community with an employee or internship component, someone can be both a boss and a housemate.
- Someone is navigating multiple intimate relationships and all of the intimates are asking for more time.
- Someone with a new baby is finding it impossible to do self-care, partner connection, or even the keeping up with the housework.
- An elderly parent needs to be cared for and moves into the family home. Lots of priorities shift around.
- A family member with an addiction comes in and out of life in varying degrees of crisis. The family both cares for the person and wants more distance from the person.
In all of the above scenarios, confusion within the self as well as with others can be rife. It’s easy to see how this can easily lead to disappointment and conflict. Consciousness, clarity, and communication are the keys here.
Experimenting with the Zones
Play around this with concept as it applies to your life. Feel free to draw circles on a paper or print out this zones map. Use small sticky notes (I use these) to represent each person or project in our lives. Experiment with moving the notes around. Notice where you would ideally like this person or project and where it actually is. Notice where you might have zone confusion, zone vacancies, or an overly full zone. Notice what kinds of awareness emerges from this exercise. Discuss this with friends and partners.