September 30, 2015

Personal Boundaries, Relationship Levels, and Circles of Intimacy

Before we even begin to think about where to go to meet people or even think about how to approach them, we need to discuss the importance of boundaries.

No, not this type of boundary. We’re talking about personal boundaries.

Cool. What are personal boundaries?

Personal boundaries are guidelines, rules or limits that a person creates to identify for themselves what are reasonable, safe and permissible ways for other people to behave around them and how they will respond when someone steps outside those limits. You determine what you are comfortable with when setting your boundaries!

Wait! What does intimacy mean anyway?
That is a great question! Intimacy is refers to the feeling of being in a close personal association and belonging together. It is a familiar and very close affective connection with another as a result of a bond that is formed through knowledge and experience of the other.

So What is a Circle of Intimacy?

Also a great question! As seen in the personal boundaries circle chart, a circle of intimacy, like a relationship level, is used to determine what types of relationships we have with people based on how we value them and their importance to us. A circle of intimacy helps us also determine what types of boundaries, physical and nonphysical, are appropriate and what types of behaviors are appropriate for each type of relationship, such as shaking hands or hugging. Having a color code to help you tell the different levels apart can be a really great way to further strengthen your understanding of relationships.

How about relationship levels? They are very much like levels of intimacy. In fact, they are pretty much the same. A relationship level helps you determine where different people you interact with, such as your grandmother, significant other, or grocer, belong with respect to the types of boundaries, behaviors, and topics of conversation, etc. you choose to engage in.

Now let’s look at some social boundaries and appropriate behaviors in different levels of relationships (circles of intimacy).

So how do I use these things?! Great question! The colors in the chart used to identify different levels of relationships correspond to the colored intimacy circles in the personal boundaries diagram. They can both be used to conceptualize these concepts and serve as a guide when trying to determine the type of relationship you are in.

Good to remember!

There will be more people in the different relationship groups as you move farther out from your personal level of intimacy.

Different Boundaries for Different Types of Relationships*
Possible Gestures
Self (you and your private thoughts; religion)Nothing special except religious gesturesThings about you that no person will ever know such as your private thoughts and dreamsYou

Being in your “own space”

Intimate Relationship
A committed relationship with someone you are very close to, such as boyfriend/

girlfriend, or your life partner
Full body hug


Sexual activity
Someone whom you love and trust and know very well and knows you the same way

Usually one other person

Someone you share an intimate relationship with

Someone you share your private thoughts with

Someone you have sexual relations with
Boyfriend or girlfriend if you are committed to them and have been together for a long time.

A marriage partner or life partner
People related to you by blood or marriage

A friend who has been closely involved with your family for long enough to be treated as you would a family member

Some really close friends

Kiss on the cheek
Someone who knows many things about you and you about them

Someone with whom you are close

A few special people
Closest friends Siblings


Close extended family such as an aunt, uncle, cousin, grandparents
People you socialize with regularlyHandshake

Fist bump

Side hug

High fives
Someone who knows somethings about you or a great deal about a certain part of your life, but not everyone!

You can have many people in this group
Many people in the community

New people you are introduced to and decide to build a relationship with

Friends at work and school

Fellow team members

People you know from social groups and clubs
Someone you are somewhat familiar with but do not know wellWave



Eye contact
Someone you recognize enough to say “hello” to and make small talk

You may only know their first or last name

You usually see them in one particular place at specific times, such as when running a particular errand as going to the bank
Bank teller

Crossing guard

Bus driver



Professionals you see occasionally
An unfamiliar person

Someone unknown to you
No definite response

In some situations no gestures at all
People you do not know at all and who do not know you

Professionals unless you know them well

Others who have a certain role in your life but would otherwise not be in any relationship with you (like during a hospitalisation)
Everyone else not in one of the above categories

The garbage collector




A new person at your church, social group, interest club, event, etc. until you introduce yourself of course!

Movement between levels takes time! Relationships grow and change-when trust is built and people move into different levels, we feel happy right? Of course! When trust is broken, people move out and away from more intimate levels and we feel sad.

Everyone in the relationship must agree to the terms and type of relationship (for example, whether you shake hands or hug). Sometimes this understanding is spoken, but often not and relies on our ability to read signals such as eye movement and body language. That can be a real pain! But it is not impossible by any means!

Looking at people around us and other relationships can be a great way to feel cared for and grateful for those we have and their support.

The same goes for exploring areas where we may want to have relationships that are not already here.

Sometimes relationships feel “off” (something just does not seem right). Often it is because something between people does not match the relationship levels they are in. Someone you do not really know may you something private about themselves that should be kept personal. You feel awkward or “not right”; or it could involve abuse from someone you trust and you feel confused or afraid. Tell the other person you feel “off”; you do not need to stay uncomfortable so you don’t hurt the other person’s feelings. It will show and be even more uncomfortable if you do not share what you are feeling.

Remember when setting your boundaries that communications should be present in the moment, appropriate, clear and open, firm, flexible, open to response, and done together! Don’t leave the other person in the dark as to what you want; you are doing yourself a disservice!


Benito, N., Fishbein, H., Hepburn, C., Higgins, K., Janicki, M., Johns, P., . . . Wichmanowski, D. (2011, February 1). Sexuality Across the Lifespan: For Children and Adolescents with developmental Disabilities. Retrieved September 25, 2015.

Duncan, A.W. & Bishop, S.L. (2013) Understanding the gap between cognitive abilities and daily living skills in adolescents with autism spectrum disorders with average intelligence. Autism. 2013 Nov 25.

"Social Boundaries in Relationships." Teachers Pay Teachers. Teachers Pay Teachers, 2002. Web. 18 Sept. 2015.

*Adapted from a teaching tool created by L’Arche Toronto and originally inspired by the program “James Stanfield Circles .”

Stanfield, J., Champagne, M., & Walker-Hrisch, L. (2000). Circles Level 1: Intimacy and Relationships. Retrieved September 19, 2015.

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