Boundaries: Intimacy is Not a Luxury

Boundaries: Intimacy is Not a Luxury


John Townsend, Ph.D. and Henry Cloud, Ph.D.



9780310350231_image (1)Intimacy Is Not a Luxury, but a Necessity

God created us to need a close and intimate relationship not only with himself but also with others. Relationships are the fuel of life. They provide us with acceptance, encouragement, empathy, wisdom, and a host of other relational nutrients. These nutrients keep us healthy and growing. In fact, many studies have shown that people without enough intimate relationships in life have more medical and psychological problems, as well as a higher mortality rate. The songwriters are correct: a lack of love can literally kill you. So however we look at the digital age, we need to make sure that we are getting our relational sustenance. The key is this: whenever you have the opportunity, set a limit on the digital and default to face-to-face.

Intimacy Requires Multiple Levels of Information Exchange

This sounds a bit dry or technical, but it’s true: to be deeply connected in satisfying, safe, and vulnerable relationships, we need to express who we are at many levels and experience others at those same levels. The best relationships exchange information about feelings, passions, thoughts, and opinions. The more you know about someone at a deep level, the more you can say that you actually “know” them.

To accomplish this, God designed us with the ability to engage in a mutual “exchange of information” using a variety of verbal and nonverbal modes of communication—words, eye contact, facial expressions, gestures, and so on. Research has shown that at the very best, words provide no more than half of what is communicated in a relationship.

Also, intimacy requires us to experience the nuances between oneself and others. When your teenager verbally agrees to go to her room and do her homework, but rolls her eyes at the same time, she is telling you something—and that something is that she will do what you ask, but you are a lame person for requesting it. When you have a meeting with your team at work and one person is giving the right answers but sighing the whole time, he may be communicating how unnecessary he thinks this meeting is.

So more information exchange on multiple levels means a greater probability of intimacy. And that means you can now probably see some of the limitations of the digital world. Communication technology is often helpful, but it can never be the gold standard of relationship building. Consider what is gained and what is lost with each of the following forms of communication:

Face-to-face conversations: Available information is exchanged at many levels. All five sensory receptors can be active: sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste.

Video conversations: Much of the available information can be exchanged, but only with sight and sound, which is more limited than being in the other person’s presence.

vPhone conversations: Although phone conversations involve sound only, the positive aspect is that you can share back and forth in a natural way, and you can hear each other’s tones of warmth, love, humor, anxiety, stress, anger, and all the other emotions. The negative side is, of course, that you aren’t able to see facial expressions, which convey huge amounts of information in a relationship. Also, even the audio tones are not as clear and “humanlike” as you experience face-to-face.

Email: Email is great for instantly communicating an idea, plan, or feeling by typing and sending it. However, with no sight or sound, it is a limited form of communication. And email is becoming less used for personal connections than texting is, as it’s less convenient. It is still used more for business correspondence, but texting is also making more headway in this area too.

Texting: The ability to fire off short phrases on a smartphone is very convenient. You can do it while walking to lunch or working out at the gym. It is still harder to convey more complex ideas because of its limits in punctuation, but that is improving with technology advances.

Social media (for example, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat). The area of the digital world that provides a combination of text and video information is a fun way to stay in touch with family, friends, and organizations you are interested in. The video aspect adds a great deal of enjoyment to the experience.

The first three items on the list—face-to-face, video, and phone—are called synchronous communication. The remaining items—email, texting, social media—are asynchronous communication. In synchronous communication, our comments are relayed and received instantly, with no time lag. That’s what happens in a regular conversation, like when you’re talking to someone over lunch. In asynchronous communication, there is a time lag between making and receiving a statement. For example, you text someone that you’ll be a few minutes late, and they respond a few seconds or minutes later. But you don’t receive their response immediately.

Asynchronous or digital communication is just no substitute for synchronous communication. While there is a drop in the quality and quantity of information exchange from face-to-face to video and then from video to phone communication, the drop from these three to digital communication is much, much greater. From birth, we are designed to communicate directly and simultaneously: You say A, and the other person hears A immediately, then responds with B, which you hear immediately. The hope is that both of you feel that you are understood by the other.

You probably have experienced how hard it is to solve a relational problem via any form of asynchronous communication. The other person misunderstands, and then things escalate unnecessarily and blow up. The reason for this is that we need warmth to convey difficult truths, and warmth doesn’t happen when you can’t see the other person’s face or hear the inflection in that person’s voice. When you give your spouse authentic eye contact or a compassionate tone as you talk about the credit card spending, you are much more likely to agree and solve the problem than if you are on an email string. That is why I coach executives to avoid trying to solve cultural and relational problems digitally if at all possible. Personal interaction is always the most effective way to deal with these issues.

Certainly there are times when digital connection is the only option. I have missionary friends all over the world who can connect to loved ones only via video conference or email. The same is true with my friends who serve in the military. That is just a reality that has to be dealt with. But the principle is this: when in doubt, default to face-to-face or some form of synchronous contact.

Here are a few tips to help you put this into practice.

  1. Calendarize your important relationships. We all live in a busy world, and the idea of “I’ll see you when I see you,” is getting harder to make happen. It would be nice to know that you can just call someone on a whim and make contact, but it’s not easy to do these days. Just as you schedule your job, your exercise, and your evenings out, schedule some time every month for the people who mean something to you—and schedule it for real (synchronous) conversations. Don’t leave things to chance with people who matter to you. Make a commitment to your relationships by routinely putting them on the calendar.
  2. Be the initiator of synchronous communication. Going to a restaurant and seeing a family or group of friends sitting around a table talking on their smartphones rather than talking with each other has become normal. Why are they spending the time, energy, and money to go out and be together when there is little connection?

When our son Ricky went out with his college friends, he initiated synchronous communication by having everyone stack their phones up on the table in a “phone tower” to ensure that they would spend time talking to each other. Then they made a deal that the one who broke down and reached out for his phone first had to buy dinner. For broke college students, it was an effective motivator. The point is that most of the time one person needs to champion change and growth in a relational system. Just step up and be that person.

  1. Use asynchronous communication for fill-in. Use texting, email, and social media as a way to pop in and let people know a thought you have, or that you want to know how they’re doing. But use these modes of communication to supplement your synchronous connections, not to replace them.

Now it’s a few minutes later. I have taken a break from writing and found that, among business emails, which I won’t get to until later, my wife, my kids, and several friends have called, texted, and emailed me to check in and connect. I am looking forward to using the digital age to be “with” people I care about while I’m away.

With the right boundaries and rules in place, you can have the time you need to connect with the people with whom you want to connect and to accomplish the tasks you need to complete. It won’t take an overhaul of your time and effort. And the results will be more than worth it.



Taken from Boundaries by Henry Cloud & John Townsend. Copyright © [2017 by Henry Cloud and John Townsend. Used by permission of Zondervan.



cloud_henryDr. Henry Cloud is an acclaimed leadership expert, psychologist, and New York Times best-selling author with his books selling more than 10 million copies. As a speaker, Dr. Cloud has shared the stage with many business and global leaders and experts, such as Tony Blair, Jack Welch, Condoleezza Rice, Desmond Tutu, Malala Yousafzai and others. In his leadership consulting practice, Dr. Cloud works with Fortune 500 companies and smaller private businesses alike. He has an extensive executive coaching background and experience as a leadership consultant. Dr. Cloud lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Tori, and their two daughters, Olivia and Lucy.


townsend_johnDr. John Townsend is a respected leadership consultant, psychologist, and New York Times best-selling author. He is founder of the Townsend Institute for Leadership and Counseling, and conducts the Townsend Leadership program. Dr. Townsend travels extensively for corporate consulting, speaking and helping develop leaders and their teams. He and his wife, Barbi, have two sons, Ricky and Benny, and live in Newport Beach, California.