The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Eric Berne on the True Meaning of Intimacy, the Greatest Obstacle to It, and How to Transcend It

Eric Berne on the True Meaning of Intimacy, the Greatest Obstacle to It, and How to Transcend It

We move among surfaces. If we are lucky enough, if we are courageous enough, every once in a while we dive into the depths with another. It is not easy, because even through our best self-awareness, we remain largely unfathomable to ourselves. To reach the nether fathoms with another is a transcendent terror — one we can only bear for a little while before some great gasp of panic beckons us back to the surface.

The willingness to stay is what we call intimacy, and it is the hardest-won, most precious mutual gift two people could exchange.

In the final year of his life, six years after he radicalized the psychology of relationships with his now-iconic book Games People Play, Eric Berne (May 10, 1910–July 15, 1970) took up the intricacies of intimacy by building on his central model of the three ego states that live in each of us: the Child (the most natural, vulnerable, and spontaneous part of our personality, keeper of our creative vitality and our most unalloyed capacity for pleasure); the Parent (the part of us that unconsciously mimics the psychological responses of our parents as we observed them in childhood); and the Adult (the competent and self-possessed part of us capable of making sound decisions in our best interest).

Art by Giuliano Cucco from Before I Grew Up by John Miller.

In Games People Play, Berne had codified the basis of all human miscommunication and mutual wounding in the crossed communication channels between these three different ego-states as they converse with one another within and between persons. In Sex in Human Loving (public library), he considers the particular interference that garbles the flow of intimacy and the particular solution to it. He writes:

The human race has had so much time on its hands, and is so afraid of open intimacy, that it has devised many ways of using its organs for hidden purposes and for frivolous or false relationships.


Intimacy is a candid Child-to-Child relationship with no games and no mutual exploitation. It is set up by the Adult ego states of the parties concerned, so that they understand very well their contracts and commitments with each other, sometimes without a word being spoken about such matters. As this understanding becomes clearer, the Adult gradually retires from the scene, and if the Parent does not interfere, the Child becomes more and more relaxed and freer and freer. The actual intimate transactions take place between the two Child ego states. The Adult, however, still remains in the background as an overseer to assure that the commitments and limitations are kept. The Adult also has the task of keeping the Parent from barging in and spoiling the situation. In fact the capacity for intimacy depends upon the ability of the Adult and the Child to keep the Parent at bay if necessary; but it is even better if the Parent benevolently gives permission or, best of all, encouragement, for the relationship to proceed. Parental encouragement helps the Child lose his fear of intimacy, and assures that he will not be restrained by a burden or threat of guilt.

Art by Shel Silverstein from his allegory of the secret to true intimacy, The Missing Piece Meets the Big O.

Berne notes that anyone who has embarked on an intimate relationship would recognize the mental voices of the three ego states — the exuberant Child, impatient to dive headfirst into the shimmering waters of the new relationship; the Parent wagging a finger at some supposed red flag or “making some approving comment… at which the Child nods eagerly,” and the Adult coolly evaluating the situation until a pronouncement can me made that this potential partner seems to be “the one.”

Real intimacy, Berne argues, requires that the Child be set free from both the inner Parent and the Adult, for they have corrupted true seeing with notions of knowing: naming things, classifying things, conceptualizing things — the interpretive filters we superimpose over raw experience as we grow up.

In Berne’s model — although he doesn’t use those terms, for ancient Eastern philosophy was yet to permeate mainstream Western culture — the Child is the most nondualistic part of us: the part that inhabits that primeval space before the world has been divided into subject and object, when all is unfiltered experience, spontaneous and pure.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Kenny’s Window — his little-known philosophical first children’s book.

In consonance with Wild Things creator Maurice Sendak’s insistence that a full life is a matter of “having your child self intact and alive and something to be proud of,” Berne writes:

Most human beings never really see another person after they are five years old. In an intimate relationship, each party returns to the original naïve Child ego state, where he is free of such Parental prohibitions and Adult requirements, and can see, hear, and taste in its purest form what the world has to offer. This freedom of the Child is the essential part of intimacy, and it turns the whole universe, including the sun, moon, and stars, into a golden apple for both parties to enjoy.


Once the Child is free of Adult caution and Parental criticism, he has a sense of elation and awareness. He begins to see and hear and feel the way he really wants to, the way he originally did before he was corrupted by his living parents. In this autonomous state, he no longer has to name things, as is usually required by his Adult, nor account for his behavior, as demanded by his Parent. He is free to respond directly and spontaneously to what he sees and hears and feels. Because the two parties trust one another, they freely open up their secret worlds of perception, experience, and behavior to each other, asking nothing in return except the delight of opening the gates without fear.

Art by Sophie Blackall from Things to Look Forward to

A childlike playfulness with language — that supreme castle of concepts — is one way Berne countered the Adult and the Parent. He enjoyed twisting common words deemed obscene, folding them unto themselves by spelling them backward and sideways. Cuff was his preferred phonetic origami of fuck — a superior form of the word, he thought, as a sensory emblem of both our somatic experience and our experiential ideologies:

A respect for the power of obscenity is not a quaint relic of an antique way of thinking. Rather it is one aspect of a way of life in which the most important quality is grace. Grace means graceful movements, and graceful moments of solitude or communion. This quality is well understood by dancers, rhetoricians, and students of Zen and other Oriental philosophies. It means speaking gracefully and making each hour a work of art.


Cuff is the only word in the English language that gives the full feeling, excitement, slipperiness, and aroma of the sexual act. Its lascivious “f” sound also helps to give it a realistic punch. [Other synonyms] carefully avoid the idea of excitement and lust, and even more carefully avoid one of the most primitive and powerful elements in sex, which is smell. Cuff takes in all of these, just as a child does, because it starts off as a child’s word.

Intimacy, Berne argues in the central premise of his model, can only be achieved by allowing untrammeled spontaneity — a function of the inner Child that must remain alive and beloved in each of us as we move through adulthood, if life is to have a fulness of being. In a lovely passage that reads like a poetic children’s book for grownups, he considers what real intimacy means:

A star is the glowing light inside the other person, distantly seen, brave soul’s tiny flame, too bright to approach without great courage and integrity. Each person lives alone in inner space, and intimacy is out there. Intimacy is outer space, and if that’s where you are, you don’t say “Cuff you!” to a star.

Art from Before I Grew Up

Complement with Shel Silverstein’s illustrated allegory of the key to true intimacy, then revisit Hannah Arendt on love and how to live with the fundamental fear of loss.

Published August 13, 2022




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