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

“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.”

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

We move among surfaces. We can move between surfaces if we have the courage and luck to do so. This is difficult because, despite our greatest self-awareness and best efforts, it remains largely inexplicable to us. 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.

We call it intimacy when someone is willing to be there for each other.

Six years after his groundbreaking book on the psychology of love, he died in his final year. People Love to Play Games, 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).

Giuliano Cucco’s art from Before I Grew Up, John Miller.

People Love to Play GamesBerne had identified the root cause of human miscommunications and mutual wounding through the cross communication channels among these three ego-states. Sex in Human Loving (public Library) he examines the specific interferences that impede the flow of intimacy, and offers a solution. He wrote:

Humanity has so many things to do and so is afraid of intimate relationships that they have devised many methods of hiding their organs and using them for false or frivolous purposes.


Intimacy refers to a child-to-child relationship that is honest and free from manipulation or games. This is a relationship between the Adult ego states. It allows the children to fully understand their commitments and contracts with one another, often without having to speak about them. The Adult slowly leaves the scene as their understanding improves and the Child is more free and relaxed. Intimate transactions between the Child ego states take place. As an observer and to make sure that commitments and limits are maintained, the Adult is still present. As the Adult, the Parent is not allowed to interfere and ruin the relationship. The ability to have intimacy is dependent on the adult and child’s ability to manage the situation. It is better to give permission, or even encouragement to the parent to allow the relationship to continue. The Parent’s encouragement can help the Child overcome his fears of intimacy. It also assures him that he won’t be held responsible for guilt by placing a burden on himself.

Shel Silverstein’s allegory about true intimacy: The Missing Piece Meets Big O. Art

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:

After the age of five, many human beings have never seen another person. 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. The essential aspect of intimacy is this freedom for the Child. This makes the entire universe (including the sun, moon, stars) a gold mine that each party can appreciate.


He will feel elated and aware when he is no longer subject to parental criticism and adult caution. The Child begins to feel and see the world the way that he wants, not the way his parents made him do before he became corrupted. This autonomous state allows him to see and hear things in a different way than he used to, without being required by Adults or expected by Parents. He also doesn’t have the obligation of naming them, or explaining his behavior. He can respond spontaneously and directly to everything he hears or feels. They trust each other and freely share their hidden worlds of experience, perception, and behavior with one another.

Sophie Blackall’s Art, 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. His favorite pastime was to twist common words that were deemed offensive and fold them by spelling them sideways. CuffHis preferred phonetic origami was Fuck — a superior form of the word, he thought, as a sensory emblem of both our somatic experience and our experiential ideologies:

Respect for obscenity’s power isn’t a lost artifact of an old way of thinking. Grace is the key aspect of an ideal way of living. Grace can be described as graceful movements and peaceful moments of silence or communion. Dancers, rhetoricians and Zen students all know this quality. This means that you speak gracefully, and each hour is an art form.


CuffThe only English word to express the sensation, excitement, slipperiness, aroma, and thrill of the sexual act. Its lascivious “f” sound also helps to give it a realistic punch. [Other synonyms]Avoid the urge to lust and excitement, as well as the powerful and primitive element of sex: 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. Every person exists in their own space. Intimacy, however, is available to them all. Intimacy is outer space, and if that’s where you are, you don’t say “Cuff you!” to a star.

Art 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.

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