As we enter into adulthood, and for many of our early adult years, we go through a developmental stage called intimacy versus isolation. That's according to developmental psychologist Erik Erikson—and many other psychologists who have taken to his theory. Here's what intimacy versus isolation is all about, plus how to create more intimacy in your life.
The psychosocial stages of development.
Erikson, a prolific German-American psychologist throughout the 20th century, categorized the human experience from birth to adulthood into eight individual stages, coining the psychological stages of development. Each stage highlights the primary conflict that can be observed in humans during that time frame and how the outcome of that conflict can shape the individual. The stages are as follows:
- Trust vs. Mistrust, relates to hope (ages 0–1.5 years)
- Autonomy vs. Shame, relates to will (ages 1.5–3 years)
- Initiative vs. Guilt, relates to purpose (ages 3–5 years)
- Industry vs. Inferiority, relates to competency (ages 5–12 years )
- Identity vs. Role Confusion, relates to fidelity (ages 12–18 years)
- Intimacy vs. Isolation, relates to love (ages 18–40)
- Generativity vs. Stagnation, relates to care (ages 40–65)
- Ego Integrity vs. Despair, relates to wisdom (ages 65+)
What is intimacy versus isolation?
Intimacy versus isolation is the sixth stage of Erik Erikson's theory of psychosocial development, occurring between the ages of 18 and 40. The theme of this stage is intimacy, which refers to forming loving and intimate relationships with others. Adults who successfully complete this stage go on to have healthy, satisfying relationships.
"Erikson suggests that in early adulthood, we encounter the psychosocial crisis of intimacy versus isolation," psychologist Karin Anderson Abrell, Ph.D., explains to mbg. "We navigate ways we'll express and receive intimacy with friends, family members, and romantic partners."
During this stage, she adds, we determine our preferences and norms, which will influence the dynamics of all our relationships. "Some of us will desire deep intimacy, while others will feel more comfortable with greater emotional distance in relationships."
What to know about intimacy.
As somatic psychologist and licensed marriage and family therapist Holly Richmond, Ph.D., LMFT, CST, tells mbg, we can start to understand intimacy by breaking down the world itself: "into me see." What does that mean? "We're talking about empathy and vulnerability—that's how you cultivate intimacy," she says.
Intimacy involves "connecting deeply and authentically with another—sharing who we are, what we're about, and how we feel," Abrell adds. This is important because it offers us what psychologists call social support. "A myriad of studies find those of us with solid and reliable social support fare better in a variety of realms—including our emotional and psychological well-being and even our physical health," she notes.
Although people often associate the word intimacy with sex, sexual intimacy is just one type of intimacy. Intimacy can happen in romantic contexts as well as familial and friendly relationships. Erikson believed close and intimate relationships in general play a large role in our overall well-being.
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Signs of intimacy.
Some signs of intimacy in a relationship, according to Richmond, include:
- Prioritizing each other's needs
- Consideration for each other
- A degree of reciprocity and balance within the relationship
How to build intimacy in a relationship.
According to Abrell, "It's counterintuitive, but the most important tip for building intimacy is to cultivate and solidify your identity." That's because the stage before intimacy versus isolation is identity versus role confusion, and Erikson asserted we can't experience intimacy until we've established our identity, Abrell explains. "We can't bond with others if our identity remains porous or fragmented. True intimacy necessitates two individuals—each with a strong sense of self—choosing to engage with one another."
And of course, intimacy comes with a bit of risk, but it's a risk worth taking, Richmond says. "Taking more risk, being more vulnerable, and opening yourself up more," she says, are all important factors of connection and, therefore, intimacy. "Any good relationship starts with the emotional and relational piece of intimacy," she adds. "So how vulnerable can you be with your partner; how vulnerable can they be with you?"
What to know about isolation.
Isolation occurs from a lack of intimacy. "Isolation is just like it sounds—lacking connections, struggling to engage with others, and avoiding emotional attachments," Abrell notes.
Oftentimes, isolation can stem from issues surrounding attachment, self-worth or self-image, and intimacy. The stage before intimacy versus isolation is identity versus role confusion, Abrell notes, and if there's still work to be done there, intimacy can feel like a challenge.
"There's no intimacy without connection, and if we're too in shame, too in self-doubt, or too much in insecurity, we can't connect," Richmond explains.
And this can turn into many psychological and physical detriments, Abrell adds, including loneliness, little to no social support, poor relationships, and even health effects ranging from heart disease to depression, substance abuse, and suicide.
How to overcome isolation in a relationship.
Intimacy versus isolation is one of the longest developmental stages in Erikson's theory, so if you think you're dealing with isolation, don't worry—it can take time to build up your capacity for intimacy and fulfilling relationships, and that's OK. You also don't have to do it on your own.
"Isolated individuals can absolutely move toward connection through therapy, support groups, and social skills training," Abrell says, adding that again, "self-reflection, self-exploration, and cultivating one's identity will assist in overcoming isolation." Very often, isolation can be rooted in a fear of rejection, she notes, so by bolstering our identity, "we gain the courage to embark upon the risk-taking inherent in relating to others."
As Richmond notes, cultivating intimacy is about learning how to open up, be vulnerable, and take that risk.
Why it's important.
In Erikson's theory, each stage represents the main theme or conflict of that period of one's life, and with intimacy versus isolation, the objective is to cultivate and, more importantly, learn how to cultivate meaningful intimate relationships. Without them, we ultimately won't feel wholly fulfilled.
"Intimacy is all about feeling seen, feeling understood, and not feeling like you have to sacrifice a piece of yourself to be loved," Richmond explains, adding if we can't connect, we can't be intimate, which leads to isolation.
And according to research, Abrell tells mbg, loneliness is associated with up to a 30% increased risk of premature death1, on top of all the aforementioned physical and mental afflictions, like heart disease and depression.
The bottom line.
Intimacy versus isolation is a lengthy stage and the one that dominates our early adult life. Over these years, we learn how to have healthy relationships, both romantic and non-romantic. When we grow and learn through this stage, we're better suited for fulfilling relationships as we get older and are bolstered by our support systems, friendships, and romantic partners.
Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Writer, as well as a registered yoga instructor. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from SUNY Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.