Intimacy Versus Isolation: How To Navigate This Tricky Development Stage and Form Healthier Relationships
According to Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development, a theory developed by psychologist Erik Erikson in the 1950s, there are eight stages of psychosocial development: trust versus mistrust, autonomy versus shame and doubt, initiative versus guilt, industry versus inferiority, identity versus confusion, intimacy versus isolation, generativity versus stagnation and ego, and integrity versus despair. All eight stages reflect how social conflicts can impact growth and development, but intimacy versus isolation, the sixth stage, is a particularly rocky transit with far-reaching implications on our love life. It tends to occur between ages 19 and 40 as we form serious romantic relationships. And, as anyone who has tried online dating likely knows, developing intimacy in a relationship is no small task—and successfully doing so is key for both happiness and staving off effects of isolation.
“[Erikson] saw intimacy as a capacity with three parts: the willingness to make a commitment to another person, the ability to share at a deep personal level, and the capacity to communicate inner thoughts and feelings,” says clinical psychologist Helene Brenner, PhD, author of I Know I’m In There Somewhere. “To share your innermost thoughts and feelings with someone in a committed relationship takes a lot of different challenges.”
The basic process for navigating this stage, she continues, begins with identifying what your innermost thoughts and feelings are, and then finding someone in whom you might want to confide. From there, you gradually share with them, sussing out along the way whether you’ve found the “right” person to with whom to be vulnerable. That said, there’s a lot of finessing beyond basically going, “tag, you’re it!” when it comes to expressing your secrets and vulnerabilities. You need to learn how to share so you’re being true to yourself, empathetic to your partner’s feelings and able to deal with the inevitable disappointments that come when one or both of you don’t get it right.
So, you know, no pressure.
In all seriousness, building healthy intimacy is very possible. But before we get to the specific steps to follow to ensure you fall on the right side of the intimacy versus isolation stage of psychosocial development, let’s break down why someone would lean toward isolating themselves anyway. Then, get seven expert tips for prioritizing intimacy.
Factors that lead to isolation—and how to reroute them toward intimacy
“Through the lens of a psychosocial development theory, it is clear that the ability to form intimate relationships is largely dependent upon healthy emotional and mental development throughout life,” says clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD, author of Joy From Fear. “If an individual encounters psychosocial blockages, the ability to form lasting intimate relationships will be negatively impacted.”
That means early-in-life factors, including those with parental figures, can impact how you bond with others later in life. This means, for example, someone who was constantly criticized by their mother as a child may carry feelings of unworthiness into adulthood. Or an adolescent might experience feelings of betrayal following a platonic friend breakup. Ruptures of this type can lead to feelings of anxiety, a fear of attachment, and a bent toward self-isolation.
“Feeling alone and isolated in your life paradoxically makes it harder, not easier, to find intimacy.” —Helene Brenner, PhD
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all scenario to explain the tendencies of intimacy versus isolation, but often, relational issues that transpire early in life may breed problems with intimacy. And if you cling closer to isolation than you do to intimacy, finding love can become difficult. “Feeling alone and isolated in your life paradoxically makes it harder, not easier, to find intimacy,” says Dr. Brenner. “Research has shown that people who become isolated become more fearful of other people’s intentions, even when those people are being friendly. This makes evolutionary sense—a person who was alone is very vulnerable to attack, and so had to be very wary of strangers.”
But leaning toward solidarity in the development stage of intimacy versus isolation is more complex of an issue than simply choosing to be alone and feeling grounded in that selection. Rather, it’s choosing to be alone because doing so is “easier” and then suffering as a result. Intimacy is, after all, connected to benefits like greater longevity, greater lifetime health and happiness, the opportunity to be cherished and understood, and the ability to live life bravely.
“When true intimacy is present, those in the relationship feel safe, heard, loved, appreciated, and seen,” says Dr. Manly. “The psychological benefits of intimate relationships are vast. From providing a safe haven from life’s stressors to offering unconditional love and support, intimate relationships are the essence of a satisfying life.” Ultimately, intimacy is both a result and a reflection of feeling safe. Feeling safe is, in turn, also a result of strong intimacy. So, in order to enjoy this cycle of intimacy-laden security, we need to identify the things that make us feel safest.
7 steps for building intimacy, if it doesn’t come naturally to you
1. Take stock of your existing relationships
“Putting judgment aside, make a list of the relationships in your life, from childhood forward, that have felt safe and those that have not,” says Dr. Manly.
2. Write down what safety looks like to you
Without judgment, list the qualities that make you feel safe, and also make a list of those that make you feel unsafe,” Dr. Manly says.
3. Identify previous trust wounds
“Journal about any unhealed trust issues that affect you,” says Dr. Manly. “Be clear, honest, and non-judgmental.”
4. Get out there!
This one is pretty straightforward, and it quite simply just involves breaking out of your shell and attempting to connect with people you find interesting. Start to work on slowly forming relationships with people who make you feel seen, heard, and cared for.
“If you’re feeling really alone, the best thing you can do besides or in addition to seeking professional help is to get involved in doing something you’re interested in with others,” says Dr. Brenner. “It could be singing, or a book club, or volunteering, or even knitting.”
5. Learn the give-and-take of relationships
“Strive to be a good friend by seeing, hearing, and caring for others—but never ‘losing yourself’ in this process,” Dr. Manly says.
6. Pick up on the relationships that aren’t serving you
“Notice any relationships that make you feel unsafe, and express your needs,” says Dr. Manly. “If the person remains unsafe or unsupportive, it may be time to step back.”
7. And establish healthy boundaries throughout
Ultimately, setting up healthy boundaries is what keeps us mentally well and can ultimately keep us close by placing a fence, not a wall, around what we find sacred. Work on knowing and expressing your boundaries, and standing in your truth.
Now, what if you’re asking yourself, “What if I’m too damaged to ever become intimate with someone?” If that’s the case for you, physical intimacy may well be a project to work on, but it certainly doesn’t qualify as an excuse. “Saying it’s because of your family, or your past experiences, or ‘society,’ or the way men are or women are isn’t going to change it,” says Dr. Brenner. “Eventually it comes down to realizing that, as imperfect as people can be, it’s still possible to risk honestly and deeply connecting with a few people or someone special, accept their faults, love them, and have them love you back.”
And, if you form a bond with someone who has similar tendencies as you regarding intimacy versus isolation? Look, misery loves company, but in this case, this person might not be the best match for your overall growth. “It’s not beneficial to join with like-minded alienated people to share anger and hurt for being isolated,” Dr. Brenner adds. “At first, that might feel very safe and like you’ve found the perfect group of people to belong to, but it prolongs the feelings that cause the lack of intimacy.”
Navigating the intimacy versus isolation stage of development can be extremely challenging, especially in the midst of a pandemic when so many of our relationships exist on screens. But if you’re thoughtful, brave, and willing to put in the effort, you’ll be able to get the connection you crave, and all the rewards that come with it.
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