Intimacy Vs. Isolation: What They Mean For Personal Growth

Updated April 4, 2024by Regain Editorial Team
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In the 1950s, psychoanalyst Erik Erikson introduced the theory known as Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development to explain how we develop throughout our lives. Erikson theorized that people go through eight sequential stages of development that are influenced by several factors, including biological, social, and psychological. According to the theory, when we are faced with a challenge or crisis during each stage, the environment we are raised in and how we work to resolve the problem determines how we move forward in our development. This article focuses on the sixth stage of development known as intimacy vs. isolation, a time in adulthood when people when our relationships shape our devotion to commitment and love. We will begin with an overview of Erikson’s theory to broaden your understanding of this fascinating view of human psychosocial development. 

Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development

Erik Erikson is to be one of the world’s most influential psychoanalysts of the 20th century. A psychologist and psychologist, German-born Erikson was an artist and art teacher during his early adulthood. He changed his career after working with children at a psychoanalytically enlightened school and later joined the department of psychiatry of Yale University in 1936.  Erikson developed his theory of the stages of life most likely inspired by his early years teaching children. 

Erikson built his theory of psychosocial development by associating each stage of life with a specific psychological crisis that contributed to a certain personality trait. Erikson believed that all the needs were in a person during birth, but as they developed, the desire to meet those needs surfaced during different stages of a person's life. For example, as an infant, our needs are to be fed, kept warm and clean, and cared for in love and gentleness. When these needs are met, an infant will develop trust in their personality. When they are not met, an infant may grow to not trust their caregivers and ultimately any other person who touches their life. This is known as trust vs. mistrust stage. According to Erikson, each stage of development builds upon the previous stage and the current stage influences an individual’s growth in the next stage. 

The following breaks down the eight stages of Erikson’s Theory of Psychosocial Development:

Trust vs. mistrust

The first stage lasts from birth to 18 months, and it involves trusting your caregivers to fulfill your basic needs, such as food, warmth, and affection. Having caregivers who fulfill these needs builds your confidence in hope and trust of people near you. 

Autonomy vs. shame and doubt

This stage involves the toddler years (18 months to 3 years). The child is learning how to be more independent, especially toilet training. Toddlers are learning how to perform basic actions, professing a need for independence and personal autonomy. Parents who support their children through this stage propel them into the next stage teaching them purpose. 

Initiative vs. guilt

This stage covers the preschool years, from ages three to five. The child may be attending preschool and be playing with other kids. Successful play will give them initiative while failing to play, or being criticized, will make them feel guilty. Those who are initiative may be more creative, while the guilty may struggle with carrying shame.

Industry vs. inferiority

This stage involves children from the age of five to eleven years. In this stage, the child is learning to read, write, do the math, and do other tasks societally-related. School is now a matter of managing the challenges of friends and school. If they succeed, they will feel ambitious. If they are unsuccessful, they may feel inferior in front of other children and to themselves.

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Identity vs. role confusion

We'll discuss this later, but this is the stage during the teen years where the teenager is discovering their identity. They may experiment with different identities, but they should find themselves, or have a good idea, by the end of their teen years. Failure to do so will lead to feeling confused about the role they have in life.

Intimacy vs. isolation

We will discuss this stage in a bit.

Generativity vs. stagnation

This stage lasts from what is considered middle age, or 40, to retirement age, 65 years of age. By now, many adults have established secure professions and the type of family they want to build. At this point, adults are thinking to the future, especially what legacy they will leave for future generations. If they are successful, they will secure a sense of generativity. But, without it, they may hose who fail to do this feel like they are worthless. By now, they should be married, have children, and a good job, but they don't.

Integrity vs. despair

This stage is the last stage of life. Here is the culmination of developmental periods in which we are reflecting on what we have done in our lives and if we lived our years in integrity. Yes, life has had its regrets, but for those who can perceive their lives to have made an impact, have given to future generations, and who recognize the journey as purposeful, the journey is successful.  While, there are exceptions, Erikson believed this was generally how most humans saw themselves. 

Depending on your age and maturity, you most likely relate in a specific stage. Considering the sixth stage to be the longest and most relevant to you as a reader, we will explore it in greater detail. 

What is intimacy vs. isolation?

The sixth stage of Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development covers emerging adulthood to adulthood, between the ages of 18 to 40 or the entry into middle age. When you enter adulthood, you probably are looking to the future, wondering what career to plan or adventures that lie ahead. Some may be in college, starting a new job path, or even having children. During this period of adulthood, people are looking for relationships that are deeper than those found in high school. Intimacy does not only mean that shared between two romantic partners, but is a closeness developed between dear friends and family. When it comes to friendships, you are looking for people you can spend a lifetime with and not just acquaintances. You may also want to build connections to help your launch your career or deepen your spiritual path in life.

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As you transition into adulthood, the effects of the last stage, identity vs. role confusion, linger and you let go of conforming your identity to please others or experimenting with different identities to find your own unique place on this Earth.

Intimacy vs. isolation peaks at around age 30, which does make sense. At that age, we are still relatively young but are old enough to have hopefully found our place in life, and we want to maintain good relationships with people, whether they be friends or lovers. It is here where we can either develop our own identities independently of our significant other while maintaining a deep sense of connection between the two. When someone does not have a clear sense of identity, they may not be able to distinguish between their identity and the person with whom they are in a relationship. Thus, when there is a break-up they may feel at a complete loss and fall into a state of isolation. 

Isolated because of intimacy?

Erikson’s sixth stage of development is characterized by the growth of close, intimate relationships with others, especially a spouse and close friends. The crisis that defines this stage is when they lose a relationship which can result in two opposite outcomes, intimacy and isolation. Like all of Erikson’s stages, your response to this crisis defines the outcome. When you successfully develop close relationships with friends and intimate relationships with your partner defined in love, you will pass into the next stage with a positive reflection in intimacy. However, if you are unable to achieve closeness or loving intimacy, you may find yourself in a state of loneliness, and isolation.  

The feeling of isolation

This stage in the trajectory of life is contemporarily known as young adulthood, which may seem strange considering it spans until the age of 40. However, young adults are now marrying later and developing their close relationships in their 30s, both of which are passageways into adulthood. Studies have shown that this time is marked by loneliness in young adults which can be connected to Erikson’s sixth stage isolation vs. intimacy. 

The increasing prevalence of loneliness among young adults points to an imbalance between intimate relationships and feeling secure with your identity in solitude. According to Erikson, isolation is the withdrawal from intimate contacts with other people due to fear of a loss in ego or identity. Remember that the primary developmental milestone achieved during the sixth stage is to resolve the conflict between intimacy and isolation. The resolution of this crisis is growing close relationships with friends and loving, sexual relationships in healthy partnerships. On the other side is the inability to resolve the crisis and then the withdrawal from human closeness and intimacy, thus isolation. 

You may relate to this conflict between closeness and loneliness. Even when you have friends and loved ones, you most likely have felt some form of isolation in your life. When you are feeling this extreme state of aloneness, you crave a desire to meet your social needs. The feeling of isolation can make us feel like the world around us is dark, and we may feel anger and angst because of this.

This feeling of pushing others away can become a self-destructive cycle. Our attitudes may push other people away, which can make the isolation even worse. Sometimes, being around a person who is negative and angry is difficult, and many people may step away from people like this, just to save their own peace of mind. Nonetheless, all people need social connections and to feel a sense of belonging. If you are struggling with anger, depressive feelings, or loneliness, consider reaching  out to a mental health therapist. 

What intimacy is?

When you think of intimacy, you may imagine a romantic or sexual relationship. However, intimacy is more than just having sex. , exactly? Intimacy is the feeling of closeness you have towards particular people, including your co-workers, family, and spouse. You probably have  had a deep conversation or told a close secret to a dear friend. This is a sign of intimacy. 

Erikson defined intimacy as the ability to commit yourself to “concrete affiliations and partnerships and to develop the ethical strength to abide by such commitments, even though they may call for significant sacrifices and compromises”. This closeness need not be sexual in nature, and often is found between lifelong friends, soldiers who join in battle, and inspirational connections. 

Accomplishing this stage

While it is never too late to form intimate relationships with people, this is the stage where it matters most. You have graduated from adolescence to a secure adult identity where you feel comfortable in taking risks in forming deep relationships. Through this security, a person will look for and develop new intimate relationships that can last a lifetime. However, when a young adult fears rejection they may avoid companionship due to fear of rejection and commitment. 

You may have known someone who is struggling with this stage. They go through relationships like tissue paper. They may feel jealous of other people succeeding, and their attitudes just make the situation worse. Then there are those who are unable to keep friends for several reasons, such as poor social behaviors or negative attitudes that are unchecked.

In Erikson's theory, a person's inability to keep relationships may be due to previous stages not being resolved. When a person is unable to establish a firm identity in the adolescent stage, their ability to establish intimacy may be compromised. Those who have yet to develop secure identities may fear losing their fragile identities in someone else or not know how to feel complete when being close with someone else. If you do not truly know yourself and what purpose you wish to fulfill in this life, it may be difficult to form secure relationships with others. 

It should be noted that this is general. Some people find their identities later in life, while others may have all their social needs met when they are young. Every person is unique with their own personal journey, cultural background, and record of experience that contributes to the beauty of their personhood.. If you feel isolated and have not found your identity, know that each person has their own path and you always have the opportunity to reach out for help.

Seek counseling

Sometimes, a person needs help figuring out how to be more intimate with others, and there is no shame in having to do this. If you feel like you need a professional to help you find your sense of identity and guide you in complete unresolved stages in your life, or if you just want to learn how to manage relationships and friendships better, do not hesitate to reach out for help . As we said, there is no shame in doing this. No matter when you start on your journey to resolving past conflicts and unresolved stages, getting the help you need will help you move forward in health and well-being.

If you are uncertain about seeing a counselor in person, know that online therapy is a great alternative. For example, an article published in Frontiers in Psychology found that online therapy interventions helped provide emotional support for young adults managing symptoms related to depression and anxiety. You may find that it is easier to attend therapy sessions from the comfort of your own home than going to an office for in person therapy. Whichever format you choose, therapy will help you take those steps you need to heal past hurts and work through present challenges. When you are ready, reach out for support


The major developmental milestone achieved during Erickson’s sixth stage is the resolution of the conflict between intimacy and isolation. Overcoming this stage’s crisis involves establishing close relationships with friends and loving, sexual relationships in healthy partnerships. The virtue of love emerges during the stage of intimacy versus isolation. By being vulnerable and forming intimate bonds, a person develops the ability to love and accept love. 

Having a strong intimate bond with a partner, or friend is a beautiful thing. Intimate loving relationships can vastly improve your quality of life. If you are struggling with achieving intimacy, reach out for the support of a professional to get you on the road to intimacy and away from isolation.

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