Intimacy Vs. Isolation: What They Mean For A Person

By ReGain Editorial Team|Updated April 15, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Karen Devlin, LPC

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If you've never heard of Erik Erikson's theory of psychosocial development, it is quite intriguing. In this article, we'll focus on the sixth stage, intimacy vs. isolation, but we'll also recap what Erikson's theory means.

Eikson's Theory

Erikson was a psychologist who developed his stages of psychosocial development, which chronicles different stages of social needs throughout the individual's life. 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.

Let's break down all the stages.

Trust Vs. Mistrust: The first stage. This stage lasts from birth to around two years, and it involves trusting your parents, and the desire to want to know if they can trust the world. Succeeding will make you more hopeful and trusting of people.

Autonomy Vs. Shame And Doubt: This stage lasts during the toddler years. The child is learning how to be more independent. They can walk, use the bathroom on their own, talk, make some decisions, and so on. The goal is to be independent. Those who aren't may feel ashamed and doubt their abilities.

Initiative Vs. Guilt: This is from around age 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 initiated may be more creative, while the guilty may struggle with life.

Industry Vs. Inferiority: This is around the age of five until preteen years: In this stage, the child is learning to read, write, do the math, and do other tasks that are valued by society. School is no longer about daytime, but instead a place where the child feels challenged. If they succeed, they'll feel ambitious. If they don't do well, they may feel inferior in front of other children and to themselves.

Identity Vs. Role Confusion: We'll discuss this later, but this is the stage during the teen years where the teenager is trying to find 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 is from middle age until senior citizen. By now, the adult is expected to have a family and a fruitful career. They feel like they're giving back to society as a result. Those 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: The last stage, which is from senior citizen until death, is integrity versus despair. In that, people question whether or not their life was worth it, and they either feel great, or upset with regret.

Obviously, there are exceptions, but Erikson believed this was generally how most humans saw themselves. You can probably read these stages and relate in some way. Today, we'll look at stage six, which we imagine a chunk of our readers is currently handling.

What Is Intimacy Vs. Isolation?

When it comes to Erikson's theory, intimacy vs. isolation is stage six. This stage happens in young adulthood and may trail off by middle age.

This makes sense. When you're 18, you're probably starting college or thinking about your future. You're no longer in a high school where you can interact with people, so you want to have relationships that can last. You're no longer looking for a lovey-dovey romantic relationship, but instead, one that you can be more intimate with. When it comes to friendships, you want people you can spend a lifetime with and not just acquaintances. You want to build connections to help your career. The list goes on.

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During the beginning of this stage, the effects of stage 5, identity vs. role confusion, linger. Identity vs. role confusion takes place during the teenage years and involves the teen wondering what their place in life is. They may conform to others to find their place or experiment with different identities. We've all observed it in teens or were once that ourselves. As the stages combine, we are still using our friends as an extension of our identities.

Intimacy vs. isolation peaks at around age 30, which does make sense. At that age, we're 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.

Isolated Because Of Intimacy?

If you're a person who loves being intimate with people, you may find yourself isolated because of it. How does this happen? This is due to fears of rejection. If you like someone, you may never ask them out because you're afraid of rejection, and the idea of that person no longer wants to associate with you. There are some who learn to deal with the fear of rejection and can take risks, but there are those who are so scared of rejection, even if the consequences are not that bad, that they'll isolate themselves.

The Feeling Of Isolation

Even if we have friends and loved ones, we've all felt some form of isolation at some point. We feel like no ones like us that we're all alone, and we crave a desire to meet our 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.

It becomes a bit of a self-destructive cycle. Our attitudes may turn away people from liking us, thus making the feeling of isolation even worse. We all know that one person who is always complaining about life and whose negativity drives everyone away. There is nothing wrong with occasionally being depressed and angrty, but spending your entire life acting this way will just drive those who are interested in being your friends away.

What Intimacy Is

When you think of intimacy, you may imagine a sexual relationship. However, intimacy is more than just that. Intimacy is the feeling of closeness you have towards particular people. You can be intimate with your friends. Ever had a deep conversation or told a close secret to a friend? This is a sign of intimacy. Honesty is another example of an intimate relationship. People need to have others they can be honest with. If you're always playing a character in front of everyone, you can never open up, and this can make you feel isolated.

Accomplishing This Stage

While it's never too late to form intimate relationships with people, this is the stage where it matters most. You're young, and you can explore the world to some effect. Those who can form intimate relationships will have relationships that will last a lifetime. Meanwhile, those who fail this stage may feel depression and despair. The last thing anyone wants to do is die alone.

You've probably 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 just can't keep friends. They may be too clingy or demanding or have attitudes problems that are unchecked.

Also, in Erikson's theory, a person's inability to keep relationships may be due to previous stages not being satisfied. Those who haven't found their identities may have trouble with relationships. If you don't know yourself and what you want to do with your life, how can you stay committed to other people?

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. Just because you are still struggling with your identity doesn't mean that you're going to be alone forever. Psychological theories are a good way to figure out the human mind, but every mind is complex, and there are always going to be exceptions to every rule. If you feel isolated and haven't found your identity, don't let this article bring you down; it'll just make everything worse.

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 a professional to help you find your sense of identity, help you complete unresolved stages in your life, or if you just want to learn how to manage relationships and friendships better, seek help today. As we said, there is no shame in doing this. Don't wait until you reach the final stage, where you start to regret everything that you haven't accomplished. Talk to someone today.

 FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)

What is Erikson's intimacy vs. isolation?

Intimacy versus isolation is the sixth stage of Erikson's Theory of Psychosocial Development, present during young adulthood, roughly between the ages of 19 and 40 years of age. During this crucial period, people develop relationships with one another, learn how to resolve conflicts, and form bonds. Learning how to build strong emotional bonds with others helps an individual cultivate a support system. Erickson points out the importance of a focus on the development of strong emotional bonds with others, (during the ages of 19-40), as vital in helping one to feel secure in themselves and the world. The intimacy versus isolation stage highlights a human desire to want to form intimate bonds, as having significant positive effects as opposed to being socially isolated. 

What is an example of intimacy vs. isolation?

Let's begin with isolation. An example of isolation is a college student living in a dorm, choosing to live alone in a single dorm, while also choosing not to socialize with others; they keep to themselves and don't branch out or endeavor to form friendships. Contrarily, an example of intimacy is a college student living in a single dorm, spending time alone while doing their schoolwork, also choosing to form friendships with others in their classes or clubs in college. This latter example of intimacy can also be characterized as the act of forging emotional bonds. In illustrating the differences between isolation and intimacy and their inherent consequences, we begin to grasp the importance of forming strong, intimate bonds. While intimacy requires vulnerability and the ability to take risks, isolation exists in tandem with loneliness and the potential for mental health problems, the latter being detrimental to one's quality of life. So, our isolated college student might feel depressed as a result of avoiding intimacy.

Further, social isolation causes individuals to feel like they are less than and could impact their self-esteem. We can see that during the intimacy versus isolation stage, a critical process takes place in terms of identity formation. For this reason, according to Erickson, it is in a person's best interest, in most instances, to reach out in some way, and figure out how to form bonds.

What are the stages of intimacy?

Some people fear intimacy because they’re afraid of being rejected. If they express who they are and aren’t accepted that could feel devastating. There are varying stages of intimacy as described and understood by a diverse range of experts and via peer-reviewed reports, including but not limited to psychologists, sociologists, scientists, and other research and study initiatives at large. However, according to scientists, the first stage of intimacy is characterized as taking place from the moment you meet somebody to an early infatuation with that person.

During this period of fascination, you are learning about each other and want to know more. I would say that this stage is akin to that initial feeling of falling in love. The second stage is the honeymoon period, where you feel connected to another person, but you don't yet know everything about them or have a complete picture of who they are or what their coping mechanisms or communications styles might be under duress. You are just getting to know who they are, and at this point, everything seems great. During the third stage, bonding takes place. The honeymoon period is over, and you are now faced with who this person is; you are seeing them, warts and all. Aspects or characteristics that are good and those that are not so easy to deal with become more apparent, enabling you to see the relationship more realistically.

The fourth stage involves accepting truths about your partner, as you understand them, and building long term bonds. As mentioned above, there are other models of the stages of intimacy, which may differ slightly or include more or fewer categories. However, I feel the above is a clear representation of the stages of intimacy at large. Some people will avoid intimacy as a means to not repeat patterns where they could potentially be hurt. The problem with that is they don’t form intimate loving relationships.

What are the seven stages of development?

There are eight stages of development, not seven.

Stage one - Trust Versus Mistrust.

When you're a baby, specifically an infant, you rely on your caregivers to take care of you. You trust that they will respond when you cry; babies rely on others. A sense of trust is developed, and the baby feels secure. Mistrust is when a parent or caregiver neglects the baby and their needs, or if said caretaker is inconsistent in their responses. In other words, sometimes they do not respond at all. Consequently, the baby becomes insecurely attached and learns not to trust others.

Stage two - Autonomy versus Shame and Self Doubt

It takes place during toddlerhood. During stage two, young children are curious about the world. They want to learn and explore, develop individual coping skills, and begin to establish some independence and a sense of agency in some tasks. Autonomy is when parents and caregivers help and facilitate exploration for children, fostering a sense of independence. It enables young people to feel like they can take chances or risks. On the other hand, shame occurs when the caregiver or parent discourages the child from taking risks or being independent. The child is not allowed to feel proud of themselves or to feel a sense of accomplishment.

Stage Three - Initiative Versus Guilt

It takes place at the preschool age. When a child is in preschool, they are learning new things, and they're finding ways to set goals for themselves. Initiative is when a parent or caregiver fosters these goals and allows a child to make their own decisions, enabling said child to grow up and become a functional adult who follows their dreams. Conversely, guilt happens when a child is unnecessarily criticized when they try to assert their independence. The child may feel guilty for asserting their needs in the first place. A controlling parent or caregiver can stunt the growth of their child in this way.

Stage four - Industry Versus Inferiority -

It takes place during early school years. An example of an industry is a child who develops a sense of accomplishment and confidence because they have completed tasks and achieved their goals, thus improving their self-esteem. Inferiority is when a child doesn't accomplish things, and as a result, they doubt themselves. They may have low self-esteem or lack a sense of self-worth because other people, teachers or parents, criticize them. For these reasons, the child may develop feelings of inferiority.

Stage five - Identity Versus Role Confusion

It takes place during adolescence. Adolescents are known for identity issues, and you may have heard the term identity crisis. During the adolescent stage, the goal is for the teen to wonder who they are and try to find the answer. Identity speaks to an adolescent wanting to feel a sense of self-worth and needing to figure out where they are in terms of their family dynamic. To accomplish this, they need to set goals for themselves based on their internal value systems. In role confusion, a teen will not possess a developed sense of self, and they may feel guilt about individuating from their parents or caregivers. Role confusion creates difficulties for teens when trying to figure out what they want for their future lives.

Stage six - Intimacy Versus Isolation

In the intimacy vs isolation stage people learn to develop meaningful relationships. This stage takes place during young adulthood. According to Eric Erickson, intimacy versus isolation is a critical period in which we, as humans, form relationships. Erickson defines this time as taking place between the ages of 20-40 years old. Intimacy is where deep relationships can be formed because people are vulnerable to adulthood, from young adulthood to later on in life. Isolation is when people don't foster relationships, and they socially isolate themselves, consequently leading to feelings of loneliness. Combating isolation, the importance of which Erikson outlined in this stage, can create opportunities for human connection. Loneliness and isolation are contributory factors to chronic depression. That’s why it’s critical to reach out to your support system, or address them in therapy with a licensed mental health professional.

Stage Seven - Generativity Versus Stagnation

It takes place during middle adulthood. During this stage, a person decides how they are going to contribute to the world and help the next generation of individuals. When experiencing this stage, many people become parents. Generativity is when individuals who are helping the next generation, whether by becoming parents, teachers, or mentors, etc., are leading by example. They want the younger generation to imprint a legacy so that they are contributing to society. Stagnation happens when adults feel like they can't make a difference or help people in society or are afraid to contribute to the next generation. They might feel like they have to isolate as a consequence of these feelings, and that there's no hope for themselves in the future.

Stage Eight - Ego Integrity Versus Despair

It occurs during late adulthood. It is the stage where older adults look back on their lives and what they've accomplished. Ego integrity is when people during this stage of their lives feel like they have led a good life and can die knowing that they did what they feel they needed to do. Despair is when those individuals feel regret or disappointment at how their lives turned out and the role they played in the result.

Those are the eight stages of development. 

What age is intimacy vs. isolation?

Intimacy versus isolation takes place between the ages of 19 - 40 years old. During this period, people learn about who they are and forming intimate bonds with other human beings. The concept of Isolation loneliness implies a physical distance, as well as an emotional one. Whereas, you could feel lonely amongst a group of people if you’re misunderstood. Social isolation can be extremely detrimental during this time because in isolating, you are not practicing how to interact with others or learning social cues. It could be isolation why relationships fail, because you can become accustomed to being alone. It’s crucial to develop intimate connections because it enriches your life, and you learn about yourself in the process.

What virtue emerges from the stage of intimacy versus isolation?

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.

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