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Intimacy vs. Isolation: The Most Important Balancing Act of Adult Development

Intimacy vs. Isolation: The Most Important Balancing Act of Adult Development

Mastering the balance may take a lifetime.

If you hire a life coach, one of the first things they’ll do is work with you to assess how balanced your life is. Coaching is a holistic approach. It doesn’t focus on fixing one problem but aims to work towards greater harmony across all areas of life. A coach will explore common categories, such as work, relationships, health, finances, or recreation, and the relationships between them. Often, if one area is out of balance, other areas will suffer.

Long before the coaching field transformed into the billion-dollar industry it is today, psychologists were exploring the value of harmony. One of those psychologists, Erik Erikson, is responsible for the most prominent theory of human growth — the stages of psychosocial development. Erikson’s model explores development through the entirety of life. The ethos of balance is at its core; at various stages of life, we must find the sweet spot between extremes, in order to fulfill our potential.

Many of these stages occur in the early years of life. But one stage, intimacy vs. isolation, is the primary challenge between the ages of 18 and 40. How do you cultivate loving, intimate relationships, with time alone for self-discovery? How do you know yourself, and give yourself to others? How do you move beyond the surface, to experience deep intimacy with others?

This article will focus on this special stage of adult development, one that is crucial to cultivating a more loving and expansive life. We’ll explain how intimacy vs. isolation relates to the rest of Erikson’s model, highlight the benefits of intimacy, share tips on avoiding isolation and loneliness, and offer guidance for healthy solitude.

Erikson’s Breakdown of Intimacy vs. Isolation

Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development, presented in his 1950 book, Childhood and Society, follow a particular order. Erikson’s thinking deviated from his early inspiration, Sigmund Freud, by offering an ever-evolving theory of human development that continues past early years and adolescence, all the way into the twilight of our lives. Erikson’s theory suggests each of these eight stages offers a chance for transformation through inner conflict. Successfully navigating these stages leads to the cultivation of virtues that support further stages of development.

man writing in journal

The intimacy vs isolation stage lasts for 22 years, which is a huge chunk of adult life. To place this into context, the eight stages are:

  • Stage One: Trust vs. Mistrust (birth to 1 ½ years) with the virtue of Hope.
  • Stage Two: Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt (1 ½ years to 3 years) with the virtue of Will.
  • Stage Three: Initiative vs. Guilt (years 3 to 5) with the virtue of Purpose.
  • Stage Four: Industry vs Inferiority (years 5 to 12) with the virtue of Competency.
  • Stage Five: Identity vs. Role Confusion (years 12 to 18) with the virtue of Fidelity.
  • Stage Six: Intimacy vs. Isolation (years 18 to 40) with the virtue of Love.
  • Stage Seven: Generativity vs. Stagnation (years 40 to 65) with the virtue of Care.
  • Stage Eight: Ego Integrity vs. Despair (years 65-death) with the virtue of Wisdom

For more details on each stage visit our article on Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development.

The intimacy vs isolation stage is particularly important in shaping the direction of adult life. By the age of 18, most people in young adulthood have a solid foundation of interpersonal skills, developed throughout childhood. They’ve started to cultivate independence, to consider what type of life they’d like to live. Many are considering their next steps in education, and what career they’d like to immerse themselves in.

Erik Erikson’s theory suggests that the balancing act at this stage is to cultivate deep and meaningful relationships, even within the tension of other demands of adult life. For Erikson, that requires the ability to be vulnerable, and open, along with a willingness to relate to others beyond superficial exchanges.

Relationships and community are a core need. If someone has a fear of intimacy (linked to a lack of development of early stages of development), they may be unable to cultivate these necessary relationships. If that’s the case, there’s a risk of depression, bitterness, and isolation from society, that gets harder and harder to overcome as the years carry on.

Successfully cultivating these types of relationships, however, leads to the virtue of love. This doesn’t have to mean fixed relationships, either, but the ability to cultivate loving, intimate relationships. That includes romantic relationships, friendships, familial relationships, and even work relationships. Once integrated, this stage sets a person up for middle-age and beyond.

The Epidemic of Loneliness

lonely woman

It’s worth noting a few distinctions. Many people, particularly men, funnel their need for intimacy and closeness into a sexual relationship. Whilst intimacy is essential for lasting and committed romance, placing all of this emphasis on one relationship is unhealthy, with the potential of codependency, unfair expectations, or even resentment. Equally, the number of relationships someone has doesn’t necessarily reflect the level of intimacy — it’s possible to feel lonely when surrounded by people.

That explains why we’re experiencing a loneliness epidemic, despite being more “connected” than ever through technology. Combined with the coronavirus pandemic, rates of loneliness and isolation are through the roof. Studies have found that 36 percent of Americans feel lonely frequently or most of the time, with rates higher in young adults.

Isolation is intertwined with loneliness. The Harvard report, Loneliness in America, defines loneliness as “often intricately interwoven with feelings of self-worth and specifically with how much caring attention one receives from the people one expects to provide it.” Loneliness is complex, and the experience is different for each individual. “It is one thing to feel empty or unfulfilled in one’s friendships or family relationships, for example, and another to feel unwanted by others, which is different from painfully missing contact with loved ones or close friends,” the report says.

The Benefits of Intimacy

Beyond superficial likes or shares on social media, or fleeting conversations that scratch the surface, there is a yearning for deep intimacy. Studies into loneliness find a recurring theme that people feel others don’t truly care for them. Feeling cared for requires an element of vulnerability and open-heartedness that is scary and, unfortunately, rare. But when making the leap to develop greater emotional intimacy and fulfilling relationships, the benefits are profound.

As with all interpersonal challenges, there are elements you can control and those you can’t. Within your control is your ability to be self-honest and consider if you avoid intimacy, and how. Do you have defense mechanisms or certain emotions, such as anxiety, that cause you to fear being close to others? Working on these barriers is one thing. But you also need willingness from others, and the ability to communicate clearly, in order to develop a fulfilling relationship. It’s not easy, but worth it.

Fulfilling relationships have been linked with reduced anxiety, lower rates of depression, more trust and empathy, higher self-esteem, and greater physical health, due to lower stress and an improved immune system. Erikson’s theory appears to be reinforced by such findings, which also show older adults who cultivate emotional intimacy — those who’ve navigated the isolation vs intimacy stage — are happier, healthier, and live longer.

How to Overcome Isolation

Fortunately, there are ways to overcome isolation. First, it’s important to develop self-awareness to know what balance works for you. A skilled life coach won’t make a client spread their time and attention equally to all life areas, but empower the client to know what balance feels good for them. Isolation vs. intimacy works in the same way; people need different degrees of socializing, depending on whether they are introverts or extroverts, and how they like to spend time alone.

This is an important step, because you want to avoid socializing in a way that tries to conform with societal pressure. Do you prefer seeing a few friends per week, over coffee, for a focused catch-up?

friends on a coffee date

Do you like big group gatherings full of fun and festivity? A mixture of both? Understanding your social style helps you know when you’re off balance, and when you risk falling into the trap of isolation.

Consider what relationships can be nurtured, what relationships might have to be let go of (for example, if they’re chronically unfulfilling and incompatible), and how you can find new friendships. There is one thing all of these steps have in common — they require effort. If you’ve felt lonely for a while, that can feel daunting. If it feels almost impossible, it is worth speaking to a professional to address underlying causes of stress and anxiety. 

The Loneliness in America Report offers a few pointers to overcome isolation, including:

  • Exploring your mindset, and how this contributes to loneliness. Do you perceive people as uncaring? Do you experience negative self-talk and harsh self-judgment?
  • Are you surrounded by people who fail to empathize or listen?
  • Are your relationships imbalanced, where you give more than you take (more details of this balancing act in social exchange theory)?
  • Be responsible with social media. Although it can lead to a sense of connection, obsessing over likes, or seeing images of others in social situations, can contribute to loneliness.

Start small. Loneliness can feel permanent, but once it's acknowledged, you can start looking at creative ways to overcome it. Know that there’s a balance between the inner world, and the outer world — if you have low self-esteem, you might minimize or downplay the quality of relationships you have. Or if you have social anxiety, you may avoid situations that could lead to forming new connections.

Cultivating Healthy Solitude

The counter of isolation isn’t a pendulum swing in the opposite direction. All healthy relationships require space and time apart. Cultivating intimacy with others, and developing the virtue of love, requires time for inner-work and self-discovery. Deliberate solitude allows for deep self-reflection, clearer thinking, and recharging, away from the demands of the world. Ironically, fearing time alone can be a marker that you fear intimacy with the one person you’ll spend every moment of your life with — yourself.

Keeping balance in mind, consider how you would like to integrate conscious alone time into your schedule. Are there activities you can do alone? Could you add a few hours per week, or 30 minutes each morning, to journalling or meditation? These moments allow for greater clarity, and even gratitude, towards the relationships that exist in your life.

You can even allow your time alone to inspire a greater connection with others with a form of social inventory. Take time to reflect on what’s working, and what isn’t, in your relationships. Are you happy with your level of communication? Are there things you are avoiding? Are there interactions that have left you uplifted, and appreciative? What friends can you cultivate deeper intimacy with?

Navigating the path of intimacy and isolation isn’t easy. There will be times you won’t get it quite right, perhaps work gets busy and you skip a few catch-ups with friends, or the stresses of life cause you to close your heart slightly, or enter avoidance. But as Erikson’s theory reminds us, development lasts a lifetime. There’s no right or wrong, just a gentle nudge in the right direction.

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