Intimacy vs. Isolation: Psychosocial Stage 6

In This Article

Intimacy versus isolation is the sixth stage of Erik Erikson's theory of psychosocial development. Erikson was a developmental psychologist who described eight distinct stages of life. During each of these stages, people face unique conflicts. How a person manages these conflicts plays a role in the outcome and future of their life.

This stage takes place during young adulthood between the ages of approximately 19 and 40. The major conflict at this stage of life centers on forming intimate, loving relationships with other people.

Success at this stage leads to fulfilling relationships. Struggling at this stage, on the other hand, can result in feelings of loneliness and isolation.

intimacy vs isolation in psychosocial development
Verywell / Nusha Ashjaee 

Overview

  • Psychosocial Conflict: Intimacy versus isolation
  • Major Question: "Will I be loved or will I be alone?"
  • Basic Virtue: Love
  • Important Event(s): Romantic relationships

Psychosocial Development

Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development proposes that people pass through a series of stages centered on social and emotional development. At each point in a person’s life, they face a developmental conflict that must be resolved. Important elements of this theory include:

  • Conflict: The conflict in each stage can serve as a turning point, either driving or hampering growth. Those who fail to master these challenges will continue to struggle.
  • Lifelong development: One thing that made Erikson’s theory unique is that unlike many other developmental theories, the psychosocial stages look at how people change and grow over the course of the entire lifetime.
  • Psychological skills: People who overcome these conflicts are able to achieve psychological skills that ultimately last the rest of their life.

These adult stages continue to play an important role in a person's development. The skills acquired during earlier stages can build on one another and help determine if people successfully navigate future stages.

What Happens During This Stage?

Erikson believed that it was vital to develop close, committed relationships with other people. As people enter adulthood, these emotionally intimate relationships play a critical role in a person's emotional well-being.

While the word intimacy is closely associated with sex for many, it encompasses much more than that. Erikson described intimate relationships as those characterized by closeness, honesty, and love.

Romantic and sexual relationships can be an important part of this stage of life, but intimacy is more about having close, loving relationships. It includes romantic partners, but it can also encompass close, enduring friendships with people outside of your family.

Intimacy
  • Strong and deep romantic relationships

  • Close relationships with friends and family

  • Strong social support network

Isolation
  • Poor romantic relationships

  • No deep intimacy

  • Loneliness and isolation

What It Means

People who are successful in resolving the conflict of the intimacy versus isolation stage have:

  • Close romantic relationships
  • Deep, meaningful connections
  • Enduring connections with other people
  • Positive relationships with family and friends
  • Strong relationships

People who navigate this period of life successfully are able to forge fulfilling relationships with other people. This plays an important role in creating supportive social networks that are important for both physical and mental health throughout life.

Struggling in this stage of life can result in loneliness and isolation. Adults who struggle with this stage experience:

  • Few or no friendships
  • Lack of intimacy
  • Lack of relationships
  • Poor romantic relationships
  • Weak social support

They might never share deep intimacy with their partners or might even struggle to develop any relationships at all. This can be particularly difficult as these individuals watch friends and acquaintances fall in love, get married, and start families.

People who struggle to form intimacy with others are often left feeling lonely and isolated. Some individuals may feel particularly lonely if they struggle to form close friendships with others.

What Causes Intimacy or Isolation?

Intimacy requires being able to share parts of yourself with others, as well as the ability to listen to and support other people. These relationships are reciprocal—you are sharing parts of yourself, and others are sharing with you.

When this happens successfully, you gain the support, intimacy, and companionship of another person. But sometimes things don't go so smoothly. You might experience rejection or other responses that cause you to withdraw. It might harm your confidence and self-esteem, making you warier of putting yourself out there again in the future.

Isolation can happen for a number of reasons. Factors that may increase your risk of becoming lonely or isolated include:

  • Childhood experiences including neglect or abuse
  • Divorce or death of a partner
  • Fear of commitment
  • Fear of intimacy
  • Inability to open up
  • Past relationships
  • Troubles with self-disclosure

No matter what the cause, it can have a detrimental impact on your life. It may lead to feelings of loneliness and even depression.

Effects of Loneliness

Loneliness can affect overall health in other ways. For example, socially isolated people tend to consume more dietary fat, exercise less, experience greater daytime fatigue, and have poorer sleep.

Loneliness and isolation can lead to a wide range of negative health effects. Some of the potential health consequences of loneliness include cardiovascular disease, depression, substance misuse, stress, and suicide.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Important Tasks at This Stage

Learning to be open and sharing with others is an important part of the intimacy versus isolation stage. Some of the other important tasks that can play a role in succeeding or struggling at this point of development include:

  • Being intimate: This is more than just engaging in sex; it means forging emotional intimacy and closeness. Intimacy does not necessarily have to be with a sexual partner. People can also gain intimacy from friends and loved ones.
  • Caring for others: It is essential to be able to care about the needs of others. Relationships are reciprocal. Getting love is important at this stage, but so is giving it.
  • Making commitments: Part of being able to form strong relationships involves being able to commit to others for the long-term.
  • Self-disclosure: Sharing part of the self with others while still maintaining a strong sense of self-identity.

Importance of Sense of Self

Things learned during earlier stages of development also play a role in being able to have healthy adult relationships. For example, Erikson believed that having a fully formed sense of self (established during the previous identity versus confusion stage) was essential to being able to form intimate relationships.

People with a poor sense of self tend to have less committed relationships and are more likely to experience emotional isolation, loneliness, and depression.

Such findings suggest that having a strong sense of who you are is important for developing lasting future relationships. This self-awareness can play a role in the type of relationships you forge as well as the strength and durability of those social connections.

How to Find Intimacy

If you are struggling with feelings of isolation, there are things that you can do to form closer relationships with other people:

  • Avoid negative self-talk. The things we tell ourselves can have an impact on our ability to be confident in relationships, particularly if those thoughts are negative. When you catch yourself having this type of inner dialogue, focus on replacing negative thoughts with more realistic ones.
  • Build skills. Sometimes practicing social skills can be helpful when you are working toward creating new relationships. Consider taking a course in social skill development or try practicing your skills in different situations each day.
  • Determine what you like. Research suggests that factors such as mutual interests and personality similarity play important roles in friendships. Knowing your interests and then engaging in activities around those interests is one way to build lasting friendships. If you enjoy sports, for example, you might consider joining a local community sports team.
  • Evaluate your situation. What are your needs? What type of relationship are you seeking? Figuring out what you are looking for in a partner or friend can help you determine how you should go about looking for new relationships.
  • Practice self-disclosure. Being able to share aspects of yourself can be difficult, but you can get better at it through practice. Consider things you would be willing to share about yourself with others, then practice. Remember that listening to others is an essential part of this interaction as well.

A Word From Verywell

Healthy relationships are important for both your physical and emotional well-being. The sixth stage of Erikson's psychosocial theory of development focuses on how these critical relationships are forged. Those who are successful at this stage are able to forge deep relationships and social connections with other people.

If you are struggling with forming healthy, intimate relationships, talking to a therapist can be helpful. A mental health professional can help you determine why you have problems forming or maintaining relationships and develop new habits that will help your forge these important connections.

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Article Sources
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Additional Reading
  • Erikson, EH. Childhood and Society. 2nd ed. New York: Norton; 1963.
  • Erikson, EH. Identity: Youth and Crisis. New York: Norton; 1968.
  • Erikson, EH. The Life Cycle Completed. New York/London: Norton; 1982.