There is an epidemic that has been affecting people around the world. It’s an epidemic that just won’t seem to go away. It’s the loneliness epidemic. It sounds dramatic to call loneliness an “epidemic,” but research on loneliness and health are pretty shocking. Some experts equate loneliness to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. People experience loneliness and social isolation at all stages of life, but one age is key, according to Erikson's stages of psychosocial development: the intimacy vs isolation stage.
What Is Intimacy Vs Isolation?
The sixth stage of Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development is the Intimacy vs. Isolation stage. This stage occurs throughout adulthood and contains a crisis in which people search for intimacy in their lives. Without intimacy, a person may not be able to "move on" to later stages.
What Age Does Intimacy Vs. Isolation Occur?
This stage, also known as "love vs. isolation," occurs once an adolescent has reached adulthood. It lasts for around 20 years, one of the longest stages so far! If the person has completed all five stages of development successfully, they have a solid foundation and a solid sense of who they are. Once they have this solid identity, they can begin to truly explore their relationships with other people.
What Is The Positive Outcome of the Intimacy vs. Isolation Stage?
Some of the most important events that take place during the intimacy vs. isolation stage is the formation of serious, romantic relationships. People in this stage are likely to meet partners who will be in their lives for years, decades, or until they die. Intimacy, in this stage, obviously doesn’t just mean physical intimacy. Romantic partners fulfill different roles in our lives: lover, yes, but also companion, co-parent, roommate, etc. Exploring these relationships and the roles that people fill in your lives can help you avoid people who are not right for you, and become more intimate with the ones that are.
Of course, romantic relationships are not the only ones that form during this stage. People in their 20s also start to close in their circles and take their friendships more seriously. Teenagers and college freshmen may not be so close with their parents as they explore their newfound freedoms. Young adults, however, may start to become closer to their parents.
The virtue that is gained during this stage is simple: love. Of course, people experience love before they are in their 20s, but exploring relationships during this stage deepens your love for the people in your circle. Most people start to take love seriously between the ages of 20 and 40, often for the first time in their lives.
Unfortunately, not every person hits 40 and is married to the love of their life with a solid group of friends and family around to fulfill them. If a person is not able to establish intimate romantic or platonic relationships with others, they are likely to become isolated.
As I mentioned earlier, isolation can be seriously dangerous for your mental and physical health. Humans are social creatures and often seek support from friends and people in their circle. Safety, security, and belonging are basic needs - being part of a friend group or family provides that. As you’ll learn later on, isolation can also prevent people from successfully completing the last two stages of Psychosocial Development.
Examples of Intimacy vs Isolation in Books
If you are looking to learn more about the crisis in this stage, look no further than famous novels and stories! This Reddit post contains some suggestions for books that explore this crisis, including the works of Dostoevsky, Goethe, and Gabriel García Márquez.
Other Psychological Theories Regarding Relationships
Erikson is not the only psychologist to explore the crisis that comes from forming (or not forming) intimate relationships. Theories like the triangular theory of love explore what makes a relationship intimate, all-consuming, or insignificant. Remember, all of these concepts are just theories. If you find that what one psychologist says doesn't apply to your relationships, that's okay!
Tips for Avoiding Isolation
During the ages of 20-30, you might find yourself experiencing a “quarter-life crisis.” Many young adults are still figuring out who they want to be and what they want to do with their lives. Intimate relationships can help to support you as you continue to explore your identity. If you find that you are isolated, take some time to assess why and how you can grow closer to the people in your life. This advice may be able to help you break out of patterns that cause loneliness and form intimate, happy relationships with others.
Friendships: Be Open and Honest About Your Needs
You don’t have to be in a relationship to have intimate connections with people. (There are other forms of intimacy besides physical!) Friendships can be great sources of respect, support, and love. For some people, friends are family. But friendships, like all relationships, are a two-way street.
Have a conversation. Do your friends know that you are feeling lonely? What can they do to support you? Talk to the people in your circle now about relationships and expectations. Open, honest conversations are the first step to a closer relationship.
Give your friends a chance to support you. Often, we suppress our feelings or problems because we don’t want to take up too much time or give our friends the task of supporting us. But real friends want to offer their support. There is a way to ask for support without “dumping” on your friends. Be patient and kind as you ask for space to vent about your feelings or work out a problem. Your friends will appreciate your vulnerability and you may become closer as you work things out together!
Don’t be afraid to let people go. Not everyone sees friendships as an opportunity for intimacy or closeness. Some people just want to go out and party. Others prioritize friendships until they enter a romantic relationship. If someone isn’t providing you with the things you need in a friendship, consider prioritizing your time on people who will better appreciate you.
Romantic Partners: Tear Down Your Walls
We all dream about finding the love of our life, but forming an intimate, romantic relationship with someone doesn’t always feel like a fairytale. Swiping through dating apps can be tiring. Going on first dates, only to discover that you don’t actually like the person you’re on a date with, can be disappointing. And once you do form a relationship with someone, you still have a long way to go before you may feel comfortable being intimate with them (and not just physically!) Again, to make these relationships last, we must go back to our identity, autonomy, and other skills developed in Erikson’s earlier stages.
What do you want in a partner? Do you want someone who is going to prioritize relationships, including friendships or family relationships? Do you want someone who wants to provide for their partner financially or emotionally? Take some time to write down what you want in a partner. Make a list of 10 things, and think beyond looks or interests. What type of team do you want to form with a partner? With this in mind, you can more easily narrow down your dates until you find a person that meets most of your criteria.
(And remember that prioritizing one area of life means sacrificing another! A person may prioritize work over relationships, and you’ll spend many nights at home without them while they’re at work. That’s okay if you also prioritize work or want a partner who can provide for you. Know that you can’t have everything - no human is perfect or limitless.)
Keep an open mind. Every date is an opportunity for you to meet someone new. Think of that the next time you have a “bad date.” Did you learn something new? Do you have a funny story? Maybe you didn’t feel the romantic spark with this person, but you can walk away knowing you’ve made a new friend. This line of thinking puts the power back in your hands to pursue dating with optimism and excitement.
Open your heart. Everyone is looking for their person. Everyone has to make sacrifices, be open, and make changes to find their person. Once you’ve entered a relationship, be open about what you can provide a person and how much you are willing to share with them. This conversation will set boundaries and give both parties an idea about if you are truly aligned in what you want.
Forming or Assessing Relationships with New People
Other relationships can also fulfill your needs for intimacy. Your best friend may be living in your town and you just haven’t met them yet! Need to widen your circle? Join meetups or groups for people who share your interests. Don’t be afraid to reach out or set up a meetup of your own!
Assess your needs. Attend meetups based on what you’re looking for in relationships. Maybe you just want people who enjoy the same interests as you. Great! Find groups where people are doing all the things you like to do. With the Internet, we have unlimited access to people who are interested in just about everything.
Maybe you are looking for support as you enter a new chapter of your life. You are becoming sober or you are experiencing grief. Support groups are available to help you through this time. Not all of these groups involve people sitting around a basement sharing their problems, either. There are plenty of recovery groups that go on fun adventures! Once you start looking for groups of people who offer support, you may be surprised at what you find.
Reach out to a professional. If you are experiencing doubts about your ability to form relationships or set proper boundaries, reach out to a relationship therapist. Issues from earlier stages may leave you with mistrust, guilt, or feelings of inferiority. This can have a serious impact on your ability to be vulnerable with others and become part of a group. A relationship therapist can help you unravel these past experiences and move forward.
Intimacy Doesn’t End at Age 40.
There are two more stages in Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development, but that does not mean people over 40 have to turn the page on intimacy and love. In fact, the next two stages can help to strengthen the bonds between two people who meet in their 40s, 50s, and beyond. People build and strengthen beautiful relationships at all ages.
During the last stages of Psychosocial Development, Erikson believes that people are really starting to contemplate their legacy and what they’ve accomplished in their life. Having confident answers to these larger questions in life can seriously benefit a person as they build new relationships or start dating.
The last two stages of psychosocial development are: