Intimacy versus isolation refers to a stage of development in young adulthood. During this time, a person develops close friendships and a love relationship, both of which are intimate. When this does not occur, it results in isolation or emotional distancing.

Intimacy is important because it involves benefits, such as the pleasure of giving and receiving emotional support. In contrast, isolation increases the risk of several physical and mental health conditions.

This article discusses intimacy versus isolation, including the meanings of intimacy and isolation, the benefits of intimacy, and the risks of isolation. It also examines what leads to intimacy or isolation, how to move from isolation to intimacy, and the risks of not managing developmental stages.

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In the 1950s, the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson put out a theory known as Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development. It involves eight stages of development that psychological, social, and biological factors influence.

The stages are sequential, as the attainment of higher stages is somewhat dependent on the attainment of lower stages. They are also specific to age since each stage pertains to different times within a lifespan.

Intimacy versus isolation is the sixth stage of development. This occurs in young adulthood when an individual learns to love and develop close relationships.

A 2019 study explains that the term intimacy has different meanings in different contexts. One meaning denotes a sexual bond, but another meaning refers to close interpersonal relationships. It involves a disposition of two people to care for each other and develop:

  • love
  • trust
  • tenderness

Intimacy happens when a couple shares experiences, as well as feelings, thoughts, and views. It is worth noting that intimacy does not only apply to romantic relationships but to relationships in general, including those between best friends and family members.

According to the findings of the above 2019 study, benefits include:

  • a sense of closeness
  • pleasure of giving and receiving emotional support
  • being able to count on someone’s help
  • sharing possessed goods
  • experiencing happiness when in contact with an intimate partner or friend

Erikson characterized isolation as having an emotional distance from others. Another expert source defines isolation as a lack of social contacts or having few people to interact with regularly.

A 2021 study emphasizes that it is a disconnection. This means that is possible to feel isolated even in the presence of others if the relationships are superficial, explain the authors.

Evidence indicates that isolation frequently leads to loneliness, which denotes the distressing sense of feeling separated. The National Institute of Health (NIH) reports that isolation or loneliness links to higher risks of mental and physical health conditions that include:

Medical News Today sought out licensed psychologist David Tzall, PsyD, for his expertise. He says that intimacy can happen when people desire:

  • human connection and affection
  • emotional satisfaction and support
  • a greater sense of happiness in life
  • a feeling of belonging
  • a sense of identity or purpose
  • sharing life with someone and recognizing that doing so is more rewarding than doing it alone

Tzall adds that the following factors lead to or contribute to isolation:

  • negative life experiences, which can push an individual to being alone
  • mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, or social anxiety
  • high levels of stress, pressure, or overwhelming life circumstances, which can lead to withdrawal as a way to cope or regain a sense of control
  • the end of a significant relationship
  • difficulty in understanding social cues, communicating effectively, or building relationships
  • chronic illnesses, disabilities, or other physical health issues

It is normal in life to experience both states, but prolonged isolation can cause issues later on.

Tzall offers the below advice to attain this:

  • Try to understand the reasons for the isolation. What past experiences, fears, or anxieties may contribute to it?
  • Start with small, achievable goals. To illustrate, initiate a conversation with a colleague or neighbor, attend a social event for a short period, or join a club with people who share an interest.
  • Challenge negative thoughts or beliefs about yourself, such as not being lovable or worthy.
  • Look for opportunities to meet new individuals and attend social events, workshops, or classes.
  • Improve communication skills, including active listening, maintaining eye contact, and expressing yourself clearly.
  • Learn to be vulnerable and open yourself up to others.
  • Practice being present in the moment during social interactions.
  • Understand and empathize with the experiences and feelings of others.

According to Erikson, development in each stage fosters development in subsequent stages. It facilitates a stable foundation for relating to the self and the outer world.

Conversely, maldevelopment in stages may pose a hindrance to development in later stages and lead to a less stable foundation.

This means that not managing stage six of intimacy versus isolation may pose a challenge in the attainment of stage seven in later adulthood and stage eight in older adulthood. Also, maldevelopment in stage six leads to distancing rather than closeness in relationships.

Intimacy versus isolation refers to the sixth of Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development. In this stage, a person either learns to develop close relationships and love or acquire an emotional distance from others.

Intimacy offers benefits, such as the pleasure of giving and receiving emotional support. Isolation raises the risk of mental health conditions — such as anxiety and depression, as well as physical health conditions — such as high blood pressure and weakened immunity.

When someone is not able to manage a developmental stage, it can make it harder to attain the higher stages of development.