One of the great truisms in psychology is the fact that relationships matter to our sense of well-being. Throughout life, we need relationships to help us feel connected, boost our feelings of self-worth, and sustain our moods. Psychologists have ample evidence to support this assertion, but a recent study my colleagues and I completed provides a new twist. This study, based on a 40-year follow-up investigation from college through midlife, shows convincingly that throughout our adult years, intimacy is key to our well-being.
In this research, first-authored by Joel Sneed of Queens College (Sneed, Whitbourne, Schwartz, & Huang, 2012), we analyzed data on a longitudinal study that I took on in the mid-1970s. The data were actually first collected in the mid-1960s to test out some of the basic ideas about personality in college students. Anne Constantinople, then a grad student in psychology, developed a brief 60-item test to measure 6 of 8 of Erikson’s psychosocial stages. Two of those stages applied specifically to the college years: Identity vs. Identity diffusion and Intimacy vs. Isolation (click on these links to read more about them). I’ve always been fascinated by Erikson’s theory, and thought it would be great to see if I could track down her participants, taking advantage of the fact that I was teaching at the university at the time. Some 34 years later, I have now completed three follow-ups focusing on how her participants had changed over their adult years. I also started three new groups of college students on their own long-term studies. When I had the good fortune of acquiring Joel Sneed as a grad student in the early 2000’s, we decided to try adding some new measures, including one on psychological well-being.
Doing a long-term study takes, well, a long time. Not only is it challenging to get the data, but it’s even harder to figure out how to analyze it all, especially when the study is a complex one. That’s why it wasn’t until 2012 that we actually came out with the results of the study on intimacy and well-being. However, the findings were definitely worth the wait. Our participants were in their late 50s, and we had data from their college years that we could use to predict their scores on identity and intimacy at the earlier intervals when they were in their 30s and 40s. We also had a measure, in their 50s, of their psychological well-being. This measure asked them to rate their feelings of satisfaction with their work, their household situation, and their life overall. These data put us in the unique position of predicting their well-being in the late 50s from the answers they gave when in college, those many years ago. Unlike the typical correlational study, this one had the edge of following people over time. Time works in one direction, so that when you do a follow-up study, you can be fairly confident that scores at a later point in time were “caused” by the earlier scores.
You might imagine that happy college students would be happy adults, and for the most part, that was the case. However, it was the additional details related to this finding that were so impressive. First, the way these college students scored on the intimacy measure significantly predicted, even after controlling for everything imaginable, their late 50s well-being. Thirty-five years after being tested in college, the happiest participants were the ones who said they valued and enjoyed their close relationships. They weren’t necessarily in the same relationships they were in during college. In fact, those were the exceptions. What really mattered for predicting long-term well-being was the potential to be close with other people.
The college findings were only part of the story. Remember that we followed our participants several times from college through the late 50s at about a 10-12 year interval each time. People in college with high intimacy scores retained their relative advantage through the ensuing decades. Again, they didn’t all have the smoothest relationship history, but it was that quest for intimacy that seemed to stay high and propel them through live with a positive attitude. With each passing decade, their feelings of intimacy weathered all sorts of storms.
Being open to intimacy as a young person, then, seems to set you on a path that will allow you to look at the bright side of life. However, a strong sense of identity also helps promote midlife well-being. In our analyses, we looked at how identity and intimacy changed in relationship to each other over time. For example, we tested whether a high score on identity in college would pave the way for higher intimacy scores in the early 30s. Erikson’s theory certainly predicted that this should be the case. However, things weren’t that simple. The intimacy scores of the sample when they were in their 30s were significantly related to their identity scores when they were in their 40s.
In fact, the sample was on average 42 years old at that time of testing (in the late 1980s), exactly the age (according to some) when they should have been experiencing the so-called “midlife crisis.” Psychologists long ago declared the midlife crisis to be a myth, lacking any firm evidence to support its existence. However, there are obviously unhappy people at any age, and in our study, the unhappier ones at age 42 in terms of sense of identity were the ones who had low intimacy scores in their previous decades, starting in college.
Identity becomes an important predictor of well-being in the 40s and 50s. People starting out in adulthood with high intimacy scores are higher on well-being in their 50s, but so are those whose identity starts to gel in their midlife years.
If you didn’t start out as a highly intimate young adult, you have plenty of chances to catch up. Intimacy isn’t an all-or-nothing quality that you either have or you don’t. You can work on building your intimacy and reaping the benefits of better relationships and, ultimately, a higher sense of well-being. You don’t even need to be in a relationship to have high intimacy, because it’s the potential for intimacy that counts. Perhaps you’re between partners, or just haven’t found the right person yet. By allowing yourself to open up and share your inner feelings with others, you’ll still feel more satisfied with your life.
To sum up, here are 5 ways you can build your own intimacy so that, no matter where you are in life right now, your well-being can benefit:
- Open yourself up to new relationships. Intimacy involves a willingness to trust and confide in others. You cannot be truly intimate and fear showing your foibles to another person. You may not be able to jump headlong into every new friendship you form (and probably shouldn’t). However, if you have that willingness to share at a deep level with someone else, you’ll gradually be able to build that trust.
- Strengthen your own identity. Being sure of who you are provides you with a solid basis for relating closely to another person. Intimacy without identity creates its own set of problems in living. If you become so close to another person that you lose your sense of self, you’ll lose touch with what really matters to you. Keep your own priorities and principles strong, even as you allow someone else into your life.
- Don’t give up on intimacy. The people in our study didn’t necessarily remain with their same partners through life. Being high on intimacy may mean, to the contrary, that you don’t stay with your partner. If you really value intimacy, you may continue to search until you find the person whose desire for closeness matches yours. When that happens, the chances are that the relationship, and your sense of well-being, will flourish.
- Think of intimacy as a dynamic quality, not a trait. The way we measured intimacy specifically tapped the idea that it can change over time. We did not look at intimacy as an inherent, inborn part of personality. Intimacy is not the same as extraversion, but instead reflects the extent to which you value closeness in your life. Therefore, as your life changes so can your intimacy, and vice versa.
- Remember that intimacy is important. We tend to hear so much about “finding yourself,” especially as applied to young adults, that we forget about the importance of finding others. Being open to intimacy doesn’t mean that you’re weak, unable to fend for yourself, or pathologically dependent on someone else. Intimacy is an essential component of the healthy personality that you should cherish and foster.
It’s hard to imagine a life without relationships. With some effort and commitment, your life can include relationships that both allow you to express your true identity, grow and change, and ultimately reap the rewards of self-fulfillment.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2012
Sneed, J. R., Whitbourne, S., Schwartz, S. J., & Huang, S. (2012). The relationship between identity, intimacy, and midlife well-being: Findings from the Rochester Adult Longitudinal Study. Psychology and Aging, 27, 318-323. doi:10.1037/a0026378