Bartashevich Karyna/Shutterstock
Source: Bartashevich Karyna/Shutterstock

Intimacy is a quality we normally associate with enduring relationships. However, in order to have these relationships in our own lives, we need to have the potential to experience true closeness with another person. To be able to experience intimacy, you need to have a firm sense of identity. Only after you have a solid sense of self can you then move on to merge your identity with your romantic partner's.

According to the developmental psychologist Erik Erikson, the "intimacy vs. isolation" crisis is the sixth to unfold in adulthood, reaching a peak of importance in the 20s, but continuing to remain a central developmental task throughout adulthood. Close relationships remain a vital part of our well-being for as long as we live. Any obstacle to achieving true intimacy becomes an obstacle to achieving self-fulfillment because even the most autonomous of individuals needs the kind of human contact that intimacy can bring. Yet, not everyone is able to experience intimacy to the maximum degree. Erikson's theory predicts that people who suffer difficulties in their childhood or adolescent years will find that they cannot reach that level of sharing people require for true intimacy. Individuals who remain "isolated" will continue to experience difficulties with their later developmental tasks. If they have children, they will not feel totally connected to them. In their work, they will become less secure and able to reach out to their fellow employees. The passing years will make it more and more difficult for them to accept and enjoy their lives because they will lack that firm foundation that comes from solid intimate bonds with others.

If you have the potential for true intimacy, then you show strengths in three key areas: closeness, communication, and commitment.  

  • Closeness is the ability to let down the inner barriers that allow someone else to see you as you truly are. When you feel close to another person, you don't mind if that person sees you without your normal defenses—psychological and otherwise. You feel completely comfortable with that person because you know that he or she will accept you, flaws and all.
  • Communication in a truly intimate sense means that you are able to say how you feel and understand how the other person feels. When you communicate intimately with your partner, you don't avoid discussing painful or difficult topics. Rather than avoid conflict, you approach it, but not in a malicious or angry manner. Emotions may lead you to become irritated, frustrated, and even ready to scream, but you don't attack your partner. By the same token, when you are angry or annoyed, you don't avoid expressing the way you feel. People who communicate positively in an intimate relationship are also able to be both active and empathic in listening to their partner's concerns.
  • Commitment means that you agree to remain attached to your partner through thick and thin. Commitment is the "till death do we part" phrase in traditional marriage vows. Even if you don't follow through on your commitment with marriage due to legal restraints (e.g., where same-sex marriages are not legalized), you nevertheless feel that you are emotionally bound to this person.

These three components of intimacy refer to your potential as an individual, not the quality of your relationship. You may not be in an intimate relationship at the moment, but if you score favorably on all three, you have the psychological capacity for intimacy when the right person comes along.

In research on intimacy vs. isolation, psychologists find that some people are either 100% intimate (meaning they are high on all three C's) or 100% isolate (low on all C's).  However, there are others who don't easily fit into these extreme endpoints. 

A number of years ago, psychologist Jacob Orlofsky and colleagues (1973) developed an Intimacy Status Interview to assess the quality of an individual's capacity for intimacy according to Erikson's framework. In the process, he found that some people seemed to have the capacity for intimacy on the commitment dimension. However, they fell short on the criteria of closeness and communication. These individuals, who Orlofsky called "pseudo-intimate," seemed just to be going through the motions of being in a close relationship. Their friendships were superficial or stereotyped. Rather than engage emotionally with their romantic partners, when it came to conflict, their preferred method of interacting was avoidance. Unlike totally isolated individuals, the pseudo-intimate people had relationships but they were of an obligatory nature.

The original study included male participants only. When women joined the intimacy status research, a fourth group emerged: the so-called "Merger's" (Tesch & Whitbourne, 1982). These are people who are thoroughly enmeshed with their partners. They draw no boundaries between themselves and the object of their desire. Lacking a solid sense of identity, they draw their self-definition from that other person. Individuals with a merger intimacy status actually are high on the three C's. But because of their poor identity definition, they fall short on Erikson's key criterion for intimacy. This criterion is having a solid sense of identity and allowing the balance of power to shift to their partners.

To find out your own intimacy status, answer these questions as honestly as you can regarding your partner or closest friend. The more honest you are, the better sense you'll have of where you may need to focus to enhance your capacity for intimacy.

1. If I have free time or am planning a vacation, I:

  • a. certainly prefer to use it to spend time with my partner or friend.
  • b. do things on my own rather than with my partner or friends.
  • c. can't imagine doing anything without my closest partner or friend.
  • d. feel I should go with my partner or friend because I'm expected to.

2. When I get angry with my partner or friend I react by:

  • a. leaving or walking out rather than talking about it.
  • b. expressing how I feel as honestly and clearly as I can.
  • c. regretting that I ever got into the relationship at all.
  • d. becoming afraid that he or she will leave me.

3. If I have an important financial or career decision to make, I would:

  • a. decide on my own without consulting my partner or friend.
  • b. rely entirely on my partner or friend to make it for me.
  • c. consult with my partner or friend for help and advice.
  • d. ask my partner or friend but not take the advice very seriously.

4. I can best describe my relationship with my partner or friend as:

  • a. so close that I can't imagine life without him or her.
  • b. very solid and a major part of my life right now.
  • c. satisfactory but not as important as other aspects of my life.
  • d. distant and not very satisfying but this does not concern me.

5. When something good happens to me, my reaction is to:

  • a. celebrate on my own by rewarding myself with something I like doing.
  • b. enjoy the way I feel and tell my partner or friend as soon as I can.
  • c. tell my partner or friend right away without even thinking about how I feel.
  • d. share the news with my partner or friend but not give this a priority.

6. The topics my partner or friend tend to talk about include:

  • a. relatively superficial conversations that don't explore our feelings.
  • b. deep emotional issues focusing on how much I need him or her.
  • c. both practical and emotional aspects of our relationship.
  • d. very few things that interest me, and as a result I don't pay much attention.

[results guide below]

Be sure you complete all the questions before you read these scores:

  1. a. Intimate b. Isolated c. Merger d. Pseudointimate
  2. a. Pseudointimate b. Intimate c. Isolated d. Merger 
  3. a. Isolated b. Merger c. Intimate d. Pseudointimate
  4. a. Merger b. Intimate c. Pseudointimate d. Isolated
  5. a. Isolated b. Intimate c. Merger d. Pseudointimate
  6. a. Pseudointimate b. Merger c. Intimate d. Isolated

From your pattern of answers, you should see a predominant tendency. Now read further for how you can take your scores and use them to help you improve your relationships:


You're in good shape with regard to your current relationship. Your ability to relate to your partner will help you maximize the benefits you gain from future close relationships as well as your relationships to your friends. You have a good sense of your own identity but you are still willing to share the deeper aspects of your emotions and experiences with the person or people to whom you feel closest.


Although you clearly have the capacity for close relationships with others, you put the needs of your partner or friends so far above your own that you lose your own sense of identity. It important for your future growth as a person to have that strong identity. But also without it, your romantic partners and friends will perceived you as clinging and needy. Take some time to figure out your own needs and priorities, even if it means spending some time on your own.


You value long-term relationships, but you resist letting others get too close to you. At times, you may appear indifferent or callous because no one can penetrate your shell. You may ask yourself why you are so afraid of emotional closeness. Do you fear that others will take advantage of you? Is your own sense of identity fragile and shallow? Whatever the reasons, the superficiality that you maintain with your romantic partners and friends will ultimately leave you feeling lonely and may eventually drive them away.


You possess an inability to get close to people that you feel may now reflect difficulties establishing a firm sense of your identity in your earlier life. Although you may think that you're better off being alone than in a relationship, you eventually may find that you've cut yourself off from important sources of fulfillment. Building up your inner self-confidence may take some reworking as you find your own sense of direction. But once you do so, you can feel more comfortable about establishing true closeness in a long-term relationship.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.  


Orlofsky, J. L., Marcia, J. E., & Lesser, I. M. (1973). Ego identity status and the intimacy versus isolation crisis of young adulthood. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology27(2), 211-219. doi:10.1037/h0034787

Tesch, S. A., & Whitbourne, S. K. (1982). Intimacy and identity status in young adults. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology43(5), 1041-1051. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.43.5.1041 

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2012

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