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.
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:
2. When I get angry with my partner or friend I react by:
3. If I have an important financial or career decision to make, I would:
4. I can best describe my relationship with my partner or friend as:
5. When something good happens to me, my reaction is to:
6. The topics my partner or friend tend to talk about include:
[results guide below]
Be sure you complete all the questions before you read these scores:
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.
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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 Psychology, 27(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 Psychology, 43(5), 1041-1051. doi:10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.1681
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2012