Relationships

Improve Your Intimacy Through Forgiving by Erikson's Theory

Erikson did not discuss forgiving, but it is important in navigating his stages.

Posted Aug 28, 2020

KuanShu Designs, used with permission
Source: KuanShu Designs, used with permission

Although psychologists have studied intimacy for decades, there is no one agreed-upon definition of it. 

There are two predominant ideas regarding what intimacy is (see Cook, 2014):

  1. Following Erik Erikson's eight psychosocial stages, intimacy is his sixth stage, in which a person becomes internally ready to enter into a close relationship with another (1950, 1968, 1982). This personal, internalized sense of intimacy can be thwarted by past, challenging experiences, such as a lack of attachment to the parent or peer bullying in childhood (Erikson, 1968);
  2. To be intimate is to be in a self-chosen close relationship with another who also willingly chooses that relationship. Thus, intimacy is an interaction that takes place within couples.

Forgiveness is the moral virtue of being good to those who are not good to you (without excusing the other's behavior, or automatically reconciling with a hurtful other, or abandoning justice) (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2015). Even though Erikson did not consider forgiveness in his theory, the practice of forgiving may be able to enhance your intimacy, both in its internal and interactive sense with another person, in at least four ways.

KuanShu Designs, used with permission
Source: KuanShu Designs, used with permission

First, it is important to self-examine the deeply hurtful experiences of your past life to see if you have any remaining hurt from those events. Part of Erikson's theory is his insight that we never go through any of his eight stages in a perfect sense (1950). For example, in the first stage, trust vs. mistrust, there invariably will be some hurt, some development of mistrust that should be addressed. This is important because, following the advice of Erikson, that residual hurt inside of you, if deep and long-lasting, can lead to a generalized lack of trust toward all other people, including the one with whom you willingly choose to have intimacy in its interactive sense. This interactive intimacy is at risk for leading to some apprehension, to a sense of pushing the other away, or to what Erikson calls the sense of isolation.  Forgiveness, in other words, allows you to reduce resentment, to grow in a sense of trust in general, and literally to grow out of isolation to be more open to genuine intimacy in yourself and interactive intimacy with your partner. 

Second, and again following Erikson's sense that intimacy is an internal personality characteristic prior to its fulfillment in an actual relationship, forgiving those who have hurt you in the past can positively change who you consider yourself to be as a person, your sense of your own identity.  Identity, from Erikson's view, comes before true intimacy. Identity consists of being aware that you are a person who can trust others, at least to a degree, and that you can make your own independent choices (rather than, for example, being manipulated by someone with narcissistic tendencies who wishes to control you). 

This conviction that you have the confidence to make your own independent choices is what Erikson calls a healthy sense of autonomy, which either develops in childhood or is stalled there because of conflicts with others. A healthy sense of identity also can give a person confidence in taking what he calls independent initiative, or setting appropriate goals for oneself, either independently or in a couple's relationship. In other words, if you have had a hard life and your sense of self is distorted, forgiveness helps you to see the inherent worth in those you forgive and it allows you to see this inherent worth in yourself. This then leads to a deeper sense of your own identity, which, according to Erikson, makes you ready for genuine, mutual intimacy.

KuanShu Designs, used with permission
Source: KuanShu Designs, used with permission

Third, as you forgive others from your past and develop more deeply in your sense of autonomy, initiative, and identity, you then are ready to handle the give-and-take of an actual intimate relationship, which has its own challenges. 

Forgiveness can be an important component in not letting the resentments build up with your partner as you engage, as all couples do, in quarreling.

To quarrel is to have tension that arises from often not-very-important issues, such as who should bring home the groceries or who should put out the cat. Quarrels can lead to anger which can lead to an even unconscious distancing from the partner. If this distancing continues, it can grow into mistrust, which can divide the couple. Therefore, and this is important, couples should commit to forgiving each other when quarrels invariably emerge. 

The forgiving does not have to come with a proclamation to the other of "I forgive you!" but instead can occur in the silence of your own heart: a) you willingly see the inherent worth in your partner, not because of what happened in the quarrel, but in spite of this; b) you bear the pain of your resentment without expressing your discontent; c) you give the gift of patience and compassion despite your temporary pain; and d) you find meaning in your suffering in that you realize your forgiving can draw you closer in interactive intimacy. A consistent practice of forgiving, in other words, can strengthen interactive intimacy, whereas ignoring forgiveness could divide the couple.

Anikasalsera | Dreamstime
Source: Anikasalsera | Dreamstime

Fourth, if you have healthy intimacy inside of you and positive intimacy in interaction with your partner, you then are more likely to raise children well, or what Erikson calls generativity. This is one more expression of intimacy with your partner as you team up to nurture the next generation. You can pass along healthy, trustful interactions to your children, which in turn, can aid them in developing the foundational personality characteristics of trust, autonomy, initiative, industry or achievement, identity, and then their own deep and satisfying development of internal intimacy and interactive intimacy. 

All of this, according to Erikson (1982), can lead to an integrated personality and happiness near the end of your life in what he calls integrity. Forgiveness, practiced now, can set the stage for your own intimacy, generativity, and hopeful and healthy integrity in your later years.

References

Cook C.J. (2014) Intimacy. In: Leeming D.A. (Ed.) Encyclopedia of psychology and religion. Springer, Boston, MA. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4614-6086-2_9175

Enright, R.D. & Fitzgibbons, R. (2015). Forgiveness therapy. Washington, DC: APA Books.

Erikson, E. H. (1950). Childhood and society. New York: Norton.

Erikson, E. H. (1968). Identity: Youth and crisis. New York: Norton.

Erikson E. H . (1982). The life cycle completed. New York: Norton.