Intimacy for the People


One’s proficiency at building intimate relationships is best understood from the perspective of human development theory. Erik Erikson (15 June 1902 – 12 May 1994) is recognized as the leader in the theory of lifespan development; so let’s focus on his contribution to our understanding of love.

Erikson claimed that human development is composed of an orderly, epigenetic psychosocial process that occurs at age-specific stages.

That’s a mouthful.

Simply, no matter who you are, where you are or how old you are you are always smack-dab in a predictable period of psychosocial development. Each developmental stage presents us with unique, age-related challenges. Essentially, at all periods of your waking life, you are reconciling an age-specific test to your psychosocial growth. It will be important to remember that how well you meet the challenges of your present stage development will depend on how well you passed through the previous stage(s). Psychosocial development is like weightlifting. You cannot expect to lift 300 pounds without first training to lift lighter weights. Your psychosocial development is a cumulative process and depends on how much practice you’ve had previous to the current challenge.

As you read through the following eight stages, with their sets of opposites, notice which strengths you possess and which you believe are weaknesses in your character. Think about your development at that particular time in your life and recognize what may have contributed to your success or weakness.

1. Infancy: Birth to 18 Months Trust vs. Mistrust

2. Early Childhood: 18 Months to 3 Years Autonomy vs. Shame

3. Play Age: 3 to 5 Years Initiative vs. Guilt

4. School Age: 6 to 12 Years Industry vs. Inferiority

5. Adolescence: 12 to 18 Years Identity vs. Role Confusion

6. Young adulthood: 18 to 35 Years Intimacy vs. Isolation

7. Middle Adulthood: 35 to 65 Years Generativity vs. Stagnation

8. Late Adulthood: 65 to Death Integrity vs. Despair

Suffice it say, from birth, when our earliest developmental challenge is to establish a sense of Trust over Mistrust, we will express throughout our lives a level of trust proportional to this distinct period on our lives. Were your caregivers responsive to your needs, your wants and your demands? Could you expect comfort when you reached for it? Was there an expectation that a familiar person would respond to your cries?

Logically, if the opposite is true, you cannot expect to communicate confidence in autonomy, initiative, industry and identity if you had not developed a means for expressing and identifying trust in others. And you cannot expect to teach it to your children without a great deal of introspection and re-learning. Keep in mind that it is by degrees that you must differentiate between ego strength and ego weakness. Most of us experience some distress in our development. It is important, therefore, to make accurate assessments of early developmental successes and failures.

We can be expected to focus our developmental efforts, sometime after the age of 18, on building intimate relationships. We can expect to spend approximately the next 20 years making an all-out effort to satisfy this ambition. If you’re between 18 and 40, intimacy may seem, at times, the only thing you ever think about. People in this developmental stage experiment with cohabitation, having babies, co-purchasing, sexuality, co-planning, morality, co-mingling and social behaviors. The strengths we gain from our experiences in early childhood contribute to our successes at establishing intimacy later on. Again, like weightlifting, intimacy is one of the heaviest weights we are ever likely to bear. You cannot expect to carry the weight of intimacy without first building on other, more basic traits in your character.

For example, if a child begins h/er life without the benefit of trust, s/he will likely have grave difficulty establishing intimacy with others later on. So, if you were not successful in detecting trust in your caregivers, you would likely have difficulty expressing trust in future intimate relationships – a trait that, for most, is essential to establishing intimacy. You may, instead, be quite clingy, suspicious, guarded, intent on pleasing others, afraid of making mistakes, afraid of being abandoned and, generally, unsure of your role in many of your relationships, including work, friendships and family.

Success in intimacy involves a sense of trust, autonomy, initiative, industry and individual identity. Believing that two people become one at any point in an intimate relationship is harmful and is likely not to endure. Pretending to be one person where there are, in reality, two, defies every success in early childhood development. Maintaining one’s individuality, difference, uniqueness and independence, while cooperating fairly and making rational compromises with an intimate partner will likely result in a much more fulfilling arrangement.

On the other hand, having ineffectively progressed through early development, and after making numerous, unsuccessful attempts at establishing intimacy, you may find yourself either living without intimate companionship (having, instead, casual and uncommitted liaisons) or, possibly, living with companionship that accommodates these weaknesses in your character. You may attract people who will, instead, accommodate your character weaknesses. Your intimate relationships may, then, be built around domestic abuse, emotional neglect, exploitation, isolation and despair.

Keep in mind that emotional trauma can have an impact on your development at any age. Success in early development does not guarantee a peaceful and satisfied adult life. It is far more likely, however, that if the demands of your earlier developmental stages were successfully met, there is a greater probability that you will be more capable of attending to and overcoming adversity, later on.

Life is relatively short. (Well, it’s never long enough – let’s put it that way.) Do something new with the plasticity of your character. You can change and you can become the person you always expected you would be. As human beings, we are always developing, right up until the moment of our final breath. At that moment it is expected that we will have the grandest of all dénouements. Namely, every instant of our waking lives suddenly makes sense. We realize that our time here on Earth was as short as the opening and closing of our eyes. At that moment, every one of our experiences comes into our consciousness awareness and concludes with an appraisal of our personal integrity. If integrity can be found in that precious moment, you will give wings to your living soul.

Press on.

It will take the force of will to do that.

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3 responses

  1. Wonderful post. Very accessible and insightful. Most encouraging conclusion, as well. Those of us who were less than successful at early stages of development are not condemned to a miserable old age. There are lots of ways to intentionally steer our own development. Thank you for sharing this.

  2. Pingback: Intimacy for the People | eitheory.com

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