March 1, 2022
Psychologist Erik Erikson postulated that human beings have certain inalienable developmental tasks that are associated with each stage of our lives from crib to grave. These stages, he suggested, are binary and that we either “successfully” accomplish a given stage or we become entrenched in a form of “arrested development” as we encounter barriers in navigating these stages. The longest stage of development, INTIMACY VS. ISOLATION runs from our late teenage years through mid-life. It’s during this stage of development that we date, partner, and possibly marry. So, what exactly is Developmental Intimacy? Intimacy can be described as having the EXPERIENCE of truly partnering with another in an emotionally available, influential, trusting, prioritizing, interdependent, reciprocal, reparative, and deeply emotionally honest way. Once achieved, It allows for a “more than” relationship experience; a deep and healing connection, and a love that is deeply satiating and trusting. When intimacy is successfully achieved, it’s truly a stunning and life-affirming experience.
Put simply, isolation is an experience that falls short of intimacy. Erikson postulated that these developmental stages are a “human mandate”, meaning that we are destined to try and navigate intimacy in one way or another even if it’s “misplaced”. This unconscious effort can manifest in various ways: over-attachment to animals, addictions, material things, self, and ego gratifications are all types of examples of “intimacy needs” attempting to be met. However, these types of situations simply do not allow an individual to successfully traverse the path to true intimacy. According to Erikson, It must be done with another.
Development is demanding and controversial. It does not care about your beliefs, your thoughts, your culture, your background, your identities, or the dream catcher you have hanging above your bed; it’s a human mandate and will demand that you grow and try to successfully develop through each of its stages. I would invite you to think about it like physical development. Infants start by crawling and inevitably are “mandated” to begin walking at some point. Some do it earlier, some do it later but they all are magnetically pushed to do it. Emotional development, according to Erikson works this same way. If this sounds hard or unfair that’s because it is. The only way out is truly through. The good news is, although it’s painstaking, intimidating, and scary as hell that once you traverse it, you got it, i.e. once a child learns to walk, they’ve got it. Remember, development is binary.
Intimacy takes some time to develop and everyone and every relationship develops in their unique way. However, more than likely, there will come a time when your relationship will be led to a “relationship crossroads”. This can be a monumental phase of your journey toward intimacy. Intimacy asks that at this time, when everything feels confusing, like it’s coming undone, or that nothing seems salvageable that we hold on tight and lean in 100% into the relationship. Intimacy can only exist after such a trial and risk.
The vulnerability may not simply reside in sharing your feelings, but perhaps even more profoundly in caring enough about another’s experience to be open to being changed by their reality. True relationship sacrifice is not a sacrifice, it’s a gift. Intimacy is a type of emotional surrender; it’s a surrender that allows for relationship influence. This can be terrifying and threatening and can benefit from an adjustment period at times, thus the inherent developmental task of intimacy. Also, true relationship vulnerability is reciprocal, asking both partners to form a healthy dependency and asking that both fully participate. Lastly, vulnerability is coupled with connection and an abundance of small, affectionate interactions between partners.
Remember that intimacy is a human mandate and it feels connected, shared, and bonded. However, so do other experiences at times. Trauma bonding, relationship adrenaline, repetitive singular eroticism, or an over-emphasis on sexual intimacy only, can keep you stagnated in isolation. Intimacy can contain elements of each one of these and they can be an integral part of a couple's unique OVERALL intimacy experience. However, if these ARE the only ways in which connection happens then they can become inherent barriers to intimacy and can wind up in intimacy avoidant patterns. Intimacy takes two so, if you have the opportunity, it can be helpful to look at yourself, your history, and your own experiences before making a sincere effort toward intimacy. Water seeks its level and so having some measure of self-awareness, self-healing, and repair can go a long way toward helping you choose a partner that has a more substantial capacity for intimacy.
With the inherent challenges of this developmental task, it stands to reason that some situations, personalities, and environments can create some additional limitations for obtaining intimacy in relationships: Abusive and controlling relationship patterns, narcissistic or sociopathic personality types, active addictions, severe developmental traumas, extremely avoidant personalities, neglect, workaholism, and clandestine experiences to name a few. However, some barriers are more subtle or nuanced. It can be difficult to determine if you're seeing a barrier or a limitation. It can take some time and some processing to help you reach your conclusions and make sense of which direction you may ultimately choose to go. You get to decide what feelings you can push beyond and challenge toward intimacy and growth, and what may be inherently limited to achieving the outcome of developmental intimacy.
Those relationships that have successfully experienced it in their heart of hearts know that yes, it indeed does exist.
The developmental path is not necessarily easy, it’s not an avoidant path, and it’s not necessarily the familiar or worn path. Achieving intimacy is a creative and loving path. Along your path, it may be helpful to have a therapist provide a little extra push as you move toward intimacy, but if navigated with vulnerability, courage, and fortitude Intimacy can exist. Remember, the only way out is truly through. If you would like to make an appointment with one of our couple’s therapists simply fill out the contact form and we’ll be in touch. — Louis Laves-Webb, LCSW, LPC-S