Intimacy versus isolation: balancing the benefits of both

Young people in their late teens and early 20s enter a critical window of developing intimacy or isolation.

So claimed psychologist Erik Erikson, whose proposed stages of human development stated that, at each stage in life, we are faced with a central challenge. The challenge for those between 18 and 40 years old, Erikson said, was to form honest, real relationships with others. If we overcome this challenge, we achieve intimacy. If we fail, we are stuck in isolation and will indefinitely have trouble connecting with others. 

As Valentine’s Day rolls around yet again to remind us of the importance of intimacy, Erik Erikson got the newsroom thinking – is there a benefit to isolation?

College is certainly an important time to branch out and meet new people. As we transition from adolescence into some sort of adulthood, this environment is a good place to work on preparing for more serious romantic commitments.

However, readying ourselves for these commitments doesn’t require actually being in a long-term relationship. The thing about a little bit of isolation, a little space away from the chatter and the personalities of others, is that it can bring about more introspection and awareness of one’s priorities and values.

This mature sense of self, or “ego identity” as Erikson called it, is necessary for having healthy functional relationships. Relationships come in many different shapes and sizes and involve deeply personal decisions – about sex, marriage, professional sacrifices and family relationships. How individuals go about accommodating others in their lives rests on their knowledge of what they want to get out of a relationship. In addition, being comfortably independent can prevent a relationship being strangled by over-reliance.

Even so, focusing on oneself can still leave room for meaningful friendships and relationships that in turn help us grow. There is a lot that can be learned from relationships, whether it’s a romance, a friendship or a series of casual relationships. Others can introduce new outlooks and model positive characteristics. Isolation can be easy, because an individual has complete control. However, friends and significant others can enrich development in ways we would never be able to do by ourselves.

In college, whether a person decides to enter into a committed relationship, a bunch of noncommittal ones or just a deeper relationship with oneself, balance is key.

Editorials represent the majority view of The Miami Hurricane editorial board.