Identifying Intimacy:
Ego Psychoanalytic Theory and Interpersonal Relationships

Timothy T. Freitas
Department of Psychology
Simon Fraser University



  1. Identity
  2. Erikson's Concept of Identity
  3. Marcia and his Expansion of the Identity Construct
  4. The Role of Attachment
  5. The Solution: Androgyny
  6. Summary
  7. References


Erik Erikson (1959) put forward a psychosocial stage theory of human development. The Fifth and Sixth stages, namely Identity vs. Role Confusion and Intimacy vs. Isolation, will be the focus of this paper. The stages, according to Erikson, are supposed to be sequential. Erikson also felt that a strong sense of identity was necessary to engage in intimate relationships. However, some theorists have postulated that the Fifth and Sixth stages are experienced contemporaneously in females. I will present an interpretation that combines elements of both views: namely, that the Fifth Stage precedes the Sixth and that the Fifth and Sixth stages are experienced contemporaneously in females. My explanation will draw upon theory in gender differences and sex role orientation.


Erikson's Concept of Identity

Erikson (1959) constructed a developmental scheme, containing eight stages, of the life cycle. The scheme is psychosocial in nature and looks at the ego development of an individual in relation to his or her society. The sequence is epigenetic in nature, that is, each stage builds on previous ones and has its own special time of ascendancy. Each stage has three components: a physical developmental underpinning, an individual psychological meaning, and a social context for successful resolution of that stage. In each psychosocial crisis a dialectic between a positive thesis (e.g., identity) and its antithesis (e.g., role confusion) is resolved (adaptively or maladaptively) by the individual's synthesis.

"The feeling of ego identity is the accumulated confidence that corresponding to the unity one has in the eyes of others, there is an ability to sustain an inner unity and continuity" (Erikson, 1959, p.112). Ego identity also relates to an individual's experience as he or she modifies and is modified by others (Slugoski, Marcia, & Koopman, 1984). Therefore, we see that identity has both a self and other component.

Marcia and His Expansion of the Identity Construct

Erikson's Fifth Stage, that of Identity (versus Role Confusion) is arguably the most important stage. Although identity formation is highlighted at adolescence it takes place across the lifespan. Identity can be viewed as a structural concept: a theory one has about oneself. It refers to the synthesis of the previous four stages into a new structure that is subsequently re-organized as well as re-experienced at succeeding life cycle stages. If the Fifth stage is positively resolved the ego obtains strengths (i.e., fidelity) that make it stronger than before the synthesis.

Erikson's definitions of identity were not in operational terms. James Marcia (1966, 1980) developed an Identity Status Paradigm which assesses the identity status of a person via the Identity Status Interview (ISI). The ISI assesses an individual in the degree of exploration and commitment regarding personal values and goals (the content may vary with culture, as well as intra-culturally, but must be personally relevant). The two variables (exploration and commitment) are used to construct a 2x2 matrix which leads to four identity statuses (see Fig. 1). Exploration refers to the degree of experimentation with various lifestyles and beliefs. The second variable refers to the degree of commitment to chosen lifestyles, goals, and beliefs. The statuses may be viewed in an hierarchical manner: namely from lowest to highest, identity diffusion, foreclosure, moratorium, and identity achievement.

Figure 1: Marcia's Identity Statuses



    Present Absent
Exploration Present Achieved Moratorium
Absent Foreclosure Diffused

In identity diffusion, extensive exploration and commitment are absent. There are two subtypes of diffused identity individuals: those who are apathetic, socially isolated, and try to avoid contact with others, as well as those who seek relationships compulsively and maladaptively. Thus, interpersonal relationships are either sparse or extraordinarily shallow for the diffused individual (Marcia, 1991).

Foreclosed individuals have inflexible thought processes and espouse moral values at the level of law and order. They are conventional and stereotypic in intimate relationships. Since they have not undertaken meaningful exploration, their close relationships lack psychological depth (Marcia, 1991).

Moratoriums are characteristically morally sensitive, highly anxious, and show great variability. On measures of cognitive ability, moral thought, and resistance to self-esteem manipulation they appear similar to achieved individuals. Their relationships are intense and brief; their values are consistent with intimacy but they find it hard to commit in relationships (Marcia, 1991).

Achievement individuals are resistant to self-esteem manipulations and have internalized self-regulatory processes. They appear the most developed in terms of the next psychosocial stage, namely Intimacy (versus Isolation). Their initial identity configurations are expected to change at least with every succeeding stage. Also, they experience more crises because their greater ego strength permits them to see more alternatives and to take more risks (Marcia, 1991).

The relationships between identity status and style of intimacy stated above are the hypothesized ones. The initial research conducted with the ISI (Marcia, 1966) showed the hypothesized relationship for males but the relationship was less clear for females (explained below). Therefore, the relationship between identity and intimacy needed to be further explored.

Identity and Intimacy

Research done before the 1980's with the ISI suggested identity development was not the same for males and females (Patterson, Sochting & Marcia, 1990). For example, females appeared to be at lower levels of identity status than their same age male cohorts. Specifically, females often appeared foreclosed while males appeared in moratorium or achievement. Due to this gender difference in identity status many theorists postulated that the Fifth and Sixth stages may be experienced contemporaneously in females (for a review see Stephen, Fraser & Marcia, 1994, and Patterson et al., 1990). Theorists with a feminine perspective felt that interpersonal concerns, as compared to vocational and ideological concerns, were of greater importance to females. Therefore, females focused on intimacy issues before or at the same time as identity issues (i.e., vocation and ideology); in contrast, males focused on vocational and ideological concerns and not interpersonal (intimacy) issues.

Erikson's View of Identity and Intimacy

Erikson felt identity was a precursor and partial prerequisite for the establishment of an intimate mode of interpersonal relationships. "It is only after a reasonable sense of identity has been established that real intimacy with the other sex [or, for that matter any other person...] is possible" (Erikson, 1959, p.95). Later, in response to criticisms on his theory's treatment of women, Erikson (1968, 1975) suggested that interpersonal issues form the core of women's identity and that vocational and ideological issues were of peripheral importance. He also stated the sequence of women's development appeared to be less stage specific than that of men: that is, there was a higher possibility of confluence of the various stages (especially those of identity and intimacy).

Modification of the ISI

In response to the suggested gender bias the ISI was modified (Marcia, 1980). Initially, it only included content relating to vocation and ideology (religious and political). A sexual-interpersonal domain (dealing with sexuality and sex roles) was added to account for feminine issues in identity. With the addition of this new content area a different picture emerged: gender differences in identity statuses disappeared. However, there were content differences in identity. Specifically, sexual-interpersonal issues were more predictive for females and ideological issues were more predictive for males (Bilsker, Schiedel, & Marcia, 1988). Thus, the content of identity appears to differ across gender. That is, males tend to resolve ideological and vocational issues first, whereas, females tend to resolve sexual-interpersonal issues first. Interestingly, however, both males and females claimed that the interpersonal area was most important to them (Bilsker, et al., 1988). In view of this discussion, it is important to note that the sexual- interpersonal issues are related to the intimacy component of Identity and not the Intimacy stage per se.

A Synthesis of Conflicting Viewpoints

Given the presented discussion I have an alternative interpretation that is synchronous with both the aforementioned view points: namely, that Identity (Fifth Stage) is required for Intimacy (Sixth Stage) (the traditional view point), and that women experience the Fifth and Sixth Stages contemporaneously (the contemporary/feminine viewpoint).

I feel it needs to be recognized and remembered that there are multiple facets to identity. The formation of an (achieved) identity requires exploration and subsequent commitment in the specific content area one is trying to achieve identity in. Females find the sexual-interpersonal component of their lives more important than other components (e.g., ideology and vocation). Consequently, they explore their identity in relationships, that is, they try to gain a "sense of" who they are in relationships (relating self to other). Males, for whatever reason, explore ideology (and occupation) first. (This is interesting because, as previously noted, both males and females state sexual-interpersonal issues are more important than other areas.)

Thus, Identity (Fifth Stage) does proceed Intimacy (Sixth Stage) but exploration in (sexual-interpersonal issues (i.e., intimacy) occurs first to form a sense of identity in relationships. That is, intimacy issues are present in forming an Identity, but the Intimacy Stage itself is not experienced. Once an individual has a sexual-interpersonal identity, he or she can engage in the deeper and more committed relationships characteristic of the Intimacy Stage. Moreover, the individual needs a stable sense of (sexual-interpersonal) identity to be able to engage in and surrender his or her self in a mature interpersonal relationship.

Here, a few caveats should be mentioned. The above process, namely the (stage) sequence of development, is not written in stone. A given stage probably begins before the previous one is finished. Also, longitudinal compensation can occur so that a given stage can be dealt with at a time subsequent to its usual period of resolution.

The Role of Attachment

Attachment also has a role in the formation of a psychosocial identity. It is impossible to achieve a sense of identity if one has no support for meaningful exploration (Marcia, 1983). The adolescent needs to feel he or she has a "home base" from which to explore. As the adolescent matures, this home base may shift from parents to peers and significant others or, more likely, include both. If there is no attachment, there is no base from which to explore. Without exploration there can be no meaningful identity to commitment can be made. Noteably, persons who are high in identity are less anxiously attached and more secure in dealing with separation issues (Marcia, 1994).

Exploration is a means to an end: the end is to establish a mature relational world (Marcia, 1992). Mature (external) relationships are dependent upon a firmly established internal relational world. A stable internal relational world can occur only when one has incorporated and made part of oneself (i.e., identified with) those aspects of others that at one time were crucial externally for one's development. Only when the outside (objects) become internalized (introjects) can one engage in mature relationships.

Gender and Sex Roles

Identity formation occurs within a sequence of developmental stages. Resolution of each stage is dependent upon the nature of the resolution of prior stages and contributes to the style of resolution of succeeding stages. The outcome of the identity stage may be predictable from previous psychosocial stage outcomes and may be used to predict subsequent outcomes of future stages (Marcia, n.d.). Since identity is built upon previous stages, differences between males and females in the previous stages could lead to differences in the style of identity of males and females. An important gender difference in development in the previous stages is that of sex roles.

Classical Psychoanalytic Sex Roles

Built into Erikson's theory of psychosocial development are the concepts of "zone" (the Freudian psychosexual libidinal concentration areas) and "mode" (the ego's adaption to the needs associated with a zone). Around the time when sex roles are learned (the Oedipal period) the relevant modes are Intrusion and Inclusion (Marcia, 1992). Usually, boys learn the former and girls the latter. This Intrusion-Inclusion issue arises again at adolescence when it is assumed that girls Inclusive behaviour will be balanced by Intrusive behaviour (and vice-versa for boys).

A Contemporary Psychoanalytic View of Sex Roles

Chodorow (1978) gives some insight into male-female differences in developing relationships by looking at the formation of gender identity and sex roles. She posits that females, because they do not have to differentiate themselves from their mothers in order to be who they are (in the gender sense), emphasize the establishment and maintenance of relationships in later life more than males do. Males must differentiate themselves from their (opposite sex) care-givers (mothers) and, thus, they emphasize separateness more than connectedness in later life.

Social Psychology and Sex Roles

Similarly to psychoanalytic views of differences in childhood development, contemporary social psychology also points to gender differences in style of play. The best example of differences in early life is the style of play children engage in. One gender difference in children is shown in the "face-to- face" (mutuality) play of girls versus the contrasting "side-by- side" (autonomy) play of boys.

Sex Role Effects on Identity and Intimacy

Thus, sex roles appear to have an effect on identity formation. Schiedel and Marcia (1985) found that the relationship between sex, sex role, identity, and intimacy suggest that sex role learning during the Oedipal period affects later identity and intimacy development. As such, it appears that childhood development of sex roles may have a strong effect on identity and intimacy styles.

Cruise (1990) found significant relationships between adjacent links in the temporal development from gender to intimate relationships; that is, gender predicted sex role orientation, which predicted attachment status, which predicted romantic relationships. Gender predicted neither to attachment status nor form of romantic relationship but sex role orientation did.

The Solution: Androgyny

The answer, to the identity problem, may partly lie in a concept Bem (1981) called psychological androgyny. Basically, she stipulates that there are masculine characteristics (e.g., autonomy and separateness) and feminine characteristics (e.g., mutuality and connectedness). An individual (regardless of gender) who is high in both types of characteristics is labelled androgenous.

Thus, men and women with different sex role types (masculine, feminine, or androgenous) will emphasize different aspects of identity. That is, an individual with a masculine sex role orientation will emphasize vocational and ideological aspects of identity. Someone with a feminine sex role orientation will emphasize interpersonal aspects of identity. A person who is androgenous will emphasize vocational, ideological and, interpersonal aspects of identity. In general, a person will form an identity in all areas, sex role simply dictates which aspect he or she is likely to emphasize.

The developmental outcome of sex role is dialectic in nature and requires a dialectic approach. Masculinity can be viewed as the thesis, femineity as the antithesis for males (vice-versa for females), and androgyny as the synthesis. Thus, the possibility for connectedness (associated with "femininity") and separateness (associated with "masculinity") are available to both genders. In support of this it can be noted that identity achieved persons tend to come from families emphasizing the dialectic of connection and separation. Identity achieved individuals also relate the most maturely to their peers and parents. Additionally, almost every study conducted (recently) supports the relationship between Identity and Intimacy (for a review see Marcia, 1992). That is, individuals in high identity statuses (i.e., moratorium and achievement) engage in more mature and committed intimate relationships.


Identity has both a connectedness and individuatedness component. Females tend to emphasize the connectedness component first (i.e.. sexual-interpersonal issues) whereas males tend to emphasize the individuatedness component first (i.e.. ideological and vocational issues). This difference in emphasis can be predicted in part by sex roles, which in turn help to clarify the relationship between the Fifth (Identity) and Sixth (Intimacy) stages.


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