In keeping with the theme of addressing all the stages of life for our readers, this month’s article focuses on young adulthood. This stage is where Erikson broke away from Freud and declared that our development does not end at adolescence (thankfully) but that we continue to grow and develop throughout the lifespan.
This stage, the sixth of eight, is the first one past adolescence, and the challenge is to find a balance that leads to intimacy with others rather than isolation.
While adolescence is a time for finding oneself, for wearing different hats, thinking about what we want for a career, where we might want to live, who we want to be, young adulthood is a time where we look to connect with other people with similar values and interests, and to form a committed romantic relationship as well as close friendships with others in our peer group. If we are successful, we become intimate with others, with most people choosing to have one special, committed relationship that may lead to marriage and family. If we are not successful, we may feel isolated as those around us get married, are invited to parties and holidays, and have a sense that they have close friends and family they can lean on.
I often tell my young adult patients, that they will make their closest friendships in college. I believe this is true for most of us. As we launch our lives and go to college or get jobs, we become more of who we are, we know more about what we desire in a friend or partner, and we connect on a deeper level with the people we meet and become close to. Friendships are no longer about proximity, about who has the locker near you or whose house you can walk to easily, but are now about shared interests and values and a deeper understanding and support of each other. Simple dating, or "hooking up" is tossed aside in favor of longer relationships that may or may not lead to something permanent. And we have to be open to these possibilities, or we will end up feeling isolated.
One thing that can cause a glitch in this system, that can make us feel isolated, is a fear of intimacy, which many, maybe all of us, have on some level. It is daunting to think of opening ourselves up to other people, being vulnerable, allowing someone to see all of us. One theme I hear often, one that is in many of our hearts is, "if you really knew me, you wouldn’t love me." We often underestimate other people’s love and acceptance of us, and so we shut off parts of ourselves because we are afraid that no one could possibly love the whole package. We all do this to some extent, but some of us do it all the time and end up feeling lonely and without any intimate, genuine relationships, while others stay in relationships that are not working for fear of being alone, not quite understanding that it is often better to be alone than to feel alone.
Most people marry, and most of those people go on to have children and forge a life as a family. The most recent statistic I heard, however, states that 65% of first marriages are ending in divorce (second marriages are always more likely to fail, but I don’t have a new statistic on that). Clearly we are doing something wrong. Despite the fact that so many people aim for the "happily ever after" only 35% of us are able to do it for the long haul. Gay and lesbian groups are fighting for the right to marry; clearly most of the population reaches for this brass ring, this dream of having a life with one other person, ’til death do us part, for better or worse, but we are unsure how to actually make it happen. Perhaps that inability to connect on a deeper level, to really commit, is a consequence of our world changing into a more global, superficially connected, throwaway society. We are supremely connected through e-mail, cell phones, fax machines, instant messaging programs, etc., but we have lost the ability to connect on a deeper level. And I think, without that intimacy, that deep connection that leads to a deeper love and understanding, we lack the tools to actually stay the course and keep to our commitments. Everyone is always running in the new millennium, but what on earth are we running to?
What I have seen happening is a true desire to connect, to have that happily ever after, but an inability to make it happen. I hear from so many patients about long work hours and lack of family time. How can we have a sense of intimacy with each other if we quickly run down the laundry list of tasks to be done while we eat terrible takeout standing at the kitchen counter? It is not that people walk down aisle saying, "well, if it doesn’t work, divorce is easy." No, I see people verbalizing their commitment, their desire for that intimate relationship, but not knowing what to do to make it happen.
And figuring that out is the task of those in their 20’s, those who are forging their lives, who have to decide what they can sacrifice and compromise on, and what is non-negotiable, what they want in a marriage, a friendship, with their relationships with their families, and what those other people are capable of giving. Without being willing to put ourselves out there, to truly show ourselves to those we are closest to, we run the risk of turning around years later and realizing we have kept everyone at arm’s length and maybe we don’t want to anymore. It is very hard to rebuild those relationships 20 years later, to make them less superficial, if there isn’t any groundwork on which to build.
But when we are able to be ourselves, to be open to the wonderful possibilities of intimate friendships, exclusive romantic relationships, people who will love us no matter what, we have so much to experience and can feel that we have a place in the world and don’t have to navigate the road alone.
Dr. Barbara Kapetanakes owns the Sleepy Hollow Family Resouce Center