Adult Development & Psychotherapy

I believe that adult development theory is not sufficiently emphasized in our psychology and counseling training schools. This is unfortunate, because I believe it offers a unique and helpful perspective to the task of psychotherapy. Because I wish to offer to my prospective patients some idea of the importance of this topic, and how it informs my clinical practice, I offer below a synopsis of the theory and its development.

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In a most fundamental sense, development in adulthood is about getting older. Traditional psychotherapy looks at how our adult emotional lives are rooted in childhood and infancy. But what happens when the child becomes an adult? Is adulthood only the unconscious reenactment of early childhood conflicts and traumas?

In the 1950s, famous author and psychologist Erik Erikson constructed a psychosocial, developmental model of the life cycle. He wrote numerous anthropological studies and psychobiographies in order to buttress his views. Drawing upon Sigmund Freud and Karl Abraham's psychosexual theory of infant and child development, Erikson described eight ages of the life cycle. Childhood and adolescence cover the first five stages. The last three stages focus on adulthood and its crises: intimacy versus isolation (in young adulthood); generativity versus stagnation (in adulthood proper); and ego integrity versus despair (in old age).

Other theories of adult development followed Erikson’s path, although they had different emphases. Elliott Jaques has emphasized the importance of the mid-life crisis in individual development. Arguing for a confrontation with personal mortality as the central issue of mid-life development, He presented a theory of developmental stages that was a variant of those like Erikson, or adult development researcher Daniel Levinson. Other important theorists have included Therese Benedek, Bernice Neugarten, Roger Gould, Peter Newton, and George Valliant.

Daniel Levinson worked out his theories of adult development in two landmark studies, Seasons of a Man’s Life and Seasons of a Woman’s Life. He argues essentially that the adult portion of the human life span is divided into three eras: early, middle, and late adulthood. Each of these broad eras are themselves divided between entry or initial stages and culminating or more-or-less stable stages. Think of the difference and quality of the life structure and goals of a 24 year old as compared with a 34 year old, and you will get a sense of the internal changes that occur within otherwise specific eras, i.e. both a 24 year old and a 34 year old would be considered young adults within the Levinsonian perspective. The divisions between the life eras are marked by significant transitionary periods that can last for some years. Life during these transitions (Age 30 Transition, Mid-life transition [early 40s], Age 50 Transition, etc.) can be either rocky or smooth, noisy or quiet, but the quality and significance of one’s life commitments often change between the beginning and end of such periods.

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I believe that the adult tasks unique to each period and era of the adult life are intertwined with the issues and problems inherited from our childhoods, and are mediated by dynamic socioeconomic and historical stressors from within the cultures and societies within which we live. Helping put our adult lives back in balance with our inner resources, and understanding the contradictions and conflicts built into our life patterns -- between who we are and who we want to be, between what we love and what we must do, between our often irreconcilable commitments -- this is often the task that underlies the resolution of psychological symptoms and suffering.

A human being is both unique to him or herself, and yet is functionally a member of the human species. The human life cycle is universal, yet each life is different. The sexes have developmental histories to some extent unique to their own gender, but the overall pattern in the adult development of both sexes follows the same structure of eras and alternating periods. Adult Development theory helps us see more of our connectedness to the rest of life, primarily through our experience of living within the limits of a relatively invariant, species-specific life cycle, containing nevertheless within it, the creative potential of individual variability.

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Some suggested readings:

Benedek, T. (1958). Parenthood as a developmental phase: a contribution to the libido theory. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 7, pp. 389–417.

Erikson, E. H. (1968). Identity, youth and crisis. New York: W. W. Norton.

Gould, R. L. (1978). Transformations: growth and change in adult life. New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc.

Jaques, E. (1970). Death and the mid-life crisis. In Work, creativity and social justice. London: Heinemann.

Levinson, D. J., with Levinson, J. D. (1996). The season's of a woman's life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Newton, P. (1995). Freud: from youthful dream to midlife crisis. New York: Guilford Press.

Valliant, G. E. (1977). Adaptation to life. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.

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Last modified: February 21, 2007
Copyright © 2002 Jeffrey Kaye, Ph.D.

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