Mastering the 4 Stages of Development

The key to becoming an adult is to not get stuck

Posted Dec 30, 2014

So you already know this: we move through developmental stages, step by step. Macro to micro – large motor movement to fine motor. One word to 3 words. Walk at nine months or 15 months. Fifteen second attention span to… 30 second attention span? The problem is that we all move at different rates, and we more importantly we can easily get stuck at certain points along the way.

Here is a simple but useful version of development that I learned long ago:

Dependence. This is every kid. I can’t take care of myself and so I lean on my parents. They ( my parents) set up my world, the rules for living that make up my life and survival. Sure, there are things I don’t like, behaviors that wound me, but I need to find some way to cope and adapt. Ultimately, if they don’t do well, I don’t do well.

Counterdependence. I’m done leaning on parents, tired of following their rules,time to break away. You say black I say white. And if you don’t say black I'll push you to say black so I can say white. I tell you how you’re a hypocrite and let you know you’re not as smart as you think. I pull away and bounce into my peer group where we both complain about our parents and experiment by trying to see what we can get away with. By experimenting we begin to discover what we like and don’t like.

Independence. Okay, I no longer need to bounce off of parents, done with that. I’m standing on my own two feet, I’m my own person…sort of.

Independence is a fragile stage and in the really early stages can be a ridiculously staunch self- sufficiency. When I was 23, married, had a child and a house, I mentioned to my father that I was going to put a new roof on my house. He offered to come down and help. I told him that that was okay, I didn’t need his help, I was going to have some friends do it with me. I turned down his offer because I knew that if I got within ten feet of my dad I would turn into a ten year old. He’d take over and I would spend the day following him around and handing him nails. It was my house! I needed to do myself.

Interdependence. Fast forward ten years and I mention to my father that I’m planning on finishing my basement. He offers to help. I say, come on down and bring your hammer. 

Interdependence means that I can stand on my own two feet but realize that I can’t do everything myself, that I can accept help from others, and their help isn’t a threat to my independence.

Okay, sounds good. While we talk about stages, it is a continuum with transition zones along the way, and under stress you can slip back – on a bad day I'm not so interdependent and want to do it myself. That’s fine. The bigger problem is, like a variation on Freud’s oral / anal, etc. stages, you can get stuck at one stage and struggle as an adult in relationships and negotiating life. Here’s what you might see: 

Dependence: Folks who becoming stuck here easily become overwhelmed. They tend, like the child, to seek out and lean on someone who can help them – a partner, a therapist, or even stay glued to their parents. They tend to be passive and reactive rather than proactive, and like the young child have a stance that I’m happy if you’re happy. They avoid confrontation and often walk on eggshells.

Counter-dependence: You’ve met folks like this. They may be forty years old but they can easily seem like they’re fifteen at times. They can easily get ramped up and oppositional to anything that feels authoritative and limiting – a new snow policy at work, for example.

This same stance of "me against you" can spill over to intimate relationships, but take on a flavor of passive-aggressiveness and secrecy: At times being “good” and doing what their partner wants, and other times doing it a half-ass way, or sneaking off doing what they know would upset the other person – getting glued to a video game, acting out through shopping, or worse, having an affair. 

These folks have a rebellious streak that easily gets set off, but like dependent folks are often unassertive in intimate relationships.

Independent. They are self sufficient. I do myself. I don’t need help, don’t need advice. I may not get angry and ornery like the counter-dependence folks do, but I need to do it my way.

Their boundaries are clear and rigid, a bit too rigid. Others can see them as stubborn. Because they fear becoming dependent, they can hard to get close to; they struggle with openness and intimacy.

Interdependence. It’s easy to like these folks. They’re solid and open and generally calm. They may disagree with the new policy at work, but they raise their objection without the anger or angst. They may not really want to do what their partner asks of them, but they either speak up and say so, or decide they though it isn’t important to them, it is important to the other guy and they do it because they want to show that they care. They are independent in a lot of ways, but they realize they don’t need to be Superman and that there are some things that they just can’t do, and are not shy about asking for help. Because they are more open to others, they can be more intimate. 

A good way to be, yes?

So where are you in this developmental process? If you’re stuck in some way, the challenge is to realize your limitations – your self-sufficiency, your dependence, your rebellion – uncover the underlying fear, and use your rational mind to deliberately move forward. Talk about the work policy but curb the drama; take the risk of asking for help and giving up control; take small but important steps to do things on your own, rather than taking what you can get or leaning on others. It’s not about correcting deficiencies but about becoming more flexible and well-rounded. 

Take charge of your own growing up.