Looking at abusive relationships through the lens of Erikson's 8 stages of psychosocial development.


3 min read

Jason Brien.

Erik Erickson’s theory of psychosocial development describes the impact of social experience across the entire lifespan. Erikson was interested in how social interactions and relationships influenced the development and growth of human beings. Erikson restricted his 8-stage model to specific age groups starting from birth until death. I am going to deliberately exclude these age restrictions. I am also going to intentionally ‘misuse’ the 8 stages as they were originally intended and instead highlight how each of the 8 stages can help to explain how a person can be ‘changed’ or ‘altered’ by an abusive relationship.  

Trust vs mistrust; 

Our natural response to single and continued abuse is to develop mistrust, fear, suspicion, anxiety, and a belief that the world is unpredictable and people cannot always be trusted not to harm us even when they have vowed to protect us. If we don’t resolve our trauma and abuse, either through our own means or through therapy, then we will struggle to resolve the conflict between trust and mistrust. Likewise, if we become isolated as a result of a controlling and abusive person (that is, we lose our healthy support networks), pervasive mistrust will eventually prevail. We need at least one trusting relationship to maintain our belief that trust is possible.

Autonomy Versus Shame and Doubt; 

Abuse, coupled with our now pervasive sense of mistrust, shatters our confidence. It shatters our ability to believe that we can do certain things and instead leaves us with crippling self-doubt, shame and self-limiting beliefs. We become too scared to venture out into the world like we once did. Likewise, we lose our confidence and sense of independence and autonomy if we are secluded within an abusive relationship and we are constantly being criticised, demeaned and belittled. The effect of this constant abuse makes us become overly dependent and needy. Overcoming the trauma of abuse involves regaining trust in oneself and one’s abilities, strengths, etc and relearning independence.

Initiative Versus Guilt; 

Initiative is the ability to assert ourselves. Our ability to stand up for what we believe in and the ability to own who we are as a person despite what others might say. An abusive relationship can leave us feeling weak, powerless and helpless. It can leave us feeling that we have no voice. No presence. That we are invisible. Rather than owning ourselves, we begin to feel guilty for who we are and we begin to feel guilty for trying to speak up for ourselves or for having wants and needs. An abusive relationship teaches us to disregard ourselves and our needs in order to focus entirely on the abuser. To overcome the trauma of abuse we must regain our ability to assert ourselves in the world without feeling guilty thinking that we don’t deserve whatever we are striving for.

Industry Versus Inferiority; 

Continued exposure to an abusive relationship we make us too scared to try new things. We lose confidence that we can complete university or other studies. We lose the confidence to apply for a promotion at work or to even apply for a job at all. The more that we lack opportunities to develop competence the less we will grow as a person. We will inevitably begin to experience feelings of inferiority, incompetence and failure. One of the biggest things people discover once they leave an abusive person is that they actually have a lot of hidden talents and skills. That they are not inferior, incompetent or a failure by any means.

Identity Versus Role Confusion; 

An abusive relationship will destroy your identity. An abusive partner will gaslight you and make you believe things about yourself which are simply not true. They will invalidate and criticise any aspect of you and your identity that scares them. Abusers are scared of authentic people because they can’t control them. Abusers try and manage their fear of others by trying to coerce others into behaving in ways which won’t scare them. This will leave you feeling confused about what is expected of you and who you are as a person. The conflict of this stage is preserving your identity in the face of abuse which is no easy task.

Intimacy Versus Isolation; 

Humans are by nature social creatures. We possess strong desires to build social bonds with others and we naturally crave intimacy. Abusive relationships can destroy this. Either through our lack of desire or perceived competence or through the controlling actions of an abuser. Within the context of an abusive relationship, our inability to connect with others exacerbates our situation. Even if we are able to connect with others, the abuse and associated trauma may leave us unable to share ourselves. We might have to put on a false social façade which prevents us from truly connecting with others.

Generativity Versus Stagnation; 

This stage refers to the manner in which we contribute to our families, communities and future generations. When we successfully raise a family or we contribute to the betterment of society (volunteer work, engaging in ‘helping’ professions, etc) we feel a sense of productivity and accomplishment - generativity. When we are unable to (or not allowed to) contribute to society in these ways we feel dissatisfied - stagnation. Some examples of generativity can involve providing your children with a stable, loving and healthy home environment or caring for elderly parents. If you are in an abusive relationship, your focus is on surviving and you may have little to no concern or control over your ability to care for others.

Integrity Versus Despair; 

Long-term exposure to abusive relationships can leave us thinking about what is and what could have been. If we can look back on our lives and say that we have achieved most of what we desired, we feel a sense of integrity. When we look back on our lives and we see missed opportunities and a lifetime of trauma and abuse, we feel despair. Despair can either fuel depression or despair can be a motivation for change. Despair can fuel thoughts of “its not too late to escape this relationship and do something positive and life affirming with the rest of my life”.

Resources.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5398200/

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.3149/jms.0701.133

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4768593/