I saw a patient a last week who is a competent, attractive, professional woman of 31. She has been living with her 29-year-old boyfriend for the past two years. They have a baby of six months and have been going out for five years. She came to see me because she is seriously contemplating leaving him.
She explained that when they were first dating, it was fun. They went out a lot: clubbing, dinners – the works. Then they moved in together and she began to notice things that raised alarm bells: he never picked up his dirty clothes, would leave wet towels lying around, left dishes in the sink, smoked inside the flat, and his friends were always hanging around. But as they went out so often, it didn’t concern her much.
When she fell pregnant, she was delighted. He initially didn’t show any enthusiasm and complained about how the baby would ruin their lifestyle. She ignored it and thought he would gradually get into it. Then the baby arrived and she loved every minute of it, but he became sullen, accusing her of being obsessed with the child and neglecting him. She wasn’t in the mood for sex (which is understandable and common in the first three months following birth) and he demanded oral sex.
She bought him books on fatherhood so that he could develop an understanding of what was required of him and the new role he’d need to adapt. He read a few pages but soon lost interest. He made some attempts to change nappies, bath the child, dress him and put him to sleep, but they were intermittent and his enthusiasm waned. By the fifth month she began to despair, and it was only then that his interest in explicit rap music began to irk her.
She became angry when he spoke about how he couldn’t wait for the child to grow up so he could teach him how to “pimp ho’s” and help him to roll his first “dagga spliff”.
At which point she came to see me. “I don’t think he can grow up,” she said. “He’s still stuck in his bachelor ways. He can’t adapt to being a dad and a future husband. I can’t be a mother to him and our son.”
She raised an interesting point about growing up. At what stage in our lives do we grow up, and how do we know this? What criteria do we use to judge whether we are growing up or stagnating? And very importantly, do we want to grow up?
Psychologists have debated these points for many years, with some arguing that there is no clear order in which we grow psychologically, that it occurs in fits and starts and is dependent on many factors, such as genetics, culture and circumstances.
Erik Erikson argued that humans develop in a predetermined order. He developed what he called the “life stages of psychosocial development”. His theory looked at the impact of parents and society on personality development from childhood to adulthood. He believed all of us have to pass through a series of nine interrelated stages over our entire lives.
Each stage in Erikson’s theory is concerned with becoming competent in different areas of life. If the stage is handled well, the person will feel a sense of mastery. If it is managed poorly, the person will emerge with a sense of inadequacy. (I will devote another column to Erikson’s stages.)
So, according to Erikson, my patient’s boyfriend is still stuck in an earlier phase of psychological development and is unable to embrace his current challenges. This causes problems for him with his partner, who has clearly grown into her new role and its requisite responsibilities.
I recall being somewhat depressed on the morning of my 21st birthday. Why? Because 21 represented the loss of my irresponsible youth. I could now officially be held responsible for my actions. Adulthood had arrived and I didn’t know if I was ready to welcome it yet. Anyway, by the time my friends arrived with all the presents, I felt much better. On reflection it was being held accountable that scared me. On this point, seeing that hardly anyone in the government or Eskom ever accepts responsibility for anything, is it fair to say that they have yet to grow up?