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  • Writer's pictureMarisa Guerin

The Mark of Maturity: Autonomy or Relatedness?

Updated: Jul 9, 2019

Marisa Guerin, PhD – December 14, 2018

I recently spent an enjoyable lunch catching up on the life and times of a colleague from my years in corporate life. He’s a creative, interesting, smart guy and a devoted husband and father. I so admire his willingness to chart his own path rather than living by the conventional wisdom. His enthusiasm is infectious as he talks about his interests in travel, spirituality, science, community activism, and whatever else has engaged him. (What on earth does he eat for breakfast?)

As we talked, something he said caught my attention. He spoke of his quest for “freedom” in life – inner freedom, external freedom – and he referenced it with confidence, as if this were a universal goal for everyone who seeks personal maturity.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “I do think inner freedom is an important aspect of personal maturity, but I have a different view about external freedom – if what you mean is a high degree of independence and autonomy from things that tie you down.”

“Really?” he asked, “How so?”

Our conversation turned to the fact that developmental psychologists have different research and theories about the trajectory of adult maturity depending on whether they studied men or women. As traditional masculine psycho-social development is understood, it is indeed true that the path is usually described as a journey of increasing autonomy and capacity for independence. That’s fine, except that many people, like my friend, assume that this is the normative model for adult maturity, true of all people. Not so!

As feminist critique of social science emerged over the years, the research into women’s developmental paths revealed a different direction, one that points towards relatedness. Yes, both boys and girls have the need to develop resilient egos with enough strength to carry them out of their childhood context and into the world of work and society. But the adult life pattern of the mature woman appears to be characterized by a meaningful web of connectedness and relationships. This is important to validate. Otherwise, the relatedness that may be fulfilling to a woman can be critiqued as immaturity by someone using the masculine measure of autonomy and freedom.

What is interesting is that as men and women enter their later, generative, years, at least some writers argue that men as well as women are fulfilled by the connections that allow them to offer wisdom, support, or mentoring to others – all forms of relatedness.*

(*Dear readers, note that my colleage PGrant has added some very helpful citations from the research of Kegan...see below in the comments section.)

And then there is the fact that in our society, the very distinctions between men and women are changing, too. I am not currently studying developmental social psychology, but I would place a very confident bet that today’s researchers are even more intently re-examining the field in light of better understandings of cultural and racial biases in academic theory, and especially the more complex view of human development that arises when we begin to recognize the life experience of persons who are gay, transgender, gender-nonconforming, etc.

The idea that ever-more sophisticated networks of relationships could be a mark of the highly-developed person is worth thinking about. It’s not just an “Oh, by the way.”

Since the normative model has been individuation and autonomy, there is much more language available to us to describe these dynamics. We are familiar with terms like self-esteem, self-control, and individual achievement. The vocabulary of relatedness is much less developed. During my own studies, I particularly appreciated the various kinds of relatedness that were studied by Ruthellen Josselson in “The Space Between Us” (Sage, 1995). Josselson’s categories are Holding, Attachment, Passionate Experience, Eye to Eye Validation, Idealization and Identification, Mutuality and Resonance, Embeddedness, and Tending (Care).

I would imagine that even just reading such a list gives you a way to understand why your relationships with a cherished mentor, with a childhood friend, with a lifetime mate are each different and each uniquely significant for you. How impoverished our categories are, when we have to fit those who mean the world to us into a few boxes - "relative, friend, lover, acquaintance"... as if this could account for the heights and depths of emotions and intrigue that real lives exhibit!

I wonder what our American politics could become if our national model could change from idealizing the independent, rugged individualist who succeeds or fails on his (sic) own, to an affirmation of life-giving community in which persons of all abilities, ages, and backgrounds have the opportunity to thrive as the unique persons they are, but within a web of relatedness that provides support to all. Just having women in leadership won’t do it – the American paradigm for success needs to change also. Anything that moves us towards assuring the common good is probably going in the right direction.

As always, balance and integration would seem to be the path of wisdom. For me, that means appreciating each of these pathways to maturity:

  • Yes! I do value the hard-won capacity for independence in women and in men that enables them to navigate their world with competence and with confidence.

  • Yes! I also value the gift of inner freedom in the maturing person, which needs to be cultivated if we are to make choices, little or big, with integrity.

  • But most of all! I value the miracle of human relatedness in friendships, families, loving partnerships --- bearing fruit as community in neighborhoods and towns.

Metal sculpture near the Philadelphia Museum of Art

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