Psycho-Sexual Development

man womanThe Process of Psychosexual Development

Psychosexual development is a critically important area of human growth, whether a person enters priesthood or religious life, marries or remains single. “Both research and everyday observation indicate that a large percentage of problems in religious life and in marriage can be traced to faulty psychosexual growth.”[1] So we can say that psychosexual development is another word for “growing up” in our relational lives. It is our personal journey toward integration as embodied human persons.

Psychosexual development refers to that dynamic interplay of experiences, circumstances, phases, tasks, awareness, and decisions that lead us toward mature and loving relationships. It is a process of growth that embraces all aspects of our human reality. Healthy psychosexual development includes six dimensions. They are given in the following table:



The genetic, biological, hormonal factors that influence our sexual response from the first moments of conception and throughout seasons of our lives.


Perceiving one’s body, gender, and growth-producing sexual behaviour as well as that of the opposite sex with a positive attitude.


Feeling comfortable, confident, and competent with one’s body and sexuality, and that of the opposite sexes’.


Relating with persons of the same and opposite sex in a healthy way; having the capacity for self-disclosure; being able to sustain friendship and intimacy.


Valuing the ways of allowing and encouraging the behaviours necessary for ongoing sexual growth.


Affirming the presence of God and the sacred in our sexual feelings and expressions; coming to recognize that sexuality and spirituality are not enemies, but friends.[2]

When any of these six dimensions are absent or limited, or if they develop in unhealthy ways, our journey toward sexual integration will in some way be hindered or slowed down leading to our sexual energy being expressed in ways that are hurtful to ourselves and others.[3] To become psychosexually mature, a person must pass through a series of stages and phases, each comprising developmental tasks that are normal and natural. Each stage must be learned and successfully completed before progression to the next step is possible. In the face of these developmental tasks people have three choices: to progress through these stages at the appropriate time; to progress in a stunned, delayed fashion; or to fixate at a particular step and not progress beyond it.[4] Let me describe briefly each stages. I take three stages as important for our discussion: adolescence stage, early adulthood and middle adulthood stages.

Adolescence Stage

Adolescence is characterized by profound biological, psychological, and social developmental changes. It is considered to be one of the stormiest times in the life cycle. It is commonly divided into three periods: early (ages 11 to 14), middle (ages 14 to 17), and late (ages 17 to 20). These divisions are arbitrary; growth and development occur along a continuum that varies from person to person.[5] “Traditionally the adolescent has been characterized as idealistic, unstable, rebellious, uncertain, loving, dependent, conforming, and, above all, as sexually confused.”[6] The biological onset of adolescence is signalled by rapid acceleration of skeletal growth and the beginning of physical sexual development. The psychological onset is characterized by acceleration of cognitive development and consolidation of personality formation. Socially, adolescence is a period of intensified preparation for the coming role of young adulthood. Let us now proceed to look at the sexual developmental phases at this stage.

With the emergence of secondary sex characteristics, a powerful new energy becomes present in the adolescent’s body. They naturally explore their sexuality. In early adolescence, the random, generally disconnected sexual thoughts and feelings of childhood begin to weave themselves into thematic fantasies. In these fantasies, adolescents imagine themselves to be in sexual and romantic situations with real or imagined people. These fantasies enable the adolescents to integrate emotions and intellect with genital sexuality and lead them towards socially oriented sexuality. Many boys will experience their first nocturnal emission in early adolescence. This experience may be confusing or pleasurable and may include sexual fantasies.[7]

Middle adolescence is a time of being highly distracted and absorbed by sexuality and sexually related physical changes. They masturbate with more frequency and intensity than any other phase. They are preoccupied with sex-related issues, such as sexually oriented books, magazines or T.V. programs, and with clothes, music, dates, and dances. Homosexual experiences, usually transient, may also occur in middle adolescence. Many adolescents need reassurance about the normality of an isolated homosexual experience and confirmation that it does not indicate a permanent homosexual orientation.[8] During late adolescence, boys and girls spend increasingly more time together and sometimes even engage in sexual acts like kissing, petting etc. Sexual relating during this phase is primarily experimental, self-centered, and mixed with other needs and emotions. They need education and guidance to integrate their sexuality into celibate way of life.

Early Adulthood Stage

This period extends from the end of adolescence to the mid-thirties. Early adulthood is the time of peak physical abilities (e.g. strength, speed, agility, fertility), the assumption of major social roles, and the evolution of an adult self and life structure. The successful passage into adulthood depends on satisfactory resolution of childhood and adolescent crises. The 20s are spent, for the most part, exploring options for occupation and marriage or alternative relationships, and making commitments in various areas.[9] In this period the tasks are enormous as they are exhilarating: to shape a Dream, that vision of ourselves which will generate energy, aliveness and hope. To prepare for a lifework. To form the capacity for intimacy.[10]

Throughout this stage, the individual has the opportunity to further develop sexual maturity. Biologically the young adult begins to engage a sexual lifestyle, i.e., celibacy, commitment to marriage, or promiscuity. It is during this stage people become psychosexually more confident, altruistic, and integrated. According to Michael E. Cavanagh the stage of adult sexuality has two phases: phase of psychosexual mutuality and psychosexual integration. At the Psychosexual Mutuality phase there is a passage from viewing heterosexual relationships as instruments of attaining affirmation and gratification to viewing them as opportunities to express and share care, trust, and affection. They learn to strike a balance between intimacy and vulnerability, self-centeredness and self-denial, affection and possessiveness, reality and romance. They learn to be sensitive, tender, and compassionate; to be a source of support and joy. But this phase is not an easy passage. Many young adults also experience a certain fixation at this stage. This fixation is due to the lack of overall psychosocial competencies necessary to complete these developmental learning successfully. Adults who are fixated relate to others superficially and find it hard when it comes to deeper relationships and commitments.

Young adults arrive at the next phase of Psychosexual Integration approximately at the age of 30. This is the time the psychosexual needs gradually assume their place among other, equally important values. Depending on a person’s life commitment the psychosexual needs share priorities. It is this psychosexual integration which beautifies the life choices of people, such as marriage, priesthood or religious life.[11] Sexual dysfunction at this stage typically includes problems with sexual desire or sexual performance. It can include the full range of hypersexual behaviours as well as hypo sexual ones.[12]

Middle Adulthood Stage

The ages that define middle adulthood vary among theorists, but the period typically spans the years from 40 to 65.[13] The transition from early adulthood involves a process of reviewing the past, considering how life has gone, and deciding what future will be like. They may wonder whether the lifestyle and the commitments they chose in early adulthood are worth continuing; they may feel that they would like to live their remaining years in a different way, without knowing exactly how. People may also experience what is called the “midlife crisis” at this stage. This term does not have a fixed meaning and has been used by writers to describe a wide range of emotional struggles a person may face during this period. Men and women who are more prone to midlife crisis tend to come from families characterized by one or more of the following during their adolescence: parental discord, withdrawal by the same-sex parent, anxious parents, or impulsive parents with a low sense of responsibility.[14]

Sexuality is a major issue in midlife. At the biological level, adults are challenged to deal with andropause, the male equivalent of menopause, and its meaning and consequences for their lives. Decreases in sexual desire, arousal, and performance, less energy, longer healing time after illnesses and injuries, loss of muscle mass, and associated signs of aging are painful realities and insults to an individual’s sense of self and self-esteem. A major challenge, therefore, is to accept these physical changes as a call to focus on one’s interior life while maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Psychologically, the major challenge at this stage is to become more fully the persons they were meant to be by becoming more single-minded, more loving and caring, and more whole. It means achieving better balance between autonomy and intimacy and between self-interest and self-surrender. Socially, the adult engages in generative behaviours, i.e., focuses on giving back to the community with volunteer activities, etc.[15] “Erikson defined generativity as the process by which persons guide the oncoming generation or improve society.”[16] This stage includes having and rising children. But a childless person can be generative by helping others, by being creative, and by contributing to the society.

Spiritually, the task is to develop spiritual intimacy. Individuals at this stage can respond to the dual desire and longing for intimacy and transcendence by becoming more sensitive to relationships through putting others’ needs and interests first and by becoming more meditative and prayerful. Individuals in this stage are more attracted to Centering prayer and related forms of meditation than in previous stages. The basic personal task at this stage is to become more centered and balanced, while the basic relational task at this stage is to reconfirm one’s basic sexual lifestyle option. For most priests, this is celibacy that is, if they follow an integrative developmental trajectory. Sexual dysfunction at this stage typically includes problems with sexual desire or sexual performance. It can include the full range of hypersexual behaviours noted above, as well as the hypo-sexual ones. Also, unique to this stage is the experience of social isolation, loneliness, and depression that often reflects a non-integrative sense of sexuality.[17]

– Prepared by Bhyju CMF.

[1] M.E. CAVANAGH, “The Impact of Psychosexual growth on Marriage and Religious life” In Human Development Vol. 4, No. 3 (Fall 1983), 16.

[2] In an unhealthy development the opposite would happen in these dimensions.

[3] Cf. F. FERDER, J. HEAGLE (1992), 37-38.

[4] Cf. M.E. CAVANAGH, Human Development (Fall 1983), 17.

[5] Cf. SADOCK – SADOCK, Synopsis of Psychiatry, 9th ed. Baltimore, Williams & Wilkins (2002), p. 35.

[6] “Adolescent Psychology” In New Catholic Encyclopaedia Vol. 1 A to Azt, p. 134.

[7] Cf. L. SPERRY (2003), 32.

[8] Cf. SADOCK – SADOCK (2002), 37.

[9] Cf. Ibid, 41.

[10] Cf. G. SHEEHY, Passages (1977), 39.

[11] Cf. M.E.CAVANAGH, Human Development (Fall 1983), 20-21.

[12] Cf. L. SPERRY (2003), 34.

[13] Cf. SADOCK – SADOCK (2002), 46. Len Sperry puts the ages as 40 – 55 Cf. L. SPERRY (2003), 34.

[14] Cf. Ibid, 46-47.

[15] Cf. L. SPERRY (2003), 34.

[16] SADOCK – SADOCK (2002), 46.

[17] Cf. L. SPERRY (2003), 34-35.

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