Let’s talk about the psychological and social aspects of early adulthood. Psychology is different from thought pattern. Though patterns are about how one thinks when they’re trying to understand something. We can also use the term cognitive processing for the same. Although cognitive processes do come under psychology, in a more general sense, psychology refers to the triggers of one’s moods and behaviors, and also one’s general mindset. Social aspects include anything that affects social behavior. There is often overlap between psychological behavior and social behavior. Let’s discuss how both take place during early adulthood (20-40 years). 


Stage theories view early adulthood as a stage that is characterized by certain issues that affect almost every case. Two prominent stage theorists are Erikson and Levinson. According to Erikson, the chief struggle during early adulthood is intimacy vs isolation. Intimacy involves bonding with a life partner, and from the warmth that results, also strengthening bonds with friends and family. On the other hand, isolation involves failing to bond with a life partner, and from the disconnect that results, also weakening bonds with friends and family, and developing an unreceptive attitude towards attachment in general. 

Levinson came up with more detailed characteristics for the 20-40 year old period in one’s life. They are:

  1. Life structure – Where am I, and where am I going?
  2. Dreams and mentors. 
  3. Turning 30 and dealing with feeling older. 
  4. Settling down in terms of career and family. 
  5. Sidetracking of professional goals in lieu of family commitments. 
  6. The social clock that says one only has so much time to have moments, milestones and journeys which involve loved ones.


Unlike stage theories which focus on similarity, contextual theories focus on differences. The core belief is that any psychological or social response is more context dependent than it is age-dependent during early adulthood. Urie Bronfenbrenner proposed one of the most important contextual theories. He believed that the chief context of one’s psychological and social development was the way in which their interaction with their environment changed. For example, as children, the environment is predictable. So psychologically and socially, children are less complex and cautious. As they become adults, the environment becomes more and more unpredictable. So complexities and precautions pile up increasingly. 

According to Bronfenbrenner, there are five contextual systems, which he called ecological systems:

  1. Microsystem – Room, classroom, playground etc
  2. Mesosystem – Home, school, work etc
  3. Exosystem – The world outside your own context. Other people doing other things, some of whom may enter your world. 
  4. Macrosystem – Professional world, personal world, ethnic community, country, political community etc.
  5. Chronosystem – Systems involving time, like beliefs that have been shaped due to experience, childhood events, transitions and adjustments that made you who you are today etc. Systems that define the context of your journey so far. 


By the time one is 40, they have rules about getting close to other people. How nice they should be? How private they should be? How trusting they should be? So on and so forth. Psychologists call it an attachment pattern. A set of rules that govern the way in which we approach attachment to another person. One’s attachment pattern may be secure, in which case, they would know how to stay sane and positive about making friends and companions, without feeling a need to keep them at a distance. Alternately, the attachment pattern may be insecure, meaning there would be sanity-preserving distancing mechanisms that prevent complete and wholehearted participation in any bonding experience.


Familial roles include earning, child rearing, supporting one another, spending quality time together etc. Some of these roles are more emotionally charged than others. But beyond a certain threshold of abuse/neglect, all of them become emotionally charged affairs. Traditional marriages involve a clear divison of labor between husband and wife. So there is less conflict. Egalitarian marriages involve both husband and wife sharing in all the responsibilities. It is possible to be conflict-free in such a marriage, if there is less tit-for-tat and more pre-emptive mutual agreement. Marital satisfaction entails not blaming the family for stress and other disappointing outcomes. Then there is parenthood, which is its own challenge. Also, work and career ambitions go on for most, and it becomes important to strike a clean work-life balance, so as to not blame either for the outcomes of the other. 

Coming up in Adulting in India – III. What it’s like to go through a rough early adulthood (20-40 years of age). Thank you for reading.