Overview of Interpersonal Theory

Harry Stack Sullivan, the first American to construct a comprehensive personality theory, believed that people develop then personality within a social context. Without other people, Sullivan contended, humans would have no personality. "A personality can never be isolated from the complex of interpersonal relations hi which the person lives and has his being" (Sullivan, 1953a, p. 10). Sullivan insisted that knowledge of human personality can be gained only through the scientific study of interpersonal relations. His interpersonal theory emphasizes the importance of various developmental stages—infancy, childhood, the juvenile era, preadolescence, early adolescence, late adolescence, and adulthood. Healthy human development rests on a person's ability to establish intimacy with another person, but unfortunately, anxiety can interfere with satisfying interpersonal relations at any age. Perhaps the most crucial stage of development is preadolescence—a period when children first possess the capacity for intimacy but have not yet reached an age at which their intimate relationships are complicated by lustful interests. Sullivan believed that people achieve healthy development when they are able to experience both intimacy and lust toward the same other person.

212 Part II Psychodynamic Theories

Ironically, Sullivan's own relationships with other people were seldom satisfying. As a child he was lonely and physically isolated; as an adolescent, he suffered at least one schizophrenic episode; and as an adult, he experienced only superficial and ambivalent interpersonal relationships. Despite, or perhaps because of, these interpersonal difficulties, Sullivan contributed much to an understanding of human personality. In Leston Havens's (1987) language, "He made his contributions walking on one leg . . . he never gamed the spontaneity, receptiveness, and capacity for intimacy his own interpersonal school worked to achieve for others" (p. 184).

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