An understanding of cognitive development drawing from Piaget's theories and how they manifest under stress in relationship communication can be very useful for assessment and therapeutic strategy. Often in working with couples or adult individuals, the therapist is deceived by the chronological ages of the clients. The therapist may assume clients cognitively function in an age appropriate manner. The therapist and others are often struck by seemingly immature cognitive functioning in contentious individuals' communication. They are reminded of very young children's egocentric thinking, self-serving logic, and grandiose thinking. "Kohlberg and Piaget have argued that the child is at first an egocentric being. A prisoner in his own individual perspective, he is largely ignorant of, and unconcerned with, the differing perspectives of others. He is thus unaware of how his own point of view may differ from another's. Because of the child's inability to differentiate his own perspective from another's, the young child is unable to assess the needs of others and thus fails at tasks of empathy and cooperation. Piaget has suggested that egocentrism colors the child's efforts in potentially all spheres of activity" (DeRemer and Gruen, 1979, page 208).
Some individuals perplex others with simplistic logic that lack nuance and sophistication. Whether one gets caught, gets into trouble, or is harmed or not may be their fundamental perspectives and their fundamental assumption about others' logic. This perspective bodes poorly for any involved or long-term relationships. It is understandable for young children, but problematic for adults. As children mature, they become more aware of intentions beneath behavior. Younger children primarily focus on the consequences of the behavior. The behavior is judged "good" or "bad" depending on whether they eventually drew positive benefits or negative consequences. Caught, in trouble, or suffering consequences make it "wrong." Getting away with it and not being punished make it "right." Initially ignoring the other person's intentions, as they mature children begin balancing consequences with consideration of the intentions when judging behavior including aggressive behavior. Lourenco (2003) believes there are "three developmental levels in children's conceptions of gain/cost in antisocial acts: orientation to gain-perception, level 1; oscillation between gain-perception and cost-construction, level 2; and orientation to cost-construction, level 3. First, regardless of type of antisocial acts, the majority of 5–6-year-olds tended to give gain-perception responses, the majority of 10–11-year-olds cost-construction responses, and although their responses were much closer to those of the youngest than the oldest age group, 7–8-year-olds were those who oscillated more between gain-perception and cost-construction responses. Second, this pattern appeared also in children's justifications. In fact, if the youngest children tended to invoke cost for the non-antisocial protagonist, the oldest children tended to anticipate psychological and moral cost for the antisocial character. Third, children's gain-perception/cost-construction responses tended to be maintained when they were confronted with a counter-suggestion, which indicates that such responses are fairly reliable" (page 27).
An individual who has been purposefully hurtful to another person may proclaim, "That's what she gets." "I can't let him get away with it." "I don't want to get yelled at." "I don't see what I get out of doing that." "It's not worth it." Such responses seem age-appropriate for pre-adolescents and younger children rather than adults, much less those in committed important relationships. In general, children's development of aggressive behaviour decreases with age. However during adolescence serious acts of violence increase, and there are adults who commit antisocial acts who process and function less maturely than affirmative children (Lourenco, 2003, page 29). The therapist should take serious notice if there are indications of immature moral development and aggressive behavior, including justification. However, instead of automatically making judgment against the apparent amorality or low morality of the individual, the therapist should consider if his or her choices or behavior are consistent with a regressed moral developmental age, and constitute a cue where to focus therapy. Adults who have not matured beyond young moral perspectives or simplistic egocentric interpretations of others' and now their partners' behaviors consequently tend to respond with dysfunctional choices.
A key rule of developmental theories is that under stress and from abuse or traumatic experiences, individuals tend to regress to earlier developmental stages of functioning. Stress, abuse, and somatic experiences may also arise from cultural experiences or from the experiences of a particular group of people. For example, refugees tend to have multiple negative somatic experiences; ghetto survivors tend to have experience financial hardship; certain ethnic groups have experienced emotionally disconnected parenting compared to American experiences, and so forth. An otherwise highly intelligent, highly functioning adult will lapse into illogical magical thinking processes under the stress of relationship conflicts. In Piagetian terms, instead of operating with formal operations processing, the individual functions not even in the concrete operations mode, but in a pre-operational style. Rather than providing clarity and stability, the cognitive function accentuates or precipitates emotional distress and disruption for the adult and his or her partner. Understanding the dynamics of attachment styles and of defense mechanisms can be useful in working with adults. The therapist needs to also understand how stress, trauma, and abuse affect the mechanisms that move a child and subsequent adult from pre-operational processing to concrete operations to formal operations. Recognizing developmentally inappropriate cognitive processing in their clients helps both the therapist understand their emotional disturbances and guide therapeutic strategies and interventions.