5 Signs of Low Emotional Maturity

As a psychologist, one of the biggest sources of chronic unhappiness I see in people’s lives is being married to someone with low emotional maturity.

I hear stories like this all the time:

  • At the slightest hint of criticism, he just clams up or gets defensive—he literally never admits to being wrong!
  • I just don’t understand how she can be so smart and successful but so oblivious when it comes to her feelings?
  • He was so funny and charming when we first met… I just wish I had realized then that he had the emotional intelligence of an 8-year old.

More and more, I’m convinced that one of the biggest “secrets” to happiness in life is to avoid partnering with someone who doesn’t have much emotional maturity.

Because here’s the thing:

No matter how intelligent, charming, or successful, it’s really hard to live with people who are emotionally immature.

On the other hand, one of the best ways to improve your odds of being happy in life is to avoid partnering yourself with someone like this in the first place.

Learn to identify the signs of emotional immaturity early, and you’ll save yourself a lot of conflict and unhappiness.

1. They outsource emotional labor

Dealing with painful emotions is hard…

  • Volunteering to give that presentation even though your anxiety with public speaking is through the roof
  • Keeping your communication with your partner respectful even though you feel defensive and want to criticize back
  • Acknowledging and validating your grief after a breakup rather than numbing it out or distracting yourself from it

It’s not called emotional labor for nothing!

But like all hard things, our natural instinct is to avoid them…

  • Much easier to stay quiet, not volunteer for the presentation, and avoid all that anxiety.
  • Much easier to hit back at your partner with a zinger that boosts your own ego and sense of self-righteousness.
  • Much easier to lose yourself in a new relationship than actually process and explore your sadness and frustration with the last one.

One particularly tempting way to avoid the hard work of managing difficult feelings is by outsourcing them to someone else.

Outsourcing emotional labor means getting someone else to manage difficult feelings that are really your responsibility.

Here’s a simple example:

  • Your boyfriend’s parents are coming into town for the weekend. They keep texting him asking whether it’s okay for them to stay with you or if they should get a hotel. He feels uncomfortable saying no to them but also clearly doesn’t want them to stay with you.
  • Finally, he says, “I’m just too stressed with work and everything else to deal with this. Can you just call them and figure it out?”
  • Because you feel sorry for him being stressed out, you say yes, and deal with his parent’s situation yourself.

This is the kind of thing that seems like no big deal initially. But it’s a dangerous precedent to set in a relationship. And it can become truly destructive if it becomes habitual—one person chronically outsourcing emotional labor to the other.

Keep in mind that in many families and cultures emotional labor is traditionally outsourced to women. This has two big consequences:

  1. Women become overworked, overstressed, and eventually resentful as a result of having to do all the emotional work in a relationship or family.
  2. Men stay emotionally immature and fragile because they easily avoid working through difficult emotions on their own and then miss out on the emotional confidence that would come from it.

As your relationship becomes more serious, look out for signs that your partner is outsourcing their emotional labor onto you.

If you find yourself always having to manage other people’s emotions, you probably need to learn to be more assertive and set better boundaries.

2. They make you feel bad for feeling bad (emotional gaslighting)

Many things that feel bad are bad:

  • When your leg is in pain because it’s broken
  • When your stomach hurts because you got the flu
  • When finger hurts because it’s on a hot pan

In other words, pain is often a signal of danger or damage.

But just because pain sometimes means something’s wrong doesn’t mean that’s always the case. And when it comes to emotions, this same distinction holds:

Just because an emotion feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad.

Your muscles hurt, for example, after a workout. But that doesn’t mean something’s wrong. In fact, it’s a good sign of growth!

Some people have developed the habit of using other people’s emotions against them as a form of manipulation or gaslighting as it’s sometimes called.

For example:

  • Your partner says something sarcastic and hurtful to you and you’re understandably sad as a result.
  • They see that you’re sad and exclaim, “Why are you always so gloomy?! Can’t you just look on the bright side and appreciate what you have?”

See what happened, there?

You very understandably felt sad but then your partner framed it as a bad thing or weakness. If you were to accept this interpretation and go along with it, you would end up feeling a lot worse because now you’d feel guilty on top of already feeling sad.

Be very careful about getting into relationships with people who believe that feeling bad is bad. Because consciously or unconsciously, they’re likely to end up gaslighting or guilt-tripping you into feeling bad about feeling bad.

Of course, ultimately how you feel is your responsibility. But it’s a lot easier to manage your feelings in a healthy way when you’re surrounded by people who validate your feelings instead of judging them.

3. They give advice constantly (but never take it)

Constant advice-giving is often a sign of insecurity and low emotional maturity.

When someone we care about is having a hard time emotionally, it’s natural to want to help them:

  • When someone is feeling anxious, it’s natural to want to help alleviate that fear and anxiety. So we offer advice on how to feel better or be more confident.
  • When someone is sad or grieving, it’s understandable to want to help them feel back to normal again. So we offer advice on how to “cheer up” and get back to life.

But here’s the thing you have to watch out for:

Helping advice is often motivated primarily by the advice-giver wanting to feel better.

See, when people close to us feel bad, we often feel bad along with them. And as a result, many people give advice mostly because they don’t want to have to feel bad anymore.

For example: After a whole evening of his wife feeling anxious and insecure about some incident earlier in the day, a frustrated husband starts peppering her with advice to “just ignore it” or “then quit the damn job” because he’s tired of her feeling anxious and all the “tension” it’s bringing to their relationship.

If your emotional struggles are always met with advice, that could be a sign that your partner is less interested in actually helping you and more interested in not having to feel uncomfortable themselves.

Aside from being kind of selfish, this is a problem because it leads to unhelpful advice. Because when we struggle emotionally, we usually need compassion, understanding, and connection far more than mere advice.

Be careful of getting into a serious relationship with someone who sees painful feelings as problems to be fixed rather than experiences to be shared.

4. They get defensive but don’t acknowledge it

There are two types of defensiveness:

  1. Feeling defensive. It’s very normal to feel defensive anytime we’re attacked, judged, or criticized—even if the criticism is well-intentioned and kind. It simply hurts when our weaknesses, failings, or vulnerabilities are exposed. If you’ve done something wrong and someone calls you out on it, you’re gonna feel at least a little guilty and ashamed and defensive. This is normal and there’s nothing wrong or unhealthy about feeling defensive.
  2. Acting defensive. While it’s perfectly normal and healthy to feel defensive when criticized, if your response to that difficult feeling is to attack the other person, that becomes problematic. For example, when your partner reminds you that you forgot to take out the trash again and asks that you please try and remember next time, but you lash out and criticize them for something they didn’t do earlier in the week.

Be careful of people who act defensively on a regular basis: It’s usually a sign of low self-awareness and insecurity.

Obviously, when someone is in the habit of acting defensive it can lead to all sorts of problems: needless fights and arguments, saying hurtful and regrettable things, low trust in the relationship, etc.

But the much bigger problem with people who habitually act defensively is this: It keeps them ignorant of their defensiveness and unable to manage it in a healthy way.

Emotionally mature people are able to feel the pain of defensiveness but are self-aware enough to acknowledge that feeling, process it in a healthy way, and then act in a way that’s mature and constructive.

The emotionally mature reaction to being criticized for not taking out the trash might look something like this:

  • Feel defensive: some mixture of guilt, shame, and anger
  • Acknowledge that they’re feeling defensive, that it hurts, but also that they did in fact forget to take out the trash and it’s perfectly reasonable for their partner to remind them or criticize them for this.
  • Remind themselves that, however bad they feel, it’s okay to feel bad and still act in a way that’s mature and helpful.
  • Apologize and do something to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.

But all of that emotionally mature response depends on their ability to be aware of their defensiveness in the first place.

Emotionally immature people act out their defensiveness in large part because they lack enough self-awareness to know when they’re feeling defensive and impulsively go straight to acting defensively.

And while it is possible to change this type of behavior, in my experience, it’s uncommon. If you do get involved with someone who chronically acts defensively, be prepared to live with that.

5. They’re unwilling to be vulnerable

Emotional vulnerability means the willingness to talk about and be open with how you feel. Unfortunately, some people lack either the skills or the willingness to do this. Which is a big problem because…

It’s very hard to have a healthy relationship with someone who refuses to talk about their feelings.

Now, emotional vulnerability doesn’t mean you go around constantly talking about every little feeling and mood with everyone you meet. And in fact, the ability to suppress our feelings is actually an important skill.

The problem is when people are so good at suppressing how they feel that they can’t—even when it’s necessary or would be helpful.

A few examples of how the unwillingness to be emotionally vulnerable can take its toll on a relationship:

  • Your partner is under a great deal of stress at work. But because they are unwilling (or unable) to talk about that stress and their feelings about it, they resort to drinking too much in order to deal with it.
  • Unbeknownst to you, your spouse is unhappy with your sex life. But they feel ashamed for feeling this way and are unwilling (or unable) to talk about it openly. As a result, resentment grows, and along with it, a lack of connection, intimacy, and eventually trust in the relationship.
  • Your boyfriend works constantly and, despite your requests, almost never takes much time off which is causing friction and strain in your relationship. You have good reason to suspect this has to do with some of their deep insecurities and self-worth issues from childhood, but despite all your efforts, they’re unwilling to talk to you or get help from a counselor or therapist. Your resentment grows along with the increasing divide between you.

The unwillingness to be emotionally vulnerable usually comes from people having a bad relationship with their own emotions. And no matter how hard you try, that’s not something you can fix.


It’s very difficult to have a healthy relationship with someone who doesn’t have a healthy relationship with themselves.

All You Need to Know

Low emotional maturity isn’t a character flaw or moral failing. For many reasons, some people’s emotional development simply doesn’t keep pace with development in other areas of their life like age or intellectual ability.

And while all of us struggle with some of these things at times, be careful of committing yourself to someone who demonstrates many of these signs on a regular basis:

  • Outsourcing emotional labor
  • Emotional gaslighting
  • Always responding to problems with advice
  • Not acknowledging their defensiveness
  • An unwillingness to be vulnerable


Add Yours

Wow. You put words to difficult concepts in ways that we all can understand and benefit from. It’s easy to feel uneasy about someone’s actions, but many times it’s harder to know why their behavior turned us off. You’ve explained how to know when common immature actions are a result of immature emotional development. Thank you for your insight and clarity as usual!

Concerning acknowledging one’s defensiveness, what is one to do if one’s partner criticizes as a matter of course? If, after the fifth or sixth criticism in a conversation, one finally snaps and retorts that the critical party is also imperfect, has one become guilty of unacknowledged defensiveness, on top of all the other flaws that have already been pointed out?

This article is helping me deal with my marriage separation. Much here relates to loss of trust and connectivity with husband of 38 years. I always made excuses for his emotional immaturity, (and mine) until my unhappiness led to breakdown. Thank you for helping me better understand these dynamics.

Thank you for this Awesome article. I been married 37 years and we struggle with this in are marriage and has caused and still does intense PAIN! We will be reading this together tonight and I have Faith in the changing process. You Rock!

Dear Nick, How I wish I had received an emotional education earlier. Even today, at 71, I’m still looking for some answers. Many of them, and clearly, I have obtained in your articles. Thank you so much. Congratulations.
Lisbon, Februry 2022

I was married to a guy just like this. I wish I had read this advice several decades ago, but it’s never too late 🙂 Thank you, Nick

Thank you for this article, Nick. I appreciate how you are able to use neutral language in explaining how to identify such behavior.

I do wonder if you add insight on how to maintain emotional maturity and be happy while encountering and/or living with those who are emotionally less mature?

great article nick. But what do you do if you’ve already committed yourself to someone? I did notice these things early on but they didn’t seem to matter, but 15 years and 3 children later it’s really hard to live with. What do you do when your partner is chronically defensive, has an unwillingness to be vulnerable and outsources emotional labour?

Dear Nick,
Am absolute delight to read your teachings, such wise words.
As a 68 year old wife of 48 years I have found my salvation in attending to my own physiological and spiritual development.
This has enabled me to help my husband ,through my changed behaviour he is changing his.
“As you think so you are “ quote by Jon Kabat Zinn helped me enormously, along with his Mindfulness, Based, Stress, Reduction MBSR
Love your work Nick, very informative and empowering.
Thank you so much.

Dear Nick,
Am absolute delight to read your teachings, such wise words.
As a 68 year old wife of 48 years I have found my salvation in attending to my own physiological and spiritual development.
This has enabled me to help my husband ,through my changed behaviour he is changing his.
“As you think so you are “ quote by Jon Kabat Zinn helped me enormously, along with his Mindfulness, Based, Stress, Reduction MBSR
Love your work Nick, very informative and empowering.
Thank you so much.

I read this before and recognised my husband of 20 years in every point. I was aware of the issues early on.. Maybe why I waited 7 years before marrying him.. But I did anyway. Was it love? An emotional bond? Co_dependence? My biological clock ticking? The glimpse I would catch every now and then of a frightened little boy under the alpha male exterior? Our unborn children clamouring to exist? All of the above? As you say, these are big challenges, a permanent crack in the relationship which requires a lot of work to overlay with gold. And as you say, you’re not getting much help with that emotional labour. But I have found I can learn and grow through the challenge : your work on assertiveness and boundaries, Nick, is helping as are novels and media about living with the emotionally challenged (The Rosie Project, A Man Called Ove, Jack Nicholson in As Good as it gets) Now our children are 18 & 19, we have more time to work on us. I see many of their friends’ parents breaking up at this time, but I feel more committed, more confident in us than before. I just want us to craft the happiness we deserve.

What do you do if you don’t realise this is the case years after being with the person and now you’re committed? How do you live with an emotionally immature person?

Ok Nick You say to be careful and avoid getting into relationships with emotionally immature people – but maybe an article on how to manage if you already are committed. Lots of years later and many children . Unnecessary uncomfortable and totally avoidable stress , no inner security – puts a huge strain on my love banks. ! Waiting for the article on how we can negotiate and help get over this immaturity ???? Love your stuff.

I find your article both interesting but also a bit disturbing. Ditching half of the population is not quite an option. Re-educating, or counselling or whatever could be done would be more of a win-win. I can definetely see that I have some of those signs – but so does my husband, and we tend to take turns at being the bad one. We have taken many turns over the years. Things like: Order you were born in, your family history, etc. etc. all plays a part in who you become. I am typical 1st born (responsible serious, attention to details etc. etc., and hubby is a typical last born (the ‘baby’), care free, but also needy, was previously often leaving the delivery of bad news to me. I.e. if something negative had to be said to the kids – it was passed on to me. But now that they have left our home, I have been feeling lost and vulnerable, and yes negative. Trying to find my new purpose and re-vamping myself, as I am getting older, I guess what I am trying to say is: We all have some of it in us. It is perhaps natural, but good to be mindful of. But ‘staying away frot ir’ does not sit well with me. We are all flawed in some way. The “ditch it” technique, because it is not perfect, becomes less and less attractive as you become older and are no longer perfect yourself. Lets all try to be caring and considerate. Understanding of each other. Will it work all the time? Probably not, but as long as we continue to communicate with each other, then ts ok to take time out, and get back when ready and then we are still doing ok… Years of ‘togetherness’ holds great value to many couples. Even though we all have shitty days from time to time, and may not talk for a day or 2. We just give each other some space and then return to communicating once things have settled. I think it is just as much linked to stages in our lives where we get sad or lost as it is linked to personality…

Hi, great article, fits neatly with other stuff I’ve read about how bad emotional immaturity in parents will influence the children, who will be constantly shamed for making the “poor” parent feeling confused, overwhelmed and, ultimately – angry most of the time, withdrawing from the child..

Reading these reminded me of myself early on in my marriage. In my family of origin you just did not talk about emotions and it was often defensiveness and anger that were shown. It has only been through a patient spouse and a lot of self work that I have come to realize this way of behaving was detrimental to me and our marriage. Thanks for your articles, they are spot on.

Sadly, this article describes my mother who is now 82 in the most accurate way. She has lived her life as an emotionally immature woman, spouse and mother. This put a strain on her marriage with our father – our father would become so frustrated with her behaviours and emotional inaccessibility. She also had/has pronounced social anxiety. Our Dad passed away 37 years ago. They had four daughters from their union. We always felt, as adults, that they were mismatched. All four of us daughters have struggled to a great extent during our lives to try to understand her and be compassionate with her but you reach a point where you hit a wall and realize that this is a person who will never change, does not see/acknowledge that she has problems that affect her relationships and has no desire to change. For me, as the daughter who lives closest to her and was once her medical advocate and caregiver, her long term way of dealing with issues and change has been to offload it onto me and shame/blame me for all of the bad things that have happened to her as she puts it. I suspect that this is what she did with our father. Last year, my sister died from a car accident due to traumatic injuries. In the two weeks while our sister was in ICU, our mother chose to shame/blame me during this period for all of the bad things yet again, including the accident. During one of the most vulnerable times in my life she chose to do this. I severed my relationship with her at that time. She was cruel. It was too much to deal with in addition to the trauma and intense grief of losing my sister whom I was very close to. I started going to a therapist for grief counseling. She told me that this kind of situation is common in families where there are relationship fissures who experience trauma and loss. Therapy has been a lifeline for me. My husband and children are very supportive but my needs exceeded what they could compassionately give. My decision to sever the relationship occurred as I recognized at the time when my sister was in ICU that I needed to take care of my mental health at this time of catastrophic loss. This had a tremendous ripple effect on my other sisters. We are all very close and open with each other. One understands and the other is having a hard time with this relationship change. My younger sister would like things to go back to how they were before as it would make things easier in the family she says. She misses the frequent family gatherings at our place that included our mother. She knows how I feel and that the probability of that happening is very low. She is trying to navigate this change along with grief. It’s really hard. Our mother does not want to talk about our sister who died, does not want people to know (she has few friends and is a very secretive person) and does not want to have anyone see her cry. I feel pressured by my sister to some extent to reconnect with a parent who is emotionally immature and toxic for me. I believe that doing so now would be a betrayal of myself and all of the hard work I have done over the past 18 months. Our mother is angry and continues to blame me. So here we are, transforming and seeing the world and our family with much more focus. Who knows what the future holds?

Most men offer advice/problem-solving when presented with problems instinctively rather than as a result of emotional immaturity. That’s how men are wired.

Thank you for responding to people who write and ask questions or leave comments. It is really quite rare in the age of global communication. I appreciate you.

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