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:
- Women become overworked, overstressed, and eventually resentful as a result of having to do all the emotional work in a relationship or family.
- 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.
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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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