As a therapist, I work with a lot of very unhappy people each day.
And while there are many reasons for unhappiness, there’s one factor that magnifies emotional suffering more than almost anything else:
Few things make us more miserable than being in an unhealthy romantic relationship.
And how do people find themselves in unhappy relationships? Often it’s because they got into a long-term relationship with someone who was emotionally immature.
On the other hand, one of the best things you can do to improve your mental health and happiness is to avoid getting romantically involved with emotionally immature people in the first place.
Here are a few red flags to watch out for…
1. They’re All Talk and No Action
If I had a quarter for every time I heard the following, I’d be writing this essay from a villa in the French Riviera:
I can’t believe I didn’t see it earlier… He talks a good game but he just never follows through on anything.
The reason we all tend to fall for people who talk a good game but never follow through stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of what falling in love really means.
Contrary to the Disney mythology, falling in love is a transaction: Two people find each other sexually attractive and work like hell to convince the other person that they’re the greatest thing since sliced bread.
Of course, with 10 years of unhappy marriage under your belt, it’s easy to see in hindsight that 90% of what they claimed was crap. But at the moment—when your brain’s flooded with oxytocin and every fiber of your being is vibrating with sexual energy—you tend to focus on the good stuff and ignore some pretty obvious warning signs.
Because, after all, your body doesn’t care about your future marital bliss—all it cares about is your genes getting passed on.
Now, I have nothing against falling in love. It’s one of the greatest feelings and experiences we get in life. And there’s no reason you can’t have it and a happy long-term relationship. You just have to be willing to look for the not-so-good stuff from the beginning. And one of the most important parts of that is noticing discrepancies between words and actions.
Here are a few examples of what it looks like when someone’s actions don’t line up with their talk:
- They tell you that they’re fine with you spending time with friends on Saturdays but then give you grief about it all week.
- They say work-life balance is really important but routinely spend late nights at the office.
- They explain how open-minded they are about your unorthodox political views but make sarcastic comments about them whenever politics comes up.
No matter how gorgeous or funny they are, if you get involved with someone who can’t consistently line up their actions with their words, you’re going to be miserable with them.
So do your future self a favor and just say no to psychological stunted Romeos and emotionally immature Juliets.
2. They’re Unwilling to Be Vulnerable
Happy long-term relationships are built on trust. And trust requires intimacy—the ability to freely share and be honest with each other about everything from your hopes and dreams to your deepest fears and insecurities.
But when you’re not able to be intimate, it creates gaps in the relationship. And eventually, these gaps grow into gulfs. Create enough gulfs in your relationship and at best you turn into very civil roommates. But more commonly, it leads to chronic resentment and loneliness.
But here’s the things: while almost everybody can be intimate in some areas of their life, they often struggle in other areas:
- Maybe they have no trouble with sexual intimacy but ask them to talk about their childhood and they freeze up and shut down.
- Or maybe they’re perfectly capable of being intimate with their dreams and aspirations, but refuse to talk about failures and losses.
The reason some people have a hard time being intimate often comes down to issues of emotional vulnerability. They have a hard time opening up and being honest if it exposes certain painful emotions that they’ve kept locked away.
And while emotional vulnerability is something that can be worked on and improved—and along with it, the capacity for intimacy—they have to be willing to do it.
So, when you’re dating or considering getting into a long-term relationship, look carefully for signs of difficulty with emotional vulnerability. And if you find some, try to look for signs that your partner is at least willing to try being more emotionally vulnerable:
- Are they willing to at least talk about painful past experiences or memories?
- Are they willing to try therapy or counseling to work through difficulties with vulnerability?
- And perhaps most importantly, do they acknowledge their difficulty with vulnerability?
We all have weaknesses and sensitive spots, things we’d rather keep hidden. But if you’re going to get into a long-term relationship, it’s essential that you find someone who’s willing to work on themselves, even when it’s painful.
3. They Make You Feel Bad for Feeling Bad
Guilt-tripping… Gaslighting… Call it whatever you want, but when your partner constantly makes you feel bad for feeling bad, it’s time to move on.
One of the problems with dating someone who’s emotionally immature is that the relationship always ends up being about them. People with chronically low self-esteem and major insecurities are always looking for ways to feel better. And often this comes at the expense of other people.
For example, emotionally immature people tend to criticize others often. By pointing out how someone else is bad/incorrect/stupid, it makes them feel good/clever/smart. Because they can’t figure out a healthy way to feel good about themselves, they point out flaws in other people which, temporarily, makes them feel better about themselves in comparison.
One particularly subtle but pernicious form of this is emotional guilt-tripping—making someone feel bad about feeling bad.
Here’s an example:
Suppose you’d like your partner to spend less time on their phone when you’re together. So you bring this up with them and a difficult, emotionally-charged conversation ensues. Eventually, your partner tells you that “Well, if you weren’t so insecure this wouldn’t even have been an issue.”
That’s emotional guilt-tripping. They twist a perfectly normal feeling in you—frustration that your partner often isn’t very present when you’re together because of their phone—and try to frame it as something bad.
Don’t fall for it. And if it becomes a pattern, that’s probably a sign that you’re dating someone who’s emotionally immature.
If your partner’s too insecure to respond in a mature way to genuine feedback and criticism, they’re probably not worth your time.
4. They’re Unwilling to Try New Things
If there’s one thing I hear over and over again about what is causing dissatisfaction in a marriage or long-term relationship is rigidity:
- She never wants to try anything new for holidays—it’s the same old routines year after year after year…
- I’ve asked him many times if he could start helping out with some of the chores around the house and he just never does.
- I’m really worried about our finances, and even though I’ve suggested lots of budgeting ideas or talking to a financial planner, she just refuses to do anything differently.
- He’s so stuck on parenting our kids the same way he was parented… He just can’t see that maybe we need to do something differently or at least learn about some different options.
On the other hand, one of the best signs that a romantic relationship will work out in the long-run is if each person demonstrates a willingness to try new things and learn to do things that are unusual or uncomfortable.
The key, of course, is to separate out talk from behavior.
Everybody is going to say they’re open to learning new things, experimenting, taking advice and feedback, etc. But when you’re dating, you need to look for evidence that they’re willing and capable of this.
- Does the person I’m dating take feedback and criticism well? Or do they get defensive and argumentative?
- If I suggest doing something new or out of the ordinary, do they try to embrace it or only go along with it grudgingly?
- When they get stuck or have a hard time with something, do they ask for help or seek out advice?
Flexibility and the willingness to adapt in the face of adversity is one of the single greatest attributes when it comes to choosing a partner. Not only will you be able to get through tough times together with a minimum of stress and conflict, but your partnership will just be a hell of a lot more fun.
When you’re dating someone, look for behavioral evidence of flexibility and the willingness to learn and try new things.
5. They Insist on Getting the Last Word In
Now you might have read this subheading and thought to yourself:
Yeah, yeah, so they like to get the last word in. It’s annoying, but that can’t be a deal-breaker, right?
Look, we all try and get the last word in every once in a while. We all like to feel right, and justified, and that we’ve “won” the conversation (as stupid as it seems in retrospect).
What’s problematic is if you notice a consistent pattern of having to get the last word in during conversations and disagreements.
If someone can’t help themselves from always needing to get the last word in, it’s often symptomatic of much more troubling underlying issues. Namely, they’re too insecure to tolerate acknowledging someone else as right. Their ego is so fragile that it can’t take “losing” even a single argument, regardless of who’s actually right.
That’s bad news.
If they can’t handle being wrong about where they parked the car, how are they gonna handle being wrong about forgetting to book a DJ for the wedding or missing your kid’s piano recital?
It might seem like a little thing that’s easy enough to tolerate, but it’s often a sign of much bigger problems below the surface.
If you’re dating someone who insists on getting the last word in, maybe you should insist on going your separate ways?
6. They Constantly Ask for Reassurance
Constant reassurance-seeking is often a sign of chronic anxiety and dependency issues.
Perhaps the biggest myth people buy into when choosing a partner is the idea of complementarity as a good basis for a relationship:
- He’s so confident and self-assured that it really helps me with my anxieties and insecurities.
- I love how social and gregarious she is. She really helps me get out of my shell.
- I love how clever and funny he is. Our conversations always make me feel so much smarter.
- She’s so independent and creative. As a life-long rule-follower, she really helps me push the boundaries when I need to.
You hear couples say stuff like this all the time. And while there’s nothing wrong per se with a partner who’s temperament or preferences complement your own, it’s dangerous to rely on them or think that they’re always beneficial:
- No matter how confident you are, it’s never going to fix your partner’s insecurities.
- No matter how sociable you are, it’s not going to change the fact that your partner’s an introvert who generally enjoys low-key activities with a few good friends.
If you’re dating someone with significant issues of self-worth, anxiety, and low confidence, you cannot fix them no matter how many times you reassure them and tell them it will be okay. In fact, there’s a very good chance that you reassuring them makes their anxieties worse.
What’s more, it’s very likely that over a long enough period of time you begin to resent them for it. You will resent the fact that they increasingly rely on you to make them feel secure and confident, and consequently, that they use your confidence as an excuse not to work on themselves.
Does this always happen? Of course not. But I see it constantly!
Now, I’m not at all suggesting you absolutely shouldn’t date or get involved with someone who struggles with anxiety or insecurities. My point is that you should think very carefully about it.
And if you do, make sure you see good hard evidence that they’re willing to seriously work on their own insecurities independently of you.
7. They Don’t Know What They Want
It’s emotionally-risky to get involved with someone who can’t articulate or at least explore what really matters to them.
The reasoning is pretty straightforward:
- Few things are as predictive of long-term satisfaction in a relationship than having deeply compatible values.
- If the person you’re dating can’t express a handful of things that really matter to them and why, that suggests they don’t really know what their values are.
- And if the person your dating doesn’t know what their values are, how can you possibly tell whether they’re compatible with your own?
Now, having a clear set of values and principles is a complicated thing that often evolves over time.
For example: When you’re in your 20s, maybe friendship really matters to you as a value. But when you’re in your 40s—with 3 kids and mortgage—maybe hanging out with your buddies isn’t quite as important as it once was compared to other values like family and financial stability.
So when I say be careful of dating someone who doesn’t know what they want, it doesn’t mean they have to be strictly adhering to this or that formal value system.
What you’re really looking for is someone who regularly thinks about their values, can articulate them reasonably well, and actively works toward them.
So, how do you know if they know what they really want? Ask them!
- What are some principles in your life that you try to always adhere to?
- What are you most passionate about?
- Tell me about a value you used to hold but have changed your mind on.
- What values have you inherited from your family?
- How important are formal value systems to you (e.g. religious commandments)?
- What values do you think it’s important that we share and see basically eye-to-eye on?
- What are your political values? Ethical values? Career values? Creative values?
When you ask questions like this, what happens? Does your partner get uncomfortable and evasive? Are they willing to explore these, even if they are a little uncomfortable? Do they give genuine, heartfelt answers or do they respond in cliches and superficialities?
Everybody has values, no matter how ill-defined or vague. And eventually, those values will matter a lot in your relationship.
Be carefully dating someone who isn’t mature enough to think about and be willing to talk about their values.
All You Need to Know
Few things lead to more chronic unhappiness and stress than being in an unhealthy long-term relationship. And the reason so many people find themselves there is that they get involved with emotionally immature people who simply aren’t capable of being in a healthy relationship.
If you find yourself dating seriously and considering a long-term romantic relationship or marriage, keep a close eye out for the following warning signs of emotional immaturity:
They’re All Talk and No Action
They’re Unwilling to Be Vulnerable
They Make You Feel Bad for Feeling Bad
They’re Unwilling to Try New Things
They Insist on Getting the Last Word In
They Constantly Ask for Reassurance
They Don’t Know What They Want
Of course, everybody does these things sometimes. But if you find yourself dating someone who does several of them consistently, with no willingness to acknowledge them or work on them, just be careful.