It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
— Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
Dating can be a wonderful experience full of excitement, passion, growth, and fun. But it can also be miserable, terrifying, frustrating, and very often, heartbreaking.
As a psychologist, I hear a lot about my clients’ (mis)adventures in dating. And while I don’t claim to have all the answers, I’ve heard enough stories about dating gone badly to see a few patterns emerge. And perhaps the biggest is this:
No matter what other qualities a person has, if they’re emotionally immature, your relationship is going to be tough.
Of course, it can be surprisingly hard to spot someone who lacks emotional maturity—especially when they’re charming, funny, good-looking, and smart.
So it’s not surprising that one of the most common questions I get from my clients is this:
I keep finding myself in relationships with emotionally immature people. How do I stop?!
Here are a few suggestions that may help you identify emotionally immature people while dating so you can move on quickly to happier, healthier relationships.
1. Date someone because you want them, not because you need them
If you want to stop getting involved with emotionally immature people, you need to do a serious gut check about your own motivations for dating.
Specifically, ask yourself this question very seriously:
Am I getting into a relationship because I want it or because I need it?
This might seem like a trivial distinction—want vs need—but it makes all the difference in the world.
- If your motivation for getting into a relationship is to fill in some emotional need in yourself, it’s going to bias what you see in your partner. Specifically, it’s going to accentuate qualities that will help you fill in your own need and blind you to other qualities that might not be such a good fit for you.
- For example, if you struggle with low self-confidence and being indecisive, being around someone who’s extremely decisive and confident might alleviate some of your insecurity temporarily. But being around someone confident won’t actually make you a more confident person.
- Unfortunately, it may take you a while to realize this—that no one else can fix you. And you might find yourself married with a few kids before it dawns on you that the primary reason you married someone was actually not a very good reason.
- To make matters worse, because you’re so enamored by their confidence, you might miss the fact that, for example, they’re incredibly narcissistic as well. Meaning you’re now stuck with all these other qualities you unconsciously ignored because you were so fixated on the one quality they had that made you feel better.
Don’t get involved with someone because they make you feel better about your insecurities.
Instead, try to choose a partner because you actually value them for who they are independent of what they can do for you.
Easier said than done, of course. But if you take a good hard look at your own insecurities and work to become more aware of them, they’ll be much less likely to blind you to seeing another person for who they really are.
2. Show your flaws, early and often
Being transparent about your flaws and insecurities early in a relationship is one of the hardest things to do. But it’s also one of the most useful if you want to stop getting involved with emotionally immature people.
Our natural instinct is to hide or downplay our faults, flaws, and weaknesses, especially when we’re trying to attract a romantic partner and only show off the good stuff:
- Maybe you dazzle your romantic partners with your intellectual prowess and cleverness, but skillfully downplay the fact that you’re tremendously insecure in social situations.
- Or maybe you use your high levels of energy and enthusiasm to distract from the fact that you’re extremely unorganized, chronically late, and a gigantic procrastinator.
Obviously, this isn’t a very sustainable strategy. Eventually, your partner will discover these flaws or insecurities and then they’ll resent you for hiding them.
But more importantly, when you hide your flaws and insecurities, you may unintentionally be attracting the wrong type of person.
I mean, think about it…
What type of person is attracted to someone who doesn’t seem to have any flaws or insecurities?
Yeah, a pretty shallow person. Someone who is either too naive to realize that you’re hiding or too superficial to care. In either case, probably not someone you want to get involved with long-term.
On the other hand, emotionally mature adults understand that everybody has flaws, insecurities, and weaknesses. And what matters to them is that they find a partner who is honest about those weaknesses and willing to work on them.
When you’re honest about your flaws and insecurities, you repel the wrong people and attract the right ones.
Of course, I’m not saying you should vomit out every perceived weakness and insecurity you have 5 minutes into a first date. That would be… weird.
Instead, just begin by noticing and becoming more aware of those insecurities you try to hide instinctively. If you can build up a healthy level of self-awareness about those flaws and insecurities, you’ll be less likely to gloss over them and more likely to acknowledge them in small healthy ways.
3. Give healthy criticism and watch how they respond
When I talk to clients in therapy who are having trouble in their relationships, the single biggest complaint I hear is that their partner doesn’t take feedback or criticism well:
- They immediately get defensive and start pointing out someone else’s flaws
- They resort to sarcasm and passive-aggressive communication
- They go right to the silent treatment and avoidance
- They blow up and lose their temper
- They say they’ll work on things but never follow through
And as much as I would like to believe that people can learn to take criticism well, if I’m being honest, I just haven’t seen much evidence of it.
Put another way:
If you start a relationship with someone who doesn’t take criticism well it’s likely to stay that way—and probably get worse.
This means that if being with someone who’s good at taking criticism is so important for a healthy relationship, and it’s unlikely that people will really change much in this respect, it’s crucial that you figure out early on if you’re dating someone who handles criticism in a mature way.
The trick is it can be surprisingly hard to tell if someone really does take criticism well, primarily for two reasons:
- Early in a relationship, everything is great, so we don’t want to rock the boat. As a result, we tend to downplay or avoid bringing up things about our partner that bother us. But if you don’t bring this stuff up, how will you be able to know if they handle criticism well?
- Well, you probably are assuming that they will take criticism well because of other traits: He’s a smart guy… surely he’ll be able to handle it well when I really need to bring something difficult up. Man, if I had a dime for every time that belief got someone into an unhealthy relationship!
There’s only one way to get real data and evidence about someone’s ability to take criticism well… You have to criticize them!
Now, I’m not saying you have to be overly critical of them in general. I’m just saying that if there’s something about them or their behavior that bothers you—and there should be! If there isn’t, you’re not paying close enough attention—it’s in your best interest to bring it up and address it plainly and respectfully with them.
No matter how many rainbows and butterflies there are at the beginning of your relationship, there will be challenges and stress eventually. And if your partner can’t handle reasonable criticism, you’re setting yourself up for a very stressful, frustrating, lonely, and unhappy relationship.
4. Make difficult requests and see if they follow through
After not taking criticism well the next most common complaint I hear from people about their partners is this:
He’s just so stuck in his ways… She’s never willing to try new ways of doing things…
A lot of relationship stress and unhappiness comes from the simple fact that some people just don’t have the emotional maturity to be flexible and adapt.
Here are a few examples I’ve heard from clients who are unhappy in their relationships:
- He’s just never willing to change his mind about something once he’s set on it…
- I know our third child is a lot more difficult than the first two, but she’s just unwilling to try new things and approach him differently…
- I know his father never did it, but is it really too much to ask that he do the dishes from time to time?
It’s hard to be happy in a relationship with a rigid partner.
But what if people are flexible when they’re young but just get more rigid as they age… I can’t predict that!
This is the common wisdom—that people are flexible and open-minded when they’re young but then devolve into rigid, inflexible old people. Trouble is, there’s not much evidence that that’s true.
It’s my experience working with a very diverse group of clients that when they really reflect on the early years of their relationship, the signs of rigidity and inflexibility were there… They just didn’t want to see it!
This means that if you want to avoid getting into a relationship with an overly rigid partner, you need to test their level of flexibility and willingness to change early.
I recommend starting small:
- Suggest watching a rom-com instead of the action movie they suggested.
- Requesting trying that new Ethiopian restaurant instead of pizza.
- Ask them to spend a little more time with you on the weekends—even if it means they need to rearrange their social schedule a bit.
Remember, the point here is not to change the other person or bend them to your will. The point is to gather data about whether they’re emotionally mature enough to be flexible and adapt to difficult but reasonable requests.
Because I can tell you this: If they don’t handle small changes well, big ones are going to be a nightmare.
5. Imagine being married to their parents
It’s romantic to believe that who we are as people is up to us—that with the right attitude and enough perseverance we can become anything we want or need to be.
It’s also absurdly false.
- Genetics matter. Even if few traits or characteristics are determined by our genetics, they are often severely constrained by them.
- Values matter. There’s always the exception to the rule, but most people don’t stray that far from the values they were brought up under.
- Temperament matters. You can read self-improvement books till you’re blue in the face, but if you’re an extreme introvert, going to cocktail parties and social gathering every night of the week is going to exhaust you (and probably make you resentful of the person dragging you around to all of them).
My point is saying this is simple:
You need to be realistic about who people are vs you hope they will become.
And while by no means a perfect predictor, a person’s parents are often a pretty good indicator of what that person might look like a decade or two down the line.
Because like it or not, we all inherit a lot from our parents—from basic genetic and physiological traits to lifestyle habits and preferences all the way up to ethical beliefs and political values.
Be careful of a kind of culturally-sanctioned but naive optimism about a person’s capacity to change fundamental parts of who they are. Because while it’s possible to change some of them, the better question is whether it’s likely or not.
So before you get too serious with someone, take a close look at their parents and imagine being married to someone like them. If your reaction scares you, that might be a sign that you need to look at your partner a little more closely and make sure who they are and what they’re capable of really aligns with who you are and what you really want from a partner.
People can change. But on average, they’ll probably change a lot less than you think.
All You Need to Know
If you find yourself habitually dating and getting romantically involved with emotionally immature people, keep these 5 tips in mind:
- Date someone because you want them, not because you need them
- Show your flaws, early and often
- Give healthy criticism and watch how they respond
- Make difficult requests and see if they follow through
- Imagine being married to their parents