Emotional Immaturity and Relationships
Emotional immaturity is a relatively new buzz phrase in the mental health field. It is not a diagnosis but rather an explanation of a person’s emotional and social state of mind. Emotional and social skills—which begin developing the moment we humans are born—are key to managing our emotions and connecting with others. Individuals’ lack of developmentally appropriate emotional and social skills can lead to them to be emotionally immature, which can play out in toxic ways in how they relate to the world and in their relationships.
When Can Being Aware of Emotional Immaturity be Useful?
Recognizing signs of emotional immaturity in people in your life—a partner, parent, adult child, co-worker or boss, or friend—can help you make sense of your current interactions with them. It can also aid you handling future interactions in a way that maintains your own mental health and supports the health of the relationship.
A word of caution: It is important, however, to differentiate between a consistent pattern of emotional immaturity and singular occasions where a person with whom you are in a relationship acts in an emotional immature way. We all have times that we have acted or reacted immaturely—the key in maturing and in healthy relationships is that we are eventually able to recognize upon reflection that our behavior was inappropriate and to take measures to repair damage done to the relationship.
So … What is Emotional Immaturity?
To understand emotional immaturity, it can be juxtaposed with emotional maturity. The American Psychological Association defines emotional maturity as “a high and appropriate level of emotional control and expression” (WebMD). Key characteristics of emotionally mature people include the capacity to be self-reflective and responsible for one’s actions, and the presence of flexible and adaptable personality traits (Hutchison). People who are emotionally immature, on the other hand, display some degree of arrested emotional-social development. Examples of behavior you might notice in emotionally immature people in your life (Gibson):
- Tendency to engage in chronic self-absorbed behavior
- History of conflict and drama in their relationships
- Engage in little self-reflection
- Don’t know how to repair relationships—conflicts are rarely resolved and may be ignored
- Unable to take others’ perspectives
- Frequently show a lack of guilt or remorse
- Don’t learn from past mistakes and may continue to repeat behavior that has negative consequences
- History of denying reality due to affective realism (reality is what it feels like instead of what it is) or distortion (making up a new narrative about a situation)
- Pattern of impulsive behavior
- Often get enmeshed in relationships instead of engaging in healthy emotional intimacy
- Tend to disregard others’ well-being and safety
- Rarely do emotional work
- Demonstrate little or no empathy
How Do Your Feel in a Relationship with an Emotionally Immature Person?
Being in relationship with emotionally immature people can feel like a one-sided, negative, draining conversation. “Walking on eggshells” might aptly define your interactions with them. Your experiences and feelings often are discounted and ignored by emotional immature people, yet they may provoke discord in your relationship and try to gaslight you due to feeling dismissed themselves or that their reality is being questioned. This dynamic can make you feel like you can’t think straight (often referred to as “brain scramble”). Over time, due to extended dealings with emotionally immaturity in a relationship, you may develop depression, anxiety or other mental health conditions. (Adapted from Hutchinson)
If you were raised by a parent who was emotionally immature, it likely has had adverse impact on your adult life—for example, you may be disconnected to your own emotions and needs, feel self-doubt, fear judgement of others and feel an overall sense of unworthiness. (Adapted from Gibson)
How Do You Deal with the Toxicity?
Becoming aware that you are interacting with an emotionally immature person and how it is impacting you is an essential first step in disentangling from the toxicity of such a relationship. It is then vital to accept that you cannot change that person (e.g., make them understand that they have a problem or get them to self-reflect upon their emotional and social skills or to go to mental health treatment). All you can control is your own response to the situation. (Some refer to letting go of what is not possible as radical acceptance).
Note that growing in awareness and acceptance of what is—rather than what you wish it to be—is not typically an easy or brief process. (Therapeutic support can be very useful in facilitating this process in a way that feels safe and manageable.) But with a baseline of awareness and acceptance, you can begin to contemplate your choices in how you will be in the relationship. Some questions to explore:
- What are your expectations for the relationship?
- Do you need to disengage from the relationship all-together (and is that really possible for you on a physical and emotional level)?
- Can you remain in the relationship, but disentangle yourself from the person enough to keep yourself healthy?
- What will be your tactics to promote optimal interactions and your health?
- What limits do you need to observe to maintain your self-respect, wellbeing and safety (recognizing that your limits can change)?
Another word of caution: Avoid judging a person as “less worthy” or “bad” if you notice a pattern of emotional immaturity when interacting with them. Avoid weaponizing terms like “emotional immaturity” and “toxic” to lash out at the person (e.g., with statements such as “I am so tired of your emotionally immaturity” or “you are so toxic to be around”). “Fighting back” with such accusations will likely continue and/or escalate unhealthy conflict. Rather, strive to keep your cool using your awareness and acceptance of how your relationship with the person is impacted by emotional maturity or lack thereof. Train yourself to mindfully respond in a way that shows empathy, kindness and honesty, but that is also aligned with your values and your boundaries and upholds your self-respect. Be patient with yourself; it takes commitment, skill, practice and trial and error to consistently respond to conflict with wisdom rather than instinctive reaction.
Help is Available
Reach out to a counselor for help in moving towards awareness, acceptance and clarity on how you will handle yourself in these situations. There is also support out there for family and friends of people who suffer from mental health conditions that include characteristics of emotional immaturity and emotional dysregulation.
Article by Kristin Littel
Related: Setting your limits in a relationship is important. Read: Setting Boundaries Efficiently | Psychology Today