I am sure you have wondered at least a few times in your life why some people, even though perfectly grown adults with serious jobs, can act in such a childish way in certain areas. And what if it's about your partner that's smart and loving, but you can never disagree with them, or they'll unleash hell on earth. You could have been forgiving their behavior as a minor weakness in an otherwise great personality without knowing it could be subtle signs of emotional immaturity.
Being emotionally immature is not a disorder but rather a definition of one's emotional ripeness. To talk about it, we have to first understand what emotional maturity means:
“ "Emotional maturity" means a person is capable of thinking objectively and conceptually while sustaining deep emotional connections to others. People who are emotionally mature can function independently while also having deep emotional attachments, smoothly incorporating both into their daily life.” ⁽¹⁾
Because it's not a disorder, people often don't think there's something wrong with them. You don't go to psychotherapy with being critical or not liking hugs.
You can be highly educated, have money and all, yet still be emotionally undeveloped. Feeling miserable and empty without knowing why. Many adults will dismiss it as a part of their nature, a character with whom they identify for so long that it's impossible for them to see it's not who they are.
Living with emotionally immature partner can make you feel very lonely. You probably always do the heavy emotional work in your relationship, whether it's solving conflicts or offering support. The toughest part is that you only exhaust yourself but still seem never able to help your partner, no matter how hard you try.
How it develops
Unfortunately, nobody doesn't get to choose if they will be like this when they grow up. It's only a matter of luck what mix of parents and circumstances we'll get. Everybody is born like a perfectly innocent baby, curious about the world and eager to learn, seeing their parents like gods. Children at that early age can't understand that their parents may fear emotional intimacy and connection even though they care perfectly about their physical needs.
In adulthood, these people still need positive affectionate emotions in their lives the same way as everybody; they deserve to feel loved and complete. Yet when they tried to connect as children, they were overlooked or sometimes punished for showing weakness, such as crying. So they learned different ways how to relate to their parents. Generally, they did anything their parents seemed to like and got their attention. Behave just like they wanted, be perfect at school, put other people's needs first and act like they have only a few needs themselves, suppressing their true feelings and interests in the process.
Unfortunately, they don't know that the behavior they learned from their parents or mechanisms they developed to cope with unmet emotional needs wasn't helpful for future development. And that's how the cycle works. It passes down from parent to child to their child and so on unless there's a significant change in the environment.
How to spot the signs
If you care about your partner, you probably try to figure out where their behavior came from. The best way to find out is to observe their parents and learn about their childhood. Maybe you'll realize that, for example, your partner's dad always acts cold, and you can finally connect the dots leading to your spouse's behavior. While it can be challenging for some to digest their chosen life partner comes from a family with immaturity issues, it may also help you look at them with more compassion when you understand they couldn't select their upbringing. Then it's much easier to support them if they're actively trying to change themselves.
Below are the most prominent personal characteristics that are often a result of being emotionally shut down as children.
1. They're narrow-minded
Having a healthy dialogue, especially about important topics, is like talking to a brick wall. Your significant other's thinking can be very rigid, black and white, so bringing up new ideas is quite challenging. And once immature people form their opinion, it's very hard to change it.
If you don't like something, it's a personal attack. If they disagree with you, they rarely say it straightforward and instead take all different twists and turns to show you all the virtual problems. If you want their decision, they are unsure because they try to achieve perfection. You just can't rush at them. They need their time to think things through according to their many rules and conditions. So it's not unusual that you have to present them information and options, in particular, sugarcoated way, to have the slightest chance they'll agree with you.
2. They can't take responsibility
When your loved one was a child, they may have had parents that demanded perfection and criticized everything instead of showing affection. Their own emotions were focused on critics because it happened to be their primary form of attention. Children will pick up this behavior immediately, mirroring their parents.
Many immature adults view things externally, like everything that happens is out of their hands, and they have no power to change it. They consider themselves helpless, so they complain about every discomfort without looking or trying to come up with any solution. This type of people just doesn't believe they can do anything; instead, they expect help from the outside. Then it's simple to see how they don't take responsibility for any actions and instead blame others.
3. They fear emotions
It is challenging to connect with these people on a deep emotional level. As a result of fearing emotions, mere praise can be too much for them. They don't express feelings with warm hugs, kisses or gratitude as they learned very early in life it can hurt them, making them uncomfortable and anxious. Their parents probably never ever empathized with them in a crucial time of childhood and adolescence.
In the same way, they simply can't tune in to your feelings because they're constantly preoccupied with themselves. Their inner radar is turned inward. It's not because they love themselves so much but because they're obsessively checking if nothing threatens them.
Surprisingly, they likely show much more love to their cat or dog because they don't have to pretend with them. The animal can't say anything, don't expect specific behavior, so immature adults can relax in its presence.
4. They can't cope with stress
Since emotionally immature people take almost every unwanted situation or disagreement as a personal threat, it costs them tremendous energy to keep their protective masks on. Therefore, minimal stress is like a huge boulder crushing them until they break. When this threshold is surpassed, they either react impulsively or shut down and withdraw. So there's no wonder a sudden unexpected problem will throw them completely off with an outburst of anger.
Now it looks like they don't fear emotions at all, but a balanced person behaves more like this:
“Emotionally mature people cope with stress in a realistic, forward-looking way while consciously processing their thoughts and feelings. They can control their emotions when necessary, anticipate the future, adapt to reality, and use empathy and humor to ease difficult situations and strengthen bonds with others.” ⁽²⁾
Do you often have to walk on eggshells when they are upset? That's because they can't healthily deal with their current emotion, and their frustration will then fall on everyone's heads. But, then, when things are back to normal, they will rarely admit their own mistake or apologize, acting like nothing happened.
5. They have mental health problems
Due to faulty coping mechanisms, many individuals develop mental health issues like anxiety and depression. Complicated cases can even manifest signs of severe personality disorders. For example, immature adults can struggle with social anxiety making it difficult to open up to other people because they can feel constantly judged, unimportant and uninteresting due to a lack of interest from their own parents. Backing out of collective activities only further exaggerates the loop of emotional loneliness and low self-worth they feel.
On the other hand, people who always try to prove their worth by being popular, working hard and reaching success are prone to neglecting their personal life resulting in burnout and depression. Moreover, they often unsuccessfully try to cover the empty gap in their hearts with shallow relationships and material possessions.
6. They have two-faced personality
You may sometimes wonder if you live with Mr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde. Your loved one has moments when they can be sweet, funny and almost easy-going. But everything changes as soon as a problem arises and something threatens to get under their skin, to touch their innermost emotions. They simply can't tolerate it, so the protective barrier goes up.
That's the most confusing thing with these people. Predicting which side of them will pop out is practically impossible. It constantly creates emotional conflict, bouncing your feelings for them between love and anger, especially while the other person is in their "nice "mode.
Why you don't have to necessarily write them off
While sometimes life with these people can be pretty exhausting and mentally taxing, they all don't deserve to be left alone because it's not their fault.
This emotional deprivation and hiding behind masks probably started in their family, possibly a few generations ago.
I know it sounds excruciating to wait until your partner deals with his problem, and that's why it's essential to recognize when things can get better and when you should terminate the relationship. Because you alone can't change anybody unless they want to change themselves, and exceptionally stubborn individuals are living proof. So be careful around those who exhibit signs of mentally or physically abusive behavior. No amount of effort to help doesn't pay for compromising your health and well-being. These people will probably stay like this for the rest of their lives, and nothing will change it.
In that case, it's better to back off the situation. Breaking up in such circumstances is painful and heartbreaking, but your well-being should come first. There's no reason to feel guilty about that.
Fortunately, many immature people are capable of internalizing and, therefore, can change themselves through self-reflection. However, they may need a little nudge from the outside to point them in the right direction. Sooner or later, there will be a point in their lives where they reach a breaking point and probably seek guidance from a therapist or a partner. No matter which solution they choose, it's an opportunity to bond and support their journey to self-discovery while the wounds from the past are healing.
Although it can take a while to implement new behaviors and beliefs, eventually, most of these people can bloom into the confident, interesting individuals they always should be. As a result, your relationships will become more resilient than ever.
- Gibson, Lindsay C.. Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents (p. 28). New Harbinger Publications.
- Gibson, Lindsay C.. Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents (p. 29). New Harbinger Publications