Emotional Maturity

On Sunday, I attended a wedding, and as most weddings are, it was a beautiful and joyous occasion. As I observed the youthful groom being escorted towards his elegant bride amidst an enthusiastic hubbub of singing and dancing, the thought struck me: ‘They are so young! Practically children! How can they be ready to be married?!’.

Now, I clearly remember my own wedding, and though I was young, I had the feeling of being completely mature and ready for marriage. I’m not sure exactly when or how my new thought process happened; it seems more like a subtle shift over time, getting to the point of looking at the newlyweds from a completely different perspective. (Perhaps when I started attending as a friend of the parents and not a friend of the bride?…)

Our perspectives may shift somewhat naturally as we go through life, but it is so valuable to our relationships when we are mindful of the associated expectations. It is typical to automatically assume that someone in a given role is emotionally mature. We might even assume we ourselves are emotionally mature based on our age, stage, or accomplishments.

Newsflash: Looking at ourselves or those around us through a different lens based on apparent circumstances is only surface level.

For example, a two year old might be called a ‘big boy’ when a baby sibling is born,  and yet, our expectations of the two year old should not really change just because of his new role as big brother. Developmentally, both physically and emotionally, he needs to be treated as a two year old, despite his shift in status from being the baby of the family.

New and evolving roles in our lives, such as becoming a spouse, a parent, a grandparent, a professional, and so on, are just labels and do not automatically come with emotional depth and nuance. These are all examples of superficial changes based on external factors. They may reflect physical or mental maturity, but emotional maturity is not an automatic component of aging.

Emotional maturity is about your ability to understand and manage your emotions. An emotionally mature person has reached (and continues to work at reaching) a level of self-understanding with regards to their thoughts and behaviors and then decides how to best approach and cope with situations that might otherwise be trying or challenging. (Americanbehavioralclinics.com)

Emotional maturity is different from life experience, and does not happen automatically as a result of financial concerns, health concerns, personal experiences, child or partner related stressors or challenges.

Real, deeper, internal shifts only take place if we consciously choose healing and growth. These shifts can then be reflected in the depth and quality of one’s relationships, as self-awareness can lead to a beautiful balance of boundaries and flexibility.

Often, relationships struggle when expectations don’t match up with exhibited behaviors.

“Why does my mother-in-law make snide comments?” Aviva sighed, hurt and frustration apparent in her tone. “Things have to go her way constantly. She does not seem to understand that I have my own responsibilities, my own goals and feelings and I’m juggling different things going on in my life. It is all about her and our relationship is exhausting.”

Aviva is assuming that because her mother-in-law, Debbie, is older than Aviva, her behavior should be more mature. In reality, emotional maturity comes from being in tune with your emotions, which is not as obvious or common as one may think. Generational trauma, individual trauma, and a variety of difficult life experiences often cause people to bury emotion under covers of denial or avoidance as part of an innately wired survival skill.

Debbie grew up in a home where there was constant fighting. Her parents did not get along and their own feelings took precedence; they had no capacity to help Debbie develop in a healthy emotional manner. Debbie evolved into a young woman who struggled to communicate effectively. She was able to make conversation, but it was most often about surface level topics without going much beneath the surface. Though Debbie felt lonely deep inside, she tended to avoid deep connection. She would become closed off in a relationship where she felt that she was not getting a good enough dose of attention, and defensive at any hint of disapproval.

Marrying off her child did not suddenly alter Debbie’s personality, despite her new status. As she became a mother-in-law to Aviva, Debbie had difficulty navigating the relationship. Personality differences, frequency of contact, and unsolicited advice were parts of the relationship impacted by a lack of emotional maturity.

When Debbie interacted with Aviva, Debbie quickly interpreted situations in a way that felt stressful and reacted accordingly. Because she was uncomfortable with emotions, she often shifted into ‘fight or flight’ mode, where the nervous system is focused on oneself. Thus, Aviva ended up bearing the brunt of Debbie’s instinctive reactions.

Without the ability to be comfortable with emotions, relationships cannot truly thrive. To have awareness of feelings and the tools to cope with them are the foundational skills needed to develop emotional maturity.

To check in on emotional maturity, some questions to ask oneself would be:

  • Can I be present with my emotions?
  • Can I engage in rational discussion with someone who sees things differently than I do?
  • Can I clearly communicate my needs and boundaries, and be considerate and respectful of others’ needs and boundaries?

Relationships are affected by emotional maturity in several ways. First, it is challenging to connect deeply to someone who has trouble getting past the surface level of emotions. Second, when disagreements arise, working through the differences in a mutually satisfactory way becomes blocked by the obstacles of defensiveness and lack of accountability.

Whether one is a young newlywed or an experienced grandparent, the ability to fully connect emotionally is more indicative of emotional maturity. Skills such as attunement and emotional regulation have more to do with emotional maturity than age or stage.

In addition to building relationships, sustaining relationships needs a dose of emotional maturity as well. Can you imagine going back to your first grade, sixth grade, or eleventh grade classrooms and relating with your peers and teachers as you did at those stages? Some people may feel challenged when it comes to adapting to the new stages of their loved ones. If parents are treating their adult children similarly to the way they did as young children living under their parents’ roof, the relationship will be quite stunted.

To build new patterns of fully connecting with oneself, and ultimately enhance relationships, some basic thoughts to help redirect and explore emotions include:

  • Can I name my emotions?
  • Where and when do I feel these emotions in my body?
  • What kind of exercises work to keep me grounded and present?

Examining reactions to experiences, exploring triggers and the feelings that follow, are ways to expand our emotional capacity. Awareness and the ability to name and feel emotions are part of what allows us to consciously choose our narratives.

Feeling disconnected and relying on instinctive reactions and communication patterns, without doing the deeper work, does a disservice to relationships.

Emotional maturity can be developed at any age and stage. The way we experience relationships with those around us will only shift if we allow ourselves to be open to change.