Cut a tree open and count the rings—that’ll tell you how old the tree is. Each ring represents the amount of new wood produced during the growing season. Occasionally a tree will go a year without any new growth; sometimes it’ll produce two rings in one year. But, more or less, a ring equals a year.
Chronologically, we humans work kind of the same way. Our outside changes—like graying hair or wrinkled and sagging skin—are all common signs of our age. Someone who is 60 years old usually looks around 60 years old.
Emotional Maturity Is Not Based on Age
The problem we have, at least in regard to our relationships, is that most of us were taught to think that chronological age is the equivalent of emotional age. Because of this, we’re often miscalculating how to interact with our spouse, partner, or friends. Emotional maturity is much more difficult to assess, and there is often a huge disparity between our emotional maturity and our actual age.
I frequently hear people say things like, “he’s a full-grown man; he should know better.” But being 30 or 40 or 50 years old has no bearing on one’s emotional maturity. Many people have experienced events in their early years that stymied their emotional growth and they are still, decades later, operating out of the maturity pattern of that younger age. Maybe it was neglectful parents, maybe it was sexual abuse, or maybe it was a physical trauma. But, if a person lacked the skills to understand, integrate, and learn how to move on when the traumatic events happened, they might still be stuck emotionally at that age.
Emotional Maturity and Relationships
So, what does this mean for our intimate relationships, especially during times of conflict? It may well mean that one partner simply lacks the tools to fight fair, that they really are unable to see and accept responsibility, and that they are just not able (which is different than not being willing) to end any stalemate themselves. So, the more emotionally mature and aware partner will need to take the higher ground. They’ll need to take the lead and admit their own responsibility in the conflict and apologize for their part. This will help them set the tempo of the conflict so that it never escalates unnecessarily.
So, the next time you’re engaged with your partner and things start to go south, pause, take a breath, and see if you can identify their level of emotional maturity in the moment. If you notice that it seems like you’re in the midst of a conflict with a 12-year old, then it’s up to you to find the empathy and compassion to help them through their process. In that moment, it’s important to get beyond your own disappointment and frustration that they’re not more capable than they are. If you want to create a healthier relationship, meet your partner where they are, not where you want them to be.
Of course, it’s absolutely possible to move beyond the childhood events that keep us stuck in younger emotional maturity levels; people do it all the time. But it takes a willingness to be self-reflective and vulnerable and the wherewith all to ask for help when one gets stuck. This is what effective therapists and coaches do—we help you move beyond your previous, limiting patterns so that you can create new, healthier ones. If this is something you’re interested in, contact our Client Care Team and they’ll help you get started with us here at the Marriage Recovery Center!