How do you become more emotionally mature?
We’re in the middle of our series on emotional maturity. We’ve looked at what emotional maturity is, and how sometimes people use “God language” to avoid emotional maturity. We’ve looked at what to do if your spouse is stonewalling and is avoiding dealing with emotions.
This week I want to turn practical and talk at how to nurture emotional maturity, and how to grow.
I think there are two big elements of maturity:
- emotional intelligence (emotional maturity)
- responsibility, or living up to your commitments and living on an even keel
Some people have responsibility but not emotional intelligence. They work hard, they get promotions, they pay their bills, they mow their lawns. They look like they have it all together. But they also stonewall, blow up into a rage, give the silent treatment, shut down if you try to talk about emotions, have difficulty with physical touch unless it’s leading to sex, have a hard time being tender, and rarely say what’s on their heart. They may even veer towards certain addictions, like alcohol or video games.
Then there are others who can talk for hours, who can tell you everything they are feeling, who are compassionate, who notice when someone is hurting, who listen to your concerns–but they’re also always late, don’t have ambition or a job, and can’t be relied upon.
What we want is to have BOTH.
Looking back at my own life, I’d say that both Keith and I were quite responsible and disciplined when we married, but we weren’t necessarily emotionally mature.
In fact, in many ways we were rather immature. Part of that was age (we were quite young), but part was also that we hadn’t thought about a lot of the markers of maturity, and we hadn’t confronted a lot of our own past hurts or patterns of behavior so that we could figure out what was healthy and helpful and what wasn’t.
I think it’s quite common for two emotionally immature people, like Keith and me, to marry. First, people of high emotional intelligence tend to marry each other, so that leaves those with lower emotional intelligence also marrying another! Often we may be emotionally immature in different ways, though. One person could be a workaholic, while another is a people pleaser. One person could be stable financially but stunted emotionally, while the other is a breath off fresh air but has no life skills.
And often one or both has trauma that hasn’t really been dealt with.
Most of us have hurts that affected you as a kid, either from a dysfunctional family where emotions weren’t handled well, or from abuse, or from huge losses, like the death of a parent or sibling or other significant person. And you haven’t totally processed it yet, and because of that you don’t always make decisions for good reasons. You’re not able to see clearly because you have so much fogging everything up.
Marriage can be a huge catalyst for emotional growth.
Suddenly you’re in this relationship where you’re rubbing against another person, and the things that you could hide you can’t hide anymore. For me it was fear of rejection. Because of my past, I was so scared of Keith leaving that it coloured how I handled conflict, how I handled fear–so much, really. Our first few years were quite rocky, but we knew that we wanted to grow, and so we worked on things. Yes, we developed some bad patterns that took decades to totally eradicate. It wasn’t always easy, but we knew we loved each other and we knew the other was fundamentally a good person who loved God.
And so we endeavoured to grow together.
One of the big ways we grew was in how we handled conflict. We used to go around and around in circles, trying to figure out who was “right”. Then we realized that we were missing the emotional component of it, and now instead we focus on “what emotional need do we both have right now that’s not met?” And we look for solutions instead of blame. It’s changed everything. This concept is covered in 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage, which many have told me is actually my best book, though it’s the one I talk about the least! Check it out.
Sometimes growing together looks like having to unlearn very bad patterns of relating and having to deal with trauma from your past. Sometimes it simply looks like learning to be more selfless and less selfish now that you’re married. It isn’t always a huge transformation–and, hey, we all have some learning to do!
Today, then, I thought I’d share some ways that you can grow in emotional maturity.
1. Read books on emotions, on conflict, on relationships, on growth
When we lived in Toronto when our girls were very small, every week we would go on an outing to the library. We would get all new books for the girls, and I often picked up books for myself. That was when library systems were going online, and I could browse the entire Toronto Public Library book catalogue, and order books to my branch, and have them waiting for me when we went on our weekly trek. I devoured so many books on understanding hurts, and trauma, and personality, and more.
Some of those books changed my life, and tomorrow I’ll dedicate the post to great books to read to grow in emotional intelligence and discipline. And if anyone has any suggestions, leave them in the comments today!
2. Surround yourself with mature, healthy people.
Get rid of friends who hold you back, even if you had fun partying with them when you were younger. Be with people who you want to be like.
This can be trickier if you still live in the same city where you grew up or spent your young adult years, especially if those years weren’t exactly healthy. But we tend to become like the people we hang out with, so make sure you’re hanging out with strong, healthy people.
3. Go to a church that helps you grow, not that holds you back
As we were talking about in our post about using God-language to stop emotional maturity, for many people, church is what stops them from growing up. It can do this in several ways, including telling people that faith should replace responsibility (if you feel God telling you to do something, you should do it!), or by solidifying certain gender roles that give men power with no responsibility. He has the ability to decide for the family and to declare things right or wrong, but there’s no accountability for him. And then can be labelled as sinning or as being disrespectful if she brings up things that she thinks are wrong. We’ll be looking more next week at how evangelical resources can actually encourage men to be immature, while demanding much maturity of women.
When I look back on our family’s history with different churches, often we stayed in churches which did have a culture that worked against maturity because we had friends there, and we wanted community. But finally it got to be too bad and we left. I wish now that we had left earlier. By going, we signaled, “This is a safe church, because look at these good people who go there!” And then we give our seal of approval to a church that gives out advice, especially on marriage and parenting, that we actually thought was harmful. But we volunteered so much and worked so hard in that church, and we gave a ton of money, so we built up a church that then went on to hurt many, many families. Even though we didn’t believe what the church was teaching, by not leaving, we propped it up.
Many of us would help ourselves, and those who came after us, if we left churches earlier and went to ones that fostered emotional health.
4. Consider moving to a city where you can make a fresh start
This is a tricky one, and isn’t possible or helpful for everyone, especially if you rely on family for help with small children. But I have known so many couples who come from enmeshed families who I think would have done so much better had they moved away at the start of their marriage, rather than staying in a dysfunctional dynamic. I have also known several large dysfunctional families where the couples who ended up doing the best were the ones who left the area early.
Even if your family is healthy, there’s a different dynamic when you’re getting to know people who only know you now, and don’t remember you from when you were 9.
This is one of the big reasons I encouraged my girls to go away for university. I wanted them to be able to figure out who they were and who they wanted to be, and that’s much harder when you live in a small community where everyone knows you.
If you can’t move to a new city, consider at least switching churches, even if your church is a good one. If you find that people still think of you in the same way they did ten years ago, it may be helpful to meet new people who only know you now.
5. Get counseling if you even think you may need it
I’ve gone for counseling at several different points in my life. One was early in my marriage when I was dealing with rejection issues and with vaginismus; one was after our son died. Sometimes it just helps to talk to someone.
And remember: it tends to be safer to see a licensed counselor than it does a biblical counselor (lots of licensed counselors are Christians, too!).
6. Develop Discipline
Finally, Keith and I both realized that in many ways we were still kids, and we had to grow up. I spent a lot of time reading about how to be a good parent; about how to invest money; about the best ways to spend my time. He was working 120 hours a week and also studying for exams, and he had no choice but to be disciplined.
I had to develop a routine to deal with the fact that I was alone with my girls so much, since he was at the hospital all the time. I had to make sure that we ate healthy meals and that he had food to take with him, so that we weren’t spending our whole paycheck on him eating out.
But I had no idea how to do these things at first. I knew very little about cooking, or cleaning, or developing routines. I just read, and tried, and put things into practice.
When we realize that we want to be grown ups, and we don’t want to live like kids anymore, we can make a lot of changes on our own!
So there you go–6 ways to grow in emotional maturity!
Which ones stand out to you? Would you add a seventh? Let’s talk in the comments!
Posts in the Emotional Maturity Series:
- Four Markers of Emotional Maturity
- Do We Use God Language to Avoid Maturity?
- 2 Keys to Handling Stonewalling Behavior
- 6 Ways to Grow in Emotional Maturity
- Dealing with Emotional Immaturity in Your Spouse (November 23)
- When Christian Resources Perpetuate Your Spouse’s Immaturity (November 30)
And check out 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage–my book that covers emotional maturity. Plus there’s a FREE group study you can take with it!
Sheila Wray Gregoire
Founder of Bare Marriage
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