The EMOTIONAL MATURITY SERIES: 6 Ways to Grow in Emotional Maturity

by | Nov 16, 2020 | Uncategorized | 39 comments

6 Ways to Grow in Emotional Maturity

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.

Real Intimacy in Marriage--Keith and Sheila

Us in our first apartment!

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. 

 

 

Do you have a hard time asking for what you want?

You can change the dynamic in your marriage and make talking about your own needs easier!

If your marriage is in a communication rut, it’s time for some change.

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.

Rebecca and me outside LIttle Trinity Anglican Church in Toronto, one of my favourite church experiences we’ve had. They supported us so much when our son was born two weeks after this picture was taken. He passed away a month later.

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!

 

 

6 Ways to Grow in Emotional Maturity

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:

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

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Founder of Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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39 Comments

  1. Jane Eyre

    Great list!
    One semi-frivolous comment and one serious comment.
    On efficiency and discipline: absolutely they make your life easier and less stressful. I think one thing that really helped me is understanding when throwing money at a problem is lazy and when it’s helpful. Getting take-out every night is lazy. Getting a membership at Sam’s Club or Costco and making sure the fridge is always well-stocked is efficient.
    Very seriously, you are so right about families and communities treating people like they are 9. It is tough in its own right, and I think it leads to the young adult inadvertently “acting young” in other regards because it is what is so often expected (and “acting old” is met with such pushback).
    When my parents were the age I am now, I was in my teens. I have strong memories of how they interacted with their own parents, the complete independence they had from their families, and how they allowed people to treat them. It’s some of the reason I do not have any relationship with them now: they demand that I be treated in a way that they never would have permitted their own parents to treat them at the same age.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      That’s interesting about your parents, Jane. I’m sorry about that.
      I think it’s often not just that people treat you like you’re 9, but that they remember all your failures. I knew one young man who married young to a woman who was just very emotionally distant who stonewalled all the time. He was a gem of a guy, and tried to make it work, but couldn’t. She ended up leaving him to pursue a career. After that, everyone just saw him as this really nice guy whose marriage had failed. How are you supposed to be taken seriously or seen through any other lens when everyone knows your story and knows your ex? So he moved far away, met an amazing young woman, and now has a great family of his own. But I don’t know if that would have been as possible had he stayed.
      I think that’s true for many of us. Maybe one of you had quite the past, but you’ve now straightened up and you’re quite responsible and mature. But other people still see you as a “bad boy” or a “bad girl”. That’s hard to overcome. Or they see you in terms of your dysfunctional family dynamics. Sometimes it’s good to get to know people who don’t know your back story, so that you can start out being the person you really want to be now.

      Reply
  2. B

    My ex and I were on different sides of this spectrum. He looked more mature because he could be on time, manage his time well, was the working spouse, great at finishing chores in a timely manner, etc. I am diagnosed with adult ADHD (and could probably be diagnosed with c-ptsd, which has similar symptoms). I’m rarely consistent on arrival times (a work in progress), tend to forget/procrastinate, struggle with mundane & never-ending chores, etc. But I believe that no one who has dealt with both of us would deny that I am the more emotionally-mature one.
    Now, in my mid-30s, some of the responsibility side is getting easier and my marriage to him only deepened my emotional maturity well with all the material I’ve absorbed to try to fix our marriage. I get discouraged at times, feeling like I will never truly be an adult because I will never be able to be as responsible as a neurotypical adult. I’ve developed coping mechanisms for my struggle. *Are* there coping mechanisms for lack of emotional maturity short of growth, or just the ability to hide it for a time?

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      That is tough, B! And some people, like you said, just have a personality that is also more attuned to being on time, and some don’t. It’s not always maturity.
      As for coping mechanisms, I think it’s the ability to hide that you’re not emotionally mature. I think stonewalling is a huge one. I’m not sure that it gets better except with growth.

      Reply
  3. K

    Love this post! I am right in e middle of trying to grow in emotional maturity. Lots of books and counselling and lots more growth to go. It was so hard to admit that I didn’t have it all together and needed to grow. I am looking forward to the book list tomorrow. For young moms like me, it’s sometimes easier to approach the topic of emotional maturity through the thought – what do I want for my children? I liked the book “parenting from the inside out” and the one you recommended by connected families because you are learning how to grow in your own emotional maturity and also getting practical tips for parenting.
    Also a not on counselling. I have tried 4 different counsellers before finding one I love. Her focus is on pointing out what I am doing right – what argument with your husband did you resolve and how did you do it? She says her job is to bring me hope not make me feel like there is so much wrong it can never be fixed. I was thinking the other night how when I started counselling years ago I didn’t even know what a healthy person looked like, so how could I find good counselling? Maybe you could have a longer post about what to look for in counselling. And it’s importance. I had to be pushed to the literal brink before I went for counselling and I could have made my and my husbands life a lot easier if I went earlier

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Great idea, K! Thank you!
      One of the big problems with counseling of course is the cost–especially because I highly recommend licensed counselors. I know it’s a huge outlay for many people. My thought is that even if it’s $120 per session, and you need 10 sessions or 15 sessions, that’s still a lot less than you may pay in lost wages because your life is so chaotic that you can’t go into work, or because things start to fall apart. But it is so difficult for so many people!

      Reply
  4. Em

    I’m thankful that it is never too late to learn and grow in these areas.
    Related to points 1. and 2., YouTube, Podcasts and forums like Reddit can all be excellent resources to figuring out how to do things like finances, managing a house, or preparing for a baby. Unlike books, you can usually tell in the first few minutes if the content is going to resonate with you and it’s easy to move on if it doesn’t. (I’m definitely not saying these take the place of books and people, but they can fill in the gaps if the library doesn’t have a book you want or you do not have many positive people to surround yourself with.)
    Also, shout out to going to see a licensed counselor even if you think you don’t need it! They are also super helpful for recommending resources that would be beneficial to your situation, and save you time wading through the massive amounts of information mentioned above.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Totally agree, Em! I’m hoping on tomorrow’s post to ask for suggestions for podcasts as well, and then maybe I’ll do a follow-up post on that! I also want to share what search terms to look for on YouTube and for podcasts to help you identify the good ones!

      Reply
  5. Kristen

    Really enjoying this series, Sheila!
    I know I’ve mentioned this before, but I can definitely attest to #4! I love how you encouraged your daughters to go to university in a new city, but even more than that I love the reasoning behind it. I grew up in a very small town, and while there are things about it that I miss deeply, I am so much healthier emotionally in my new city. It’s very exciting to have the chance to start from scratch socially and meet people who have no idea about your history. Moving was one of the best decisions I ever made.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes yes yes! It’s funny, because Rebecca has now moved back “home” in the last year–she and Connor and the baby live about 600 meters from us (I have no idea how many feet that is; it’s not far though). I’m just back from a walk with them! So now they live back with us, and with COVID we’re really their only social group, except for another mom Rebecca goes for walks with. But the thing is that they had 5 years married in another city to establish themselves in a church where people didn’t know them before–they only knew them as a couple. And I think that helped! But they do like living in a cheaper city and closer to grandparents… 🙂

      Reply
  6. L. Johnson Scott (too many Lisa’s)

    Excellent post full of so many helpful ideas!
    Another thing to add is how easy it is to fall into a teeter totter system of over-functioning and under functioning.
    If one spouse is slightly better at being “responsible” than the other, those difference become even more exaggerated as they become more and more and the spouse less and less. For example, one person is in charge of the budget and bills and then carries all the money worry as the other spouse is relieved of all money worry. Important to have boundaries to share so that the other person is expected to become more responsible over time.
    Same is true for emotional over and under functioning. Where one person adjusts to whatever causes less upset for the other. Over time this causes more emotional immaturity not less because the less emotionally mature one is never required to change.
    Boundaries are hard. But critical for moving towards maturity.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Very, very true one of many Lisas! Absolutely. The Emotionally Healthy Woman by Gerri Scazzero was a great one about under and over functioning. I’ll have to remember to recommend it in tomorrow’s post on books!

      Reply
  7. Roxy

    #1 and #5 have made all the difference for me. I am an intrapersonal learner and tend to be pretty philosophical. Since I process things very deeply, reading good books and letting the message percolate through the layers of my heart, day after day, has led to a lot growth and insight.
    But nothing could have prepared me for the astonishing growth I experienced during two years of counseling! I was telling my husband the other day that in that relatively short amount of time, I have shot forward about 10-15 years emotionally. I am in my 30s, but I came to my counselor stunted way back somewhere in my teens. Her love and care for me has nourished those withered places unbelievably. It’s amazing what can happen when every little speck of you is taken seriously! (Taken seriously, perhaps I should add, by someone who is not related and can give what is most needed because they don’t have so much skin in the game, like a spouse does.)
    It sure helps that we’re both Enneagram 4s and that she is a licensed therapist who loves Jesus. I grew up in a good family, but one that did not process or discuss emotions helpfully, if at all. I still have a ways to go, but things are so much better now.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      That’s amazing, Roxy! Thank you for sharing that. I’m so glad. I really am a huge proponent of counseling!

      Reply
  8. Rebecca

    We were in the military when we got married, and right after our honeymoon we got stationed in Japan, 8,000 miles from our families. Honestly, I think it helped us a lot. We got to establish ourselves as a team and rely on each other.
    Neither of us came from emotionally healthy families, so we had to learn from each other a lot there too. We’re still in the process of learning, 6 years later!
    Loving this series. I think emotional health is one of the biggest things we can do for ourselves and others, as frustrating and difficult as the learning process may be.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I think that may have been the best thing to happen to you, too! It honestly can be a blessing in disguise.
      I know a couple close to me that split up after 5 years of marriage, and I honestly think they may have had a chance if they had just gotten away from their families. It’s tough when you have young kids, but sometimes staying in the midst of dysfunction is the worst thing you can do.

      Reply
  9. Jane Eyre

    “she and Connor and the baby live about 600 meters from us (I have no idea how many feet that is; it’s not far though)”
    One and a half times around an outdoor track (the ones that go around a football field), or about 3/8ths of a mile.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      It’s funny, I don’t think in kilograms in terms of weight (except with groceries. Then I’m totally kilograms and grams!). And it took me a while to think of temperature in Celsius. I was always good in Celsius in the winter (-10 makes a lot more sense than 15 degrees, or whatever), but in the summer I was Fahrenheit for the longest time, but now I’m totally Celsius. But I’ve always been metric system when it comes to distance. Always!

      Reply
  10. Sue R

    Moving away from family has advantages and disadvantages. I think it’s a good idea for young people to move away for a time and spread their wings. It certainly was good for me. It instilled a lot of confidence to know that I could be 100% independent. (I was single at the time.) There is always the option to return, and the good part is that once you’re gone, when you come back, the circumstances are different (or should be at least in some ways). When we lived in a different part of the country, people would often ask my husband, especially around the holidays, if it was difficult to be away from his family (which is largely dysfunctional). He used to say that yes, it was hard on Christmas, but it worked out great the other 364 days of the year. 🙂

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      That confidence that you know you can make it on your own is so important! So many people never have that, especially if you grow up in a large city with a university or college. I know my girls went to school in Ottawa, and about half of their classmates lived at home. It was always more difficult for those who were still at home to feel as if they had fully transitioned into adulthood. But at the same time–it’s so much cheaper to live at home!
      Personally, I think living away from home for a time is worth it. Even if you just get a job for a year and live with roommates!

      Reply
  11. Anon

    Sheila- this post covers so many areas that I have found experientially to cause so much heartache in churches and marriages. I have tried many times to garner courage to write about it. I have found that the people I want to talk about it with are the people present in my life but they are the very people I’ve grown up with all my life and for whatever reason it just hasn’t worked out well so far. I have left the church my family of origin was in because of some pretty unhealthy reasons, and that had big consequences too. I have tried for some reconciliation in my family by trying to sort out and articulate some of these very issues you talk about.
    I am SAHM and homeschool (and for a long time on blue-collar wages) and so counseling during this whole breaking-it-down process was also not a viable continuous option (largely due to finances as well as knowing how to find a good fit without spending money moving from counselor to counselor or even how to articulate my issues to a secular counselor. I was only able to try one counselors for a couple sessions and it wasn’t the best fit). I have relied heavily on options that aren’t behind huge paywalls; like books, or content from counselors who put material online through blogs or free online seminars and lots of time in contemplation and introspection. I don’t have a lot of healthy examples I can go to in my life, but I’m trying to be the change I wish to see.
    By far, the best help and challenge toward emotional maturity (and it’s impact on the church) were Peter and Geri Scazzero’s books and some of Leslie Vernick’s books and online material. William Backus’s Telling Each Other the Truth was a huge help in learning how to talk about emotionally charged issues better (not so destructively) and Nancy Groom’s books have particular insights for women on maturity in marriage (though I don’t know that she actually puts it in those words) that I haven’t found taught to women in all my years growing up in evangelical Christianity. These are just the ones I know have really helped in this area.
    Thank you for bringing up issues like this! I know it isn’t easy!

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I’m glad you found it helpful! It is hard when you’re still surrounded by those people who still see you in old categories.
      I hear you about counseling being expensive. I wish I had a good answer for that!

      Reply
  12. Wild Honey

    I found “Emotionally Healthy Spirituality” by Peter Scazzero to be really helpful. It talked about recognizing and accepting limits, mapping your family tree to recognize patterns from family-of-origin, and acknowledging and learning from “negative” emotions, among other things. I subsequently read his book “Emotionally Healthy Church” and Geri’s book “The Emotionally Healthy Woman,” and also found them helpful. Same themes, different contexts.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I’ve got Geri’s book on my list for tomorrow, but I agree–anything by the Scazzeros is great!

      Reply
  13. Chris

    My grandmother was from a big family. And the two siblings who lived the longest…..by a lot…..were the ones who moved away and stayed away. Funny how that works. Sadly my grandmother wasn’t one of them.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I’ve heard that dynamic from many people! It can be hard and scary at first, but isn’t that also what your twenties are for?

      Reply
  14. Lex

    Tips on how *not* to stonewall?? I have been married for about a year and a half. I’ve always struggled with communication and emotional intimacy, but being married has made it much more obvious. I want to learn how to communicate with my husband, but every time it comes down to it, I just revert and stay silent. How do you communicate when you don’t know where to start?

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Great question! We’ll be dealing with some of this in the next few podcasts. Is your husband wanting to communicate and a safe place for you, but you just don’t know how to express emotions? Or are you afraid that if you say something you’ll set him off?

      Reply
  15. Lex

    Both, I suppose? I’ve never really expressed my emotions, so I don’t really know how he would respond. I don’t know if, subconsciously, I don’t trust him (even though I don’t really have a reason not to). I guess I feel like he would dismiss what I’m feeling.
    A few months ago, I was trying to tell him something, and it just *would not* come out. It wasn’t anything bad or major or anything, I just could not tell him. He held me for over an hour, trying to guess what it was. I just cried off and on and tried to tell him, and it would not come out. Now I feel like I just don’t even try.
    Anyway. I’m sorry. I know this is too deep for you to even try to address in the comments. Lol. Thank you for responding.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Hi Lex,
      I love Jessica’s response, but it sounds like a broader issue likely related to attachment. When we don’t securely attach to our caregivers, then expressing any emotions (which basically means expressing needs) becomes very scary. It sounds like you’re married to a great guy, which is amazing. But it also sounds like perhaps you’d benefit from seeing a licensed counselor and going through some of the things that may be holding you back.
      Perhaps one reason you’re even able to recognize this about yourself, and want to do something about it, is because you’re actually in a safe emotional place with your husband. This could actually be signs of growth–that you’re recognizing that this is a problem and that it’s hard. You may be starting to let down some defences. I think you’d like both The Body Keeps the Score and Wisdom of Your Heart for the books mentioned in the next post following this, so I’d recommend reading those and then looking into a good counselor!

      Reply
  16. Jessica

    Lex, I struggle with this too! For me, it helps me to remember why.
    My struggle is rooted in a family that viewed emotions as bad and viewed me as overly emotional. I endured a lot of trauma as a child (my whole family did) and responded by often being overwhelmed to the point of tears. Instead of my family being a safe space to process, they would get mad at me for crying. They reacted by trying to remove anything that could potentially make me cry, essentially destroying years of my childhood memories. When that didn’t work, they told me to stop crying or they would give me something real to cry about (spank me).
    As if the pain I was feeling in my heart wasn’t real.
    So then I just got angry. Calloused. Cold. And I kept all the pain locked up inside and would deal with it on my own.
    I learned to keep silent as a way of protecting myself. For me, it’s never been worth it to explain myself. I wrestle through problems and figure them out on my own and then present a neat and polished solution with no sign of the blood, sweat, and tears it took to get there.
    Add to that, I’m an INTJ and an Enneagram 4w5 which means that often my emotional chain of thought doesn’t make sense to myself or to others. lol. For decades, it was just easier to cut people out of that process.
    When I met my husband, a counselor, he, of course, wanted in on that process. But it felt like every time I let him in, he just made things worse. Like letting your kids help you bake a cake. You can bake it just fine, but once the kids get involved, you’ve got egg shells where they don’t belong and flour on the ceiling. I told him many times, “It’s like letting a bull into a china shop to show it one broken plate. I show you one thing and I start getting to work on fixing it and you knock a whole bunch more over!”
    Letting him in emotionally has been the biggest struggle for me, because I’ve never really let ANYONE in emotionally. When my emotions get overwhelming, my default is very much to withdraw and try to work through it myself. I don’t view it as much as stonewalling as an injured animal retreating somewhere to lick their wounds.
    And remembering that helps me let him in. He is very safe. He’s not a bull in a china shop. It’s just painful for me, and it’s even more painful when I’m vulnerable.
    He and I have had long discussions about this, about what it looks like to let him in to that space and about what it looks like for him to recognize it as sacred. No one has ever been in there.
    And honestly, the thing that helps me the most is when he simply says “thank you.”
    I spent so long feeling unheard, unseen, and being told that my emotions were not allowed and needed to be fixed. It speaks untold volumes to my heart for him to sit with me in that space and THANK me for sharing instead of trying to fix it or trying to talk me out of it, or trying to change the subject to make me feel better.
    That’s what he was trying to do all those times I felt like he was knocking over shelves full of plates. He was trying to help. He was trying to save me from the negative emotions I was having. He’s an optimist. He believes joy is a choice. The sun is always shining for him. And he genuinely thought he was helping me by trying to make me see the “Bright side” of things. But we’ve found it has helped so much for him to stop, take a step back and simply acknowledge the sacredness of being in that space.
    I don’t need him to bust out a window so the sun can shine in. I need him to sit there, in the cold and dark for a minute and realize that I can open my own window. I just wanted to let him in first.
    He has started saying “thank you” when I’m vulnerable with him. He’s started pulling me close when I’m hurting and just listen. And that makes me feel safe to do it more.
    I know it’s not necessarily a practical guide, but that’s what has really helped us.

    Reply
  17. Lex

    Thank you both for taking the time to respond! I really appreciate it.
    One more thing I wanted to say before I let the topic rest. Jessica mentioned having a traumatic childhood and a family who didn’t really know how to handle emotions. Sheila, you recommended a book on trauma. I guess what I don’t understand, is that I haven’t suffered any trauma. I had a great home life growing up, my parents are still together and are strong Christians. There’s no abuse, no addictions, no yelling or screaming. I had a ‘perfect’ life. I guess I just don’t really understand where this stemmed from. I guess I also have the feeling that ‘Other people have it worse than me, so I don’t need a counselor’.

    Reply
  18. Jessica

    Lex,
    Everyone’s story is different. Don’t let the fact that I come from a traumatic background make you feel like there’s something wrong with you because we struggle with similar things. 🙂 That’s just part of my story. That’s where it comes from for me. It doesn’t have to be part of yours.
    So many things can go into how we process emotions. Family history, personality types, communication style.
    Intimacy is intimidating, even for people who come from loving, Godly families and who marry loving, Godly spouses.
    Like Sheila said, you are showing a great deal of maturity by even being able to recognize that this is an area where you want to grow! That’s huge.
    I’m actually going to suggest something before you think about pursuing counseling (since counseling is all about expressing emotions and if that’s what you struggle with, it can feel like unwelcome prying), have you tried journaling? Or some other form of expression, even something like painting.
    When we try to communicate our emotions, they can get all jumbled up, confused, and stuck, like a necklace that gets thrown around in a box. You have to find the way that you best process them. It might not be talking. That doesn’t mean you never talk about it, but it does mean you do something else before. I journal before I talk. That helps me sift through the chaos in my heart and mind.
    Just want you to know there is NOTHING wrong with you. Counseling isn’t for those who having something wrong with them. It’s like a gym. Can you use it for rehab after a horrible accident? Absolutely. But you can also use it when you are perfectly healthy and want to get stronger. Being married to a counselor, I can assure you they don’t mind. 🙂

    Reply
  19. Jenna

    Lex I would have said the same thing as you even 5 years ago. I always thought there was something wrong with *me* because I handled emotions so poorly and I had had such a “perfect” childhood. But it was a natural result of how my parents handled (or rather didn’t handle) my emotions when I was a child.
    Reading the book Running on Empty (by Dr Jonice Webb ) and learning about childhood emotional neglect changed my life. I pray it helps you! She has a ton of info on her website as well.

    Reply
  20. Captain Nemo

    I noticed that Jenna referred to Dr. Jonice Webb’s book Running on Empty. My wife and I have read most of her book and are currently going through her online program for Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). IT IS AMAZING!! Anything Jonice Webb is really good. She also has a website with helpful articles and a CEN questionnaire. The book Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents by Lindsay Gibson is also excellent.
    My wife grew up in a dysfunctional family with a covert narcissistic mother. It was an environment with lots of emotional abuse and gaslighting (also spiritual gaslighting, which is awful). One message she received in her childhood was that her emotions didn’t matter because her mom’s emotions were more important. She learned that she didn’t matter. She wasn’t enough. Positive emotions were squelched. As a result, it’s been hard for her to understand her own emotions and connect with others. (Which is very understandable, considering everything that happened). We’ve only just figured this out and it’s been helpful to share our story with others when we can. We both get really excited when we figure out a new piece of the “puzzle.” It’s been difficult at times, but working this through together has brought us closer together. God obviously knows what He’s doing, and we keep our marriage centered on Christ and His forgiveness. My wife is amazing!
    Sheila, would you be able to write an article on childhood emotional abuse and its impact on sexual intimacy within marriage? Maybe sometime, pretty please? There have definitely been times where we do feel “close” to each other when we have sex, but we’re pretty sure the connection we’re lacking may be in part because of the emotional abuse. After we work on emotional recovery more we’ll probably look into sex therapy, if we still feel like something’s “not right.” We’ll take our time on the emotions for now, however. I’m interested in your thoughts…
    Also, thanks for your work!
    In Christ,
    Captain Nemo

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Thanks for that, Nemo! I’m going to have to check out that book now!
      I love how you have such a positive attitude about the growth your wife is going through now, rather than becoming discouraged. That’s really wonderful to see. I’ll try to touch more on emotional abuse as a child, too, and how that impacts us. Maybe I’ll do a series at some point on the book How We Love, and look at attachment issues? that may be interesting.

      Reply
  21. Roxy

    Here’s another vote for Jonice Webb! I haven’t taken her course or read her book (yet), but I’m on her email list and read every word of every email she sends. Those alone have been very valuable to me.

    Reply
  22. Jill

    What exactly is ’emotional intelligence?’ In all my 65 years, I’ve never come across such self indulgent claptrap. I long for the days when we ‘just got on with it’. It’s served me well all these years. Kindness, goodness, simplicity. I have no need for this constant angst and self analysis.

    Reply
  23. Mary

    I’m reading through this series as I’m stuck in bed sick and want to say thank you for all of it. I’ve been stuck in a crossroads moment for over a month now, not really sure which way to go. I know what I very much want, but am also deeply concerned it’s not the responsible choice, even though God has seen me through bigger leaps of faith based on what I believed He wanted me to do, because I’m currently the main breadwinner for my family which has grown since then.

    I took a job almost a year ago which I believed would lead to better things, despite it being a financial and physical sacrifice the entire time. I thought the temporary sacrifice would pay off because I felt I had proven myself to be a good, teachable, loyal employee with valuable skills. It was really taxing for most of it because we were operating severely short-staffed while trying to turn around the bad reputation left by the previous manager and staff. I understood that we weren’t even breaking even and was told it would be at least 2 years before an assistant manager position would open up. I was willing to be patient and find other ways to make it work. And then an opportunity came for me to advance about 6 weeks ago, but I was overlooked. They hired from outside the company. When I spoke to the manager, someone I worked with in the past for the same company and considered a friend, to try to understand why that decision was made and I wasn’t considered as a candidate, I felt extremely undervalued and misunderstood. The work culture is very much just show up, do what you’re told, and don’t offer any thoughts or questions about how we could improve things because that’s disrespectful and undermining the “vision”. Sounds like a lot like the problematic marriage ideals discussed here and feels like my highly toxic previous marriage.

    So I’ve been holding out, not wanting to leave just because I’ve been deeply hurt by the whole scenario, despite continually having responsibilities I happily took on during those really tough times now taken away. And having been told during a conversation we had because I got written up for being disrespectful and undermining based on what some other employees had said and not on actual observed behavior or direct communication, that the manager was tired of having these conversations. Conversations that take some time but get to the bottom of reality.

    When I left this same company 15 years ago, I was younger and fully admit I didn’t handle the situation well when the owner’s daughter came back from culinary school and took back her position of kitchen manager, the position I had taken over when she originally left. My responsibilities were taken away, despite me putting everything into doing the best job I could do. I don’t want to handle this the same way. I’ve listened to the feedback and have done my best to comply, even though financially this is holding me back from living a life that fits who I am, what I value, and what I’ve been working toward with much discipline for the past almost 5 years. And there is considerably less joy in it now. Almost none. I have learned a lot from the experience and do believe God has given me permission to move on, but then I’m left wondering if ending the relationship myself is premature and irresponsible since even though the money is not enough, it’s still something, and others are depending on me. This is almost the identical reason why I didn’t leave my first marriage, and it’s all a bit crazy making. I’m genuinely trying to recognize my emotional immaturity and do better, and I am just stuck.

    I know you’re busy, and I appreciate you reading this. If anyone has some words of wisdom to help me figure out how to responsibly make this decision while not completely disregarding my faith and past experiences of God coming through, I welcome and appreciate the input.

    Reply

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