EMOTIONAL MATURITY SERIES: What if Emotional Maturity Is a Skill that We Can Learn?

by | Nov 30, 2020 | Uncategorized | 18 comments

Emotional Maturity is a Skill
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Men are emotional beings–whether we think that or not.

Keith here with this month’s installment of Men’s Corner.  This month’s theme is “Emotional Maturity”.

Can I start out by being really blunt?  I think many people of both genders tend to write men off in this area and unjustly so. It seems to me that it is generally assumed by many that women are by nature more “emotionally intelligent” than men.

In fact, this so engrained in our culture that I would say that some people would even equate the phrase “become more emotionally mature” with “be more feminine”.

I categorically disagree that emotional maturity is “a woman thing”.  I do think this is an area that many men do struggle with (for reasons I will get into below), but I think it is something that all people can develop and master regardless of gender.

Emotional maturity is not intrinsically gender-based.

After all the discussion on the blog this month, I hope I don’t need to argue that. We have all known many emotionally mature and immature people of both sexes.  And I think most people also realize that emotional maturity is an ongoing process that is open to both men and women.  I have seen myself change and grow over my life and I have also seen Sheila and my two daughters develop emotional maturity over their lives. I don’t think that Sheila and my daughters were born more emotionally mature than me, nor intrinsically better at developing emotional maturity over time.  It is simply a matter of putting in the time and developing the necessary skills. And that, to me, is where the problem lies.

Emotional maturity is a product of a set of skills–skills which require practice in order to perfect them.

And men start out with a tremendous disadvantage when it comes to developing those very skills based on the way we socialize boys and girls (and men and women, for that fact!). It seems clear to me that from a young age, females are praised and rewarded for recognizing and processing their emotions whereas males are praised and rewarded for denying and repressing their emotions.

If you disagree, I invite you to consider a theoretical story from the primary school playground to demonstrate the vastly different experiences growing up as a boy versus as a girl. Imagine you are a girl who is picked on by a boy at recess. You are annoyed and you decide to talk to someone about it. No matter who you talk to about how the situation is making you feel – a parent, a teacher, another student – you will certainly get some level of support and encouragement. Unless you clearly deliberately provoked the situation, the experience will be nothing but positive for you. In fact, even if you did provoke the situation, you will likely be reprimanded for your part, but your feelings about when the little boy “struck back” will also be affirmed.

Contrast that to a little boy being picked on by a girl in the same situation.

What is the reception he receives when he brings this issue to light? If he gets exactly the right person at exactly the right time he may get some support, but more than likely this is going to be a very different experience for him than for our female protagonist.  He may be met with actual ridicule that he should be so upset about being picked on by a girl. If not outright ridicule, there will certainly be the expectation that he should be tough enough not to let things like that bother him.

Bullying Boy Learning Emotional Maturity

At some level the message will be received: Don’t be a wimp.  This is the classic “Big boys don’t cry” idea.  But I think the message is received at an even deeper level than just holding back tears to appear strong.  The overall theme is “Big boys don’t feel sad” and there is something wrong with you if you feel hurt in the first place. How could such an approach ever encourage a child to recognize, identify and process what he is feeling? The answer – It can’t.  And worse still, this is not limited to the playground; this double standard continues through into adult life as well.

The stereotypical man is supposed to be “tough as nails”, basically a tower of emotionless strength and should expect to be ridiculed if he shows weakness.

I have heard women saying absolutely cutting things to men then ridiculing his “fragile male ego” when he takes it badly. This is not to disparage women. I know most women are not like that and that men can say very hurtful things as well.  However, I do think it is strange that no one notices how things change when the situation is reversed.  When a man says cruel things to a woman, everyone’s instinct is to (rightfully) label him a brute but no one ever talks about a “fragile female ego.” Everyone knows you aren’t supposed to talk to women like that. Too often, however, it is assumed that men should be tough enough to take whatever is said to them or (worse!) be so scary that no one would ever dare say it in the first place.  Tragically, men learn quickly that being angry or being numb are the only two emotional options.

But let me make an impassioned plea to my brothers in Christ to not let this be the end of the discussion.

This “macho image” is an incredibly anemic view of what it means to be a man and we need to let it go.  We can do so much better than that. And we must do better than that if we really want to seek emotional maturity.

Yet that exact mindset – for no good reason that I can see – still has a firm root in the church.  Despite what some would teach, I see no basis for this “macho” view as the ideal for men in Scripture. Quite the opposite, in fact!  The Bible is full of examples of strong men who felt deeply.  From David pouring his heart out in the Psalms to our Saviour weeping over Lazarus, we have so much proof that feeling deeply does not make you any less of a man in God’s eyes. And yet somehow, we seem to have bought into that concept “hook line and sinker” and continue to pass it on to the next generation.

It needs to stop if we want to be healthy.

If you are a man who has a hard time putting words to his emotions. If you find yourself reacting emotionally to things and you don’t know why. Or if you are just scared of emotions in general, then please seek out help in this area.

If you like to read, maybe check out this list of books about emotional maturity. If reading is not your thing, seek out emotionally mature men to mentor you or work through these issues with a certified counsellor. The Bible tells us to “be mature” (James 1:4), to “grow up in all things” (Eph 4:14) and through all its pages, encourages us to be people of good character. But how can you possibly become spiritually mature when you have not yet learned how to identify and handle your own emotions?  Being emotionally healthy is part of being fully human. Seek out the help you need and don’t settle for your current situation. God wants more for you.

But being an emotionally mature husband means more than just understanding and learning to process your own emotions; it means being able to interact with your wife in an emotionally healthy way.

And that is another area where I think we husbands often stumble. I am always struck by how often I hear about women wanting to connect to their husbands, but feeling like he is shutting them out.  Whether in the comments section on the blog or in question & answer sessions at marriage conferences, this is a huge issue that keeps coming up again and again.  I am not talking about outright stonewalling which is a separate issue. I mean the situation where it seems that the wife feels the need to connect more than the husband seems to want to.

I used to think this was a “knowledge gap”.  I thought men just didn’t understand how being emotionally distant was hard on their wives.  So I would explain that when you don’t make an effort to regularly connect with your wife on an emotional level, she interprets that as you not being invested in the relationship.  A husband may not mean it that way, but it comes across to her as unloving, because “if you loved me, you would want to connect with me.”

I now realize that a “knowledge gap” can’t be the whole answer. I have seen too many situations where the husband knows this, but still does not change his behavior.  HIs wife tends to conclude that her worst fears are true – that he truly is not invested in the relationship, that he doesn’t really love her.  But I wonder if in at least some cases, the issue goes “back to the playground” and is fundamentally a manifestation of how some men handle a “skill gap” with regard to emotional maturity.

As Sheila pointed out in last week’s podcast, women perform better than men on most tests of emotional maturity. Given what I said above about how we socialize boys versus girls, this should come as no surprise to us.  Of course they do! They have had more practice with the basic skills of handling their own emotions and interacting with others on an emotional level since they were children.

So in most marriages, when it comes to the skill set of maintaining relationships, the unfortunate reality is that the wife likely starts off with a larger and more impressive set of skills than the husband.

As a husband you then have two options: Either work on honing those skills yourself or saying, “Well, I guess relationship-building isn’t my thing” and leaving that task to your wife.  It’s just a theory, but I wonder if many guys drift into a situation where their wife is doing most of the “relationship work” in the same way that he does most of the yard work or household repairs or the family finances.  Couples tend to specialize; they recognize early on who is naturally better at certain tasks and (often without a word) they take over the areas they feel competent in and avoid the ones they feel incompetent in.  The problem is that – unlike fixing a toilet or mowing the lawn – the work of maintaining a relationship is not a task that can be handled by one person alone. If you want your relationship to succeed, both husband and wife need to be engaged. I have talked about this on the blog before when I shared John Gottman’s research proving that emotionally intelligent husbands are the key to a lasting marriage.

Emotionally Connect with Your Wife

Husbands, if we want our marriages to thrive, we need to start doing some of the “heavy lifting” emotionally speaking.

For many of us, that will be a frightening prospect. It may feel like we are taking on a task we have not been trained for  – probably because for many of us we are taking on a task we have not been trained for!

But we absolutely cannot let that stop us! Remember that the components of emotional intelligence – like any set of skills – can be learned if we invest the time and energy. So get out there and practice! Commit to growing in emotionally maturity. Read blogposts and books about it. Or, if reading is not your thing, listen to podcasts.

And I have two other quick things that can help you!

1.  A FREE email course that Sheila has set up to help you reconnect.

It’s a 5-email course, and each email has a different activity or skill you can do with your spouse to grow your emotional connection, including the high-low exercise Sheila and I talked about at the end of the last podcast. (Yes, it’s aimed at wives, but honestly, the exercises are the same whether you’re male or female).

2. The Intimately Us App

This will pique the attention of many of you–the Intimately Us intimacy and sex app! Sheila’s reviewed the app, but basically it helps you spice up your sex life by communicating more about what you like, what feels good, what you’d like to try–and also where we’re at in our relationship. The prompts give you discussion topics, help you share with each other, and, when you turn to the sexier parts of the app, also help you have great sex!

Intimately Us–the fun and sexy marriage app that helps you play more and explore more, while discovering more about the person you love!

That’s it, guys! Practice, practice, practice. And let’s stop calling men who are good with their emotions “feminine”, okay?

What if Emotional Maturity is a Skill Men Can Learn?

What do you think? Can handling emotions well be a learned skill? How did you learn (if you had to)? 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

Blog and Podcast Contributor, Co-Author with Sheila of two upcoming marriage books

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

Related Posts

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at 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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  1. Kristen

    “Being emotionally healthy is part of being fully human.” I can’t tell you all just how much I enjoyed this series, even as a single woman. I guess it’s because I have trouble expressing my emotions, especially in the presence of other people. Like Keith said in the blog today, talking about emotions and being honest about them is associated with girls and women, and I think somehow I’ve always conflated that with weakness. I’ve always looked at men and thought about how life doesn’t seem to bother them (which is probably just an illusion brought on by the fact that boys aren’t socialized to show emotion or struggle — another point that Keith brought up). I always wanted to be a strong person, and while I have no problem dealing with other people’s tears, I have trouble conjuring them in myself, even when I clearly need a good cry. I’m not sure just when I internalized the message that women are weak because they’re emotional; my parents sure didn’t teach it to me.

    • Keith Gregoire

      I am glad you found the series – and today’s blogpost – helpful. Sorry that I didn’t say specifically that women can struggle with emotions, too – and how hard that must be for them in particular due to society’s expectations. You can only say so much in one post! I am glad you brought it up here in the comments. I am sure there are other women like you out there and it will help them not feel alone. Keep working on it; we are all on a journey!

      • Kristen

        Oh, no, there’s no need to apologize! I understand completely, and like Sheila has said before, some things are generalizations, although there’s plenty of room for people to deviate from the generalizations sometimes.

  2. Nathan

    > > I’ve always looked at men and thought about how life doesn’t seem
    > > to bother them (which is probably just an illusion brought on by the
    > > fact that boys aren’t socialized to show emotion or struggle — another
    > > point that Keith brought up).
    Yes. I can guarantee that “I’m a REAL MAN! Nothing bothers me EVER!” is an illusion. Real strength lies in understanding and processing our feelings, not in pretending that they don’t exist.

  3. Anon

    I agree that this message is very common in church.
    It makes it difficult to know when one is too emotional or not enough emotional. Also because some women enforce this idea that guys that are emotional or more in touch with their feelings aren’t real men.
    Like a guy I see on Facebook posting how women do t want to have sex with their husband because they aren’t being real men. They don’t lead the household as God wants, they do whatever their wife wants and they may be to sensitive which leads women to not desire their husbands.
    He mentions for example that men can show emotions but not too much and they need to be the emotional strong one.
    And many agree with his message. Even women(his wife is very active to and agrees with this) and many other Christian men.
    For someone as me who always have had a difficult time to deal with my emotions and haven’t always felt so “manly” this is confusing. Am I not man enough? How do I know if I show too much emotions or if it’s not enough?
    How am I strong and my wife’s safe place while showing more emotions?
    And as I said some women enforce this idea by calling men weak if they show too much emotion. One Christian marriage blogger posted an article by a woman saying that she wonders where the real men are. Who are strong emotionally and not weak. And how she needs a man that is emotionally strong and so on. Things like that makes it hard to know how to deal with ones emotions and how much to show.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I sometimes think we focus too much on “am I showing too much emotion?” and not enough on, “am I being real?” When you’re truly intimate with someone, then it’s not about whether or not you’re showing emotion; it’s about whether or not you’ve being real and authentic and going to deeper levels of communication (more on that in tomorrow’s post).
      If women aren’t comfortable with that in their husbands, then the women aren’t looking for real intimacy, either, but only for caricatures. That’s never going to be healthy in the long run.

      • Anon

        I had never thought about that. That it is about being real authentic. And that can really be tough. I know that I struggle with being authentic with my wife sometimes. Often out of some weird idea that she would get angry with me or think less of me. I guess it has to do with how we men grow up but also because I am a real people pleaser. My biggest fear in life is someone being angry with me. I guess it stems from my father often being angry with me which often freaked me out.
        Reading this reminds me of an incident that happened when my second kid was born. It was really tough. Of course for my wife but(and I know we men can barely know how it is for women) but in a sense for me too. Our daughter barely slept the first three months.
        I tried to be awake with the baby as much as I could so she could sleep before I went to work and so on. It was so overwhelming and I remember noticing that my oldest got neglected. And one day I just felt so sorry for her that I started to cry. I rarely cry. I tried to hold it in but I couldnt and I felt that I shouldnt. And I remember that my wife just looked at me, didnt say anything. I dont know if it was because she was tired but I remember feeling so much shame. Shame that I as a man was crying for basically “nothing”. Shame that I as a man shouldnt be crying like a baby. I got control over my feelings and just held everything in. My wife never mentioned it and I never mentioned it again but I often remember it and I feel shame. I feel that I cant cry again like that.
        We have a third kid on the way and its like I have this thought in the back of my mind that this time I wont cry. I cant be weak like this again infront of my wife. I dont even know how to talk about it with her because it makes me feel so much shame. My wife comes from a very macho culture and I know she thinks im weak. I dont know if she likes that about me or if she just accepts it. She even compared me to a character in a movie once that was weak and got cheated on. And I know I am not the most macho but it makes it difficult sometimes to show emotions in situations where its not “valid” for a man to show them.

        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          I’m so sorry that you felt shame for simply expressing compassion for your oldest child. I think that’s lovely that your heart went out to your child.
          I know you’re in counseling with a therapist, but have you ever gone together with your wife? It sounds like you guys could really benefit from some better communication, or even just figuring out how to spend time together. Would she ever be interested in that?

  4. Andrea

    In response to Anon’s comment, yes, too many women act as “double agents of the patriarchy.” It gives them a little bit of power within the system because that’s how you get men to compete on your behalf, they’ll all want to prove they’re the most masculine one. For any single men reading this, avoid those women like the plague. Social convention already prohibits you from crying in your best friend’s arms, so you really need a wife you can do that with when necessary. This is one of the reasons married men live longer than single ones, whereas women always have a bestie (or several of them!) who can hug them, hold them, stroke their hair, wipe away their tears…
    It’s not about turning men into women or women into men; it’s about humanizing both genders. I think about it as the act of “uncaricaturing.” Think about the accentuation of gender stereotypes in church teachings or in TV sitcoms and then think about how to undo that in real life. When you consider that we are image bearers of God, those stereotypes become all the more offensive.

    • Kristen

      Couldn’t have said it better myself.

      • Amber

        Spot on! I love those thoughts.

  5. NorahSage

    I need a little bit of advice. I have been married to my husband for 3 years and he is absolutely wonderful. He is loving, understanding, hard working, shares the physical and mental load – so often when reading this blog I am made even more thankful for him because he is so great. But the issues is he is sometimes not very nice. It is hard to explain, and he is never married to me, but when he is around mostly his own family, he is negative, sarcastic and is almost like a totally different person. He has 3 brothers so I know they relate differently than say I do with my brother and sister, and he and his brothers are constantly messing with each other, jabbing at each other and insulting each other out of fun. His brothers do it too, but sometimes I feel that that they all take it a little too far – mostly my husband. For example, we were at the lake and he said he can’t wait to jump on a floatie so he can drown his brother. If he had said he was going to just push him off or something, that would be in true boy fashion and I woun’t have thought anything of it, but sometimes he just says things that are too far and embarass me horribly in front of his family. Another example is his older brother is not living well and is truly taking advantage of his parents to the point where they are really struggling for money and his dad’s health is declining rapidly. Of course, this makes my husband very upset, but he will say awful things around family like how this older brother’s kids suck or that if he were the older brother he would kill himself because he couldn’t live with himself. If he said these things to just me, they would still be concerning but I understand that when we are filled with anger we need an outlet. But I cannot take him saying these things around his family members. It is embarassing and I feel it reflects badly on both of us. I have even heard his brothers talk about how negative he is and how mean he is. He did not used to be like this when we first met and he often blames me because all 3 of his brothers are not the greatest and sometimes I would vent about them, but I understand that you have to be able to turn it off and not say those things around just anyone. But he thinks it is my fault because i would make him angry at his family and so he would just treat them accordingly. We have been in fights and calm serious discussions where I say that part of being an adult is not treating people poorly just because of your dislike for them, especially family. I am at my wits end because I dread being around his family because I am constantly upset and embarassed. I don’t know how to help him. Every time we talk about it he recognizes his fault but it never changes. Just this last weekend at thanksgiving he made the comment about how his brother should commit suicide and I just can’t take it anymore. I don’t want to overeact every time he jokes around because I know that is his sense of humor and I don’t want to change him, but I hate being married to this serious, negative, harsh, and mean person that he has become. What do I do?

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Hi Norah! That does sound like a tough thing. If I’m hearing you right, though, this is only around his family, right? Like, not around your friends or your family or your kids or his work?
      It sounds like it’s probably got something to do with confused emotions around his family. If it’s isolated to just them, then it’s likely got something to do with that, and he may really benefit from seeing a licensed counselor and talking through some issues from his family of origin. if all of his brothers are messed up, then it’s likely that it was not a healthy family growing up, and the dynamics still sound pretty bad. That’s likely affecting him. So talking it through and figuring this out may help him be able to separate his hostility, or at least understand his hostility, a bit better.

  6. Maria Bernadette

    What kind of dating would help you see if your potential spouse had relationship maintanance skills?
    Men are expected to move the relationship forward by asking for the first date and by proposing. He’s supposed to change the relationship by urging it along to the next stage. After marriage, there is no more next stage, though.
    Can dating be done in a way that gives her a chance to see that he can maintain a relationship as it is, without having it be constantly changing? And gives him a chance to see that she will welcome his contribution to maintaining the relationship, rather than belittle him for being emotionally mature?

    • Angela Laverdi

      I was actually raised in a family where No One was allowed to show emotions, the women pride themselves on being stoic and aloof. I was very emotionally neglected as a child by my mother, as she was with her mother. So yes, some women ARE raised that showing emotions is BAD no matter what your gender is.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I think the big thing is whether or not you’re able to be real with each other and share your feelings/hopes/dreams without being challenged or belittled. Are you allowed to share what you’re unhappy about or scared about? What happens when you express “negative” emotions? (Not saying the emotions are bad; just that we often think of them that way). IF you can’t be real with someone while you’re dating, and have them respond appropriately, there is no way that you will be able to be real in marriage.

      • M

        Maria, the next stage idea is thought provoking.

        It was recently suggested that emotions can be dialogued about as easy/difficult as an alternative to labeling them as positive/negative. Things like happy and excited are “easy”, where sadness and anger an be more difficult. The wording is a minor change, but can make a big impact on thinking. Difficult doesn’t always mean negative, but references well that it often requires more work or energy to process.


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