Maybe your partner has a “go with the flow” attitude that was enticing at first, but you’re increasingly feeling like the parent in the relationship. Maybe you’re tired of being the only one who handles the finances or the only one who keeps on top of household duties or the only one who manages the social calendar. Maybe you’re tired of feeling like a nag and find yourself wondering, “Will my partner ever share some of the responsibility for the adult aspects of our relationship?”
When it comes to living with passion and adventure, your partner excels; when it comes to doing the emotional work in the relationship, your partner is a disaster, from having meltdowns when challenges arise to refusing to work through conflict. You’re exhausted from the emotional upheaval and concerned about mounting resentments. Your friends may think you have the perfect relationship from the outside, but you often feel like you’re living with an “adult child.”
Differences in maturity levels can have the potential to wreak havoc in relationships. Here’s how to know if you’re dealing with a maturity discrepancy in your relationship, as well as what to do when you find yourself with an immature partner.
What exactly is maturity?
In adulthood, psychological maturity is generally defined as the ability to wisely and appropriately manage developmental responsibilities in mental, emotional, behavioral, and social arenas. There are other forms of maturity such as physical maturity, developmental stage maturity, and career maturity. Although it’s important to be aware of all forms of maturity in adult romantic relationships, it’s especially important to pay attention to psychological maturity.
The different types of maturity are often interwoven and easy to confuse with one another, and this can complicate relationships. For example, you might see an adult who is physically mature and assume that this person is also psychologically mature—only to find that the individual acts more like a child than an adult. You might also come across someone who is terrifically mature in the career arena yet find him terribly immature when it comes to relationships. It’s also common to be excited by a partner’s wild or uninhibited side yet ultimately find that there’s an accompanying irresponsibility that is hard to take.
When it comes to developmental stage maturity (e.g., the time when a person is ready to commit or settle down), differences in this area can create substantial challenges when important priorities and goals simply don’t line up. In my most recent book, Date Smart, I highlight the importance of finding a partner who is well matched on core levels, and this includes the critical area of maturity.
Key signs of immaturity.
Some signs of immaturity, such as a lack of financial responsibility, can be fairly obvious. Others, such as emotional immaturity, can be masked by high cognitive intelligence or a witty sense of humor. When you’re making a maturity assessment, it’s important to factor in a person’s chronological age, life circumstances, and the number and degree of the immature behaviors. Be on the lookout for these key signs of immaturity:
- An inability to communicate kindly, honestly, and effectively.
- An unwillingness to take personal responsibility (e.g., a refusal to make heartfelt apologies).
- A lack of emotional regulation, such as being hot-tempered or prone to tantrums.
- Patterns of incongruent goals, values, or messages to self or others.
- Chronic shutting down in times of difficulty or conflict.
- Habitual patterns of aggressive or passive-aggressive behavior.
- A lack of consideration for others’ needs and wants.
- Manipulative or boundary-dismissing behaviors.
- A lack of direction in setting and achieving important goals.
- An unwillingness to set and maintain appropriate financial goals and spending standards.
- Chronic avoidance of issues including procrastination.
- An imbalanced sense of “play” that leads to an avoidance of necessary adult tasks.
How maturity differences manifest in relationships.
Maturity disparities often arise when it comes to basic life and relationship issues such as finances, employment, daily chores, and communication.
When it comes to finances—whether setting a budget, creating a savings account, or spending appropriately—an immature partner will often have difficulty navigating monetary issues in responsible ways. An immature person may also have difficulty in the career world; this can manifest through constant job losses, a lack of commitment in the workplace, or a refusal to work at all.
On the homefront, the more mature partner may be left with doing far more work than the immature partner; from leaving dishes undone to refusing to clean the bathroom, the immature partner will often avoid sharing equally in mundane (but necessary) tasks.
Chronic fighting, gaslighting, manipulation, and stonewalling are all signs of immaturity, so a more mature partner will notice that positive communication efforts are stymied by the immature partner. It’s also important to pay note that a controlling partner may initially present as being more mature, but being controlling is actually a sign of psychological immaturity. Truly mature partners will know and honor their needs while also making appropriate space for their partner’s needs and desires.
What causes immaturity—and maturity differences.
It can be helpful to understand why a significant maturity difference may exist in a partner of similar age. Although you don’t need to excuse or accept a partner’s lack of maturity, it can be helpful to recognize that a variety of factors—from early childhood experiences and parenting styles to traumatic life events—can negatively affect psychological maturation.
For example, it’s not uncommon for a child to be put into a parental-type role that involves age-inappropriate amounts of responsibility; a child in this type of situation often matures far too early and may be overly responsible in adult life. At the other end of the spectrum, psychological maturity is often impeded by helicopter parents who tend to shield their children from responsibility and natural consequences. In adulthood, the helicopter-parented individual often suffers from irresponsibility coupled with a sense of entitlement.
Life challenges such as traumatic events can also affect a child’s ability to mature at an age-appropriate rate. While trauma may thrust one person into early maturity, the same type of trauma may stunt the psychological growth of another individual.
As a wide variety of historical issues tend to create and perpetuate psychological maturity or immaturity, it’s important to be curious rather than judgmental when working to understand the factors that created the maturity discrepancies at work in your relationship.
When are maturity differences a problem?
As you begin to assess both your and your partner’s maturity levels in various areas, strive to be nonjudgmental and objective. Maturity differences can sometimes be problematic, yet—when present in balanced ways—can also add interest and variety to a relationship. That said, if maturity differences create disharmony, it’s important to address the underlying issues such as discrepancies in values or chronic irresponsibility.
In some cases, the more immature partner may want to foster more mature behaviors; this type of change-oriented attitude is a positive sign. However, if a less mature partner wants to stay stuck in immature behaviors that are problematic, it’s generally wise to seek outside guidance or move on from the relationship.
As you look at the maturity factor in your relationship, remember that slight differences in maturity can also be positive in some situations. For example, a more mature partner may enjoy the lightheartedness that a less mature partner can bring. The less mature partner may benefit from the calm, settled nature that a mature partner can offer.
In the end, what’s most important is that you and your partner find that your maturity differences make you both better people and partners in the long run.