How to recognise emotional immaturity in a partner - Karen Nimmo

Businessman making face at co-worker - stock photo
Emotionally disparate people will struggle to make a success of a relationship, says Wellington psychologist Karen Nimmo. Photo credit: Getty Images

From Nine To Noon, RNZ

Is your partner getting on your nerves at the moment? Relax, it's not you - it's them, says psychologist Karen Nimmo. But before you make plans to get rid of them before Christmas, you might be part of the problem too.

Having healthy levels of emotional maturity, also known as EQ or emotional intelligence, is "the golden ticket" in relationships and life in general, Nimmo says.

"That is basically the ability to manage yourself, to understand your thoughts and feelings, and then to react appropriately to them. And then part two of that is to be able to tune in to other people and understand their thoughts and feelings and be able to relate to them."

Nimmo, a Wellington psychologist, says a lot of people think they're emotionally mature because they're good at reading others, but there's more to it than that.

"The trick is being able to relate to them. And that is what can make relationships or break them."

Maintaining emotional maturity requires "a lifetime of education", she says.

"I mean, we all lose it. From time to time, we will get frustrated and angry and upset. So, I don't think anybody can check the emotional intelligence or maturity box and say that's me. I'm all good. I've got this." 

Some people get an emotional head start in life, thanks to having parents who taught them good emotional skills, but temperament and life experiences all play a part in emotional intelligence or maturity, Nimmo says. Emotional maturity is also particularly difficult for neuro-diverse people because they find it hard to read social cues and these skills don't come naturally to them.

"It can be really hard or in difficult for people who've been in tough relationships because they can that can affect how they process emotions and how they relate to others."

If someone is emotionally mature, they're good with people, Nimmo says; they can show empathy and kindness, they are good at listening and communicating. They're also good at managing their emotions.

"Being able to manage yourself so that you don't just impulsively lash out is really difficult sometimes. We don't slip quietly into that control centre in our brain, we jump out the other side and do all sorts of things that can cause trouble and damage relationships. So, it is really something that we need to keep working on." 

Nimmo says she's seen couples "ripped apart" by their differences in emotional maturity; one partner will be left walking on eggshells while the other responds defensively to any suggestion or criticism.

One client was struggling because her partner reacted extremely defensively to any suggestion.

"And so, with her very best effort, to her highest level emotional skill, she couldn't make this relationship work and it absolutely devastated her, because in effect, they were both really nice people. He just had a rocky history that didn't allow him to be able to relate to her in a reasonable manner."

Impulsivity, defensiveness, avoidance, inability to see someone else's views, being selfish, being overly needy and being really angry are all signs of an emotionally immature person, Nimmo says. Unfortunately, these qualities are often hard to spot at the start of a relationship when we're clouded by lust and hormones. 

When couples come into therapy and say they have problems with communication, their issues can usually be tracked back to how people manage their emotions, Nimmo says.

"You'll often get people who are stuck in relationships who look back and they go, 'you know what, the signs were always there, that person was not able to manage themselves'.

"I can remember one client telling me about his partner who got overly angry when meals in a restaurant arrived late and she just absolutely lost it. It was a first date, and he was fairly smitten and there was sex in the mix, and he didn't want to let her go but frankly, down the track, three children later, this woman was no different and there was no way he was going to put that back in the box."

"Another client went to the movies with a woman, and she was really highly critical of other women that she saw around her, their weight and the clothes and that sort of thing. And he remembers thinking, 'gee, that was really mean, why is she being so mean to people she doesn't even know?'. But anyway, the relationship progressed, and he married her and 12-13 years down the track, he finds he is married to this very, very mean woman who is unable to manage herself and get any perspective around other people. And so, it's carnage." 

Is it worth trying to work on a relationship with an emotionally immature person? That depends, Nimmo says.

"If there's a long history of this inability to manage yourself or to make change, then you're probably in a little bit of trouble. It takes two willing people to want to improve things and a commitment to really dig yourself out of the hole. I don't want to be too nice about it. I have seen people managed to improve these things hugely, but it does take commitment and work and especially once things have got fairly ragged inside relationships, as they often can."

If a couple are willing to come together to sort something out, and have a similar approach to communicating, then Nimmo says there's hope that the relationship can improve.

"It's just that if these patterns of dysfunction have really dug in, then it can be a little bit of a hard pattern to break, particularly if one lacks the maturity to actually own up to their part in it, then you can get into a real mess." 

It's also possible to work on your own emotional maturity while you're in a relationship, Nimmo says, but after a breakup is a good time to look at who you are.

"Absolutely you can improve if you're willing to peel back the covers on yourself and stare in the mirror and say okay, 'this is who I am. Do I want to be better at this or, or am I fully satisfied with me just the way I am?'"

A lot of people come to therapy because they want to understand themselves as an individual before they tackle relationship issues, Nimmo says.

"It is good if you front up, and not necessarily go to therapy, but to start to learn about who you are and who you are in relationships can be really helpful and really enlightening to know more about why you react the way you do and also it can help you more broadly obviously at work and in your career and your friendships and just to generally have a more satisfactory and enjoyable life. 

"It's worth putting the time in and then once you know yourself, perhaps you can change the way you behave. And then that is the ideal way to be able to change your partner if they're up for it."

Nimmo says she's hesitant to use words like 'self-love' and 'self-affirmation' because Kiwis "like to keep things real", but self-acceptance and taking responsibility for yourself is key to positive relationships.

"If you can do that, then you're really starting to move up the emotional maturity scale. And, you know, the fallout is it makes you a better partner too.

Emotional maturity is not something that you can get at a weekend workshop. It's a work in progress, the work of a lifetime."