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Emotional Maturity in Relationships

Are you a rager or a collapser?

Key points

  • Emotionally mature people take full responsibility for their feelings, their reactions, and their lives.
  • Emotionally mature people are able to hold empathy for themselves and others simultaneously.
  • Emotionally mature people speak up and tell the truth, even when it’s hard.
Mikhail Nilov/Pexels
Are you emotionally mature?
Source: Mikhail Nilov/Pexels

It probably comes as no surprise that most people come to therapy to work on their relationships. The quality of our relationships determines the quality of our lives, after all.

Giving attention to issues that arise in all of our relationships is crucial to a meaningful life. Family issues are often related to struggles setting boundaries. Marriage problems usually involve unmet expectations. Work problems can typically be traced to challenging interactions with colleagues. Those who are single often reveal a history of disappointing relationships due to an inability to set boundaries and communicate their needs. Whatever the issue, one of the common themes that emerge is that throughout these relationships, someone isn’t operating from a place of emotional maturity.

People who are emotionally mature share these three characteristics:

1. Emotionally mature people take full responsibility for their feelings, their reactions, and their lives.

2. Emotionally mature people are able to hold empathy for themselves and others simultaneously.

3. Emotionally mature people speak up and tell the truth, even when it’s hard.

I’m not going to lie, sometimes being emotionally mature is hard. Emotional maturity asks us to manage our reactions even when we feel flooded with emotions. Emotional maturity requires us to focus all our efforts on what we can control instead of what is currently out of our reach. And emotional maturity asks us to put aside our fear of taking full ownership of our lives and make hard and sometimes painful decisions.

When I talk about managing emotions, clients sometimes assume I’m asking them to drain their reactions of any feeling, speak in an affectless tone, and generally move through the world like a Stepford wife. This isn’t what I am saying. In fact, showing emotion in difficult conversations is crucial to being heard and conveying the full impact of your experience, and it provides leverage for changing the status quo. As comedian Tina Fey famously said, “Some people say, ‘Never let them see you cry.’ I say, ‘If you’re so mad you could just cry, then cry. It terrifies everyone.’”

We’ve probably all had the experience of making a request calmly over and over, only to have things change when we burst into tears, raise our voice, or otherwise strongly react. Within reason, this is fine and, in fact, crucial to becoming difficult.

When emotions spiral out of control, it’s often because we feel powerless and hurt and don’t believe that real change is possible unless we try to put the other party in as much pain as we are in. Emotional dysregulation refers to reactions that don’t match the stimuli and seem out of the person’s control. The most common examples of emotional dysregulation I see in my office fall under two categories: the rage and the collapse.

Both the rage and the collapse occur when more subtle emotions are repressed and unspoken for.

The rage happens when one feels that the only way to improve a situation is to control it, and the only way to control it is to scare the other party into submission. It is an attempt to convey the depth of your emotion through brute force. Since it is difficult to “rage up,” rage tends to be taken out on those in a subordinate position.

Most of us can think of many examples of bosses unloading fury on subordinates or some poor waiter being berated by a customer. In relationships that are supposed to be equal, like marriage, going into a rage often requires an element of disdain—“How dare you do that to me.” While it is undoubtedly true that women are penalized for uncorked rage in a way that men are not, unfettered anger is not a feminist victory; it’s a temper tantrum.

Anger is a productive emotion. It gives us fuel to stand up for ourselves and others and to create change. It can point us toward something better than what we have now. But rage is abusive. My clients, Marc and Angel, discovered just how automatic—and destructive—rage can be.

Marc and Angel came to see me after they’d been together for 10 years. While they said there were many positive aspects of their relationship, they were struggling in their sex life. They both agreed that at the beginning of the relationship, sex had been breathtaking. But over the past several years, Angel began complaining about the frequency of their sex life, how long Marc could last while having sex, and his inability to bring Angel to orgasm. This was a blow to Marc, who thought of himself as a skilled and attentive lover.

Things quickly dissolved to the point that Angel would scream and cry after sex, calling Marc names and telling him he’d let her down once again. Marc would shut down completely, leaving the house for several hours and ignoring Angel’s texts. Angel felt shunned and began to panic at Marc’s non-responsiveness. When he came home, Angel would apologize for her behavior, but soon the cycle would begin again.

Unsurprisingly, Marc began to dread sex, and his anxiety did lead to sexual issues for the first time in his life. Marc felt battered and bruised emotionally. If it wasn’t for their daughter, he said, he’d leave.

Even having counseled hundreds of couples, I found Angel’s behavior extreme. I turned to her during our first session and told her, “We need to draw a line in the sand with the name-calling. It has to stop. It’s cruel and emotionally abusive. We aren’t going to make any headway here if that continues.”

Angel shot back, “You wouldn’t be saying this if I were a man. Men are allowed to demand sex from their partners.”

I took a minute to consider whether this might be true. Was Angel being held to a higher standard, expected to control her rage simply because she was a woman? I didn’t think so. If anything, the same behavior from a man would be clearly labeled as abusive.

“Belittling your partner is damaging. No matter who’s doing it. ‘Demanding’ anything from your partner doesn’t work. It just creates resentment.”

Angel sat back in her chair, folded her arms, and set her jaw, “You tell me I’m allowed to be angry, but now you don’t like how I’m doing it! What am I supposed to say?”

A key skill in communicating effectively is being able to speak “for” your feelings instead of “from” your feelings.

Imagine wearing a pair of glasses. When they are on your face, you see the world through that lens. You might even forget that you’re wearing them. Everything you see is filtered through that lens. But if you take the glasses off and observe them in front of you, it’s possible to describe the glasses. You can acknowledge that you see things differently when you are looking through them.

Speaking from your feelings often involves accusing, all or nothing language and puts the responsibility for your feelings on the other party. It might feel good to unload, but it ultimately leaves you helpless and the other person defensive. In contrast, speaking for your feelings creates just enough space for the other person to consider your needs without feeling attacked. It’s a lot easier to take in, “I am so sad,” as opposed to, “You are running my life!”

For Angel, speaking from her feelings sounded like this, “You aren’t a man! You never care about my feelings. I don’t matter to you!” Angel had no idea what talking for her feelings might be like, so that’s what we looked at next.

I offered this example: “You could say, ‘I’m upset about our sex life. I feel like you never initiate or want to try new things. I feel lonely and insecure when we aren’t having sex regularly, and you don’t seem excited about me sexually. I want to be able to talk about this and try to make it better.”

In response, Angel turned to Marc and said, “What would you say if I said that?”

Marc said, “It would still hurt, but at least I’d feel hopeful that this would get better.”

Angel’s face relaxed as she considered this.

She said, “This is going to be really hard.”

I nodded in agreement.

“Okay,” she said, sitting upright again. “Let’s try it.”

In the months that followed, I helped Angel to find new ways to express her frustration and anger. She learned to speak for her anger, not from her anger, and then to follow that up with an actionable request. As she did, she found her own stress levels falling, and her marriage—and sex life—with Marc got better.

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