A reader asks:
Dear Nick, I just got out of an unhealthy relationship with a man who in hindsight was clearly emotionally immature. The break-up has been rough…. But the thing that’s really got me down is that this is the third time I’ve gotten involved with someone like this, had my heart broken, and swore never to do it again. I feel like I’m broken and just incapable of avoiding this pattern. But I have to believe I can break out of it… Any suggestions for identifying emotionally immature men (or anyone, I guess) early before it gets so hard to leave?
First, a bit of encouragement…
You’re not broken, as much as it may feel that way. And just because you do have a pattern of getting romantically involved with emotionally immature men, that doesn’t mean you can’t break free of that pattern.
But to do it, you’re going to need to do at least two things…
1. Reflect on the need these relationships fill
You need to do some serious reflection on why you seem to be attracted to this type of emotionally immature person in the first place.
You could do that on your own by journaling or meditating on it. You could do it over a series of conversations with a trusted friend. And you could also do it with a professional counselor, therapist, or coach.
But clearly, despite all their costs, this type of person is addressing some kind of emotional need in you. Which is why you keep falling into these relationships.
So, you’ll need to figure out what that need is and what some healthier ways of getting it met are if you really want to break this cycle.
2. Learn the signs of emotional immaturity
The second thing is that you need to do is educate yourself about what types of behaviors signal emotional immaturity and that someone won’t be a good fit as a romantic partner.
In a moment, I’m going to walk through 7 of these signs or red flags. But it’s important to accept that most of them can’t be identified quickly.
Love is always a risky business. Which means you’re going to need to get to know someone fairly well in order to identify these red flags.
But here’s the key…
You can get to know someone well without becoming too emotionally invested in them.
In order to give yourself space to assess someone’s emotional maturity, it’s important that you slow down your speed of intimacy when you first get into a relationship. Keep it fairly casual for a while as you “interview” them for the role of your emotionally mature romantic partner.
Okay, without that in mind, let’s look at 7 emotional red flags in a romantic partner…
1. Conflict Avoidance
Conflict in a relationship is inevitable.
But the degree to which people are willing to confront and work through conflict says a lot about their emotional maturity and the future health of the relationship overall.
Now, most people hear the word conflict and think of the big, dramatic versions of it: Yelling and screaming, people losing their tempers, threats and criticisms, maybe even physical violence. And while this type of conflict does happen, it’s pretty rare overall.
The more common, and easier to overlook, form of conflict is much smaller and more ordinary:
- A difficult conversation about money and spending habits
- Disagreements about how to manage relationships with family members
- Even something as simple as whether to have Italian or Chinese food for dinner
Because most people don’t enjoy conflict, their natural instinct is to avoid it at all costs. The problem is that in many cases this is simply a way to procrastinate on dealing with a problem that needs to be addressed. And like most forms of procrastination, even though it feels better in the moment, conflict avoidance only makes things worse and more difficult in the future.
Don’t get into a long-term relationship with someone who procrastinates on important issues.
Let’s take a simple example of how avoiding even relatively minor conflict can lead to very big problems…
- Suppose you’re dating someone and you notice a pattern: Anytime you make a suggestion to hang out with your friends, your partner gets unusually quiet and tense. You also notice that they don’t seem to enjoy themselves much when your friends are around. You ask if anything’s wrong after one of these get-togethers and they quickly say “No, everything’s fine.”
- Now, it’s very possible that they do have some kind of issue with your friends, but they’re avoiding bringing it up because they’re afraid of the conflict that might follow—a stressful argument, for example. Or maybe they’re afraid that because they don’t like your friends, you’ll end up breaking off the relationship.
- As this pattern continues, you periodically check-in with your partner to see if there’s something wrong, and each time they say no. But it becomes more and more clear to you that something is wrong.
- As a result of this tension, you start to feel a little resentful that your partner won’t confide in you. And what’s more, you start hanging out with your friends less and less because it makes your partner stressed, which then makes it stressful to be around them. And this turns into another thing you start quietly resenting them for.
- At the same time, your partner might be building up their own resentments… First with themselves for not being willing to talk about how they actually feel, but also with you… However irrational, they may be secretly hoping that you understand what they want without them having to bring it up.
- As this pattern continues, the resentment and frustration gets so big on both sides that bringing it up in a conversation starts to feel completely overwhelming. You continue to lose trust in each other, and along with it, goes intimacy and even love.
Like any form of procrastination, conflict avoidance creates a lot of future pain in exchange for a little bit of present relief.
This is why it’s critical to find a partner who’s willing to approach conflict instead of avoiding it. Because not only is it a sign of emotional maturity; it’s also a sign that they care about and value the relationship.
Think about it like this…
Chronic conflict avoidance means that a person cares more about their feelings than the health of the relationship.
On the other hand, when you have a partner who is willing to tolerate difficult emotions in order to address problems early, that signals something important about their priorities, their values, and ultimately, their emotional maturity.
Reassurance-seeking is a coping mechanism where people avoid confronting and working through their emotional struggles by reflexively turning to someone else to get comfort or relief.
- Any time your boyfriend gets criticized at work, he immediately calls you so you can help “talk him down.”
- Or, anytime your girlfriend gets upset with you after an argument, she immediately texts her therapist asking for advice.
Of course, turning to other people for support isn’t necessarily a bad thing… in fact, having a good support network is a key part of emotional health!
But the devil’s in the details: specifically, the way people use social support makes all the difference…
It’s one thing if, after feeling especially upset, your partner takes some time to really reflect on and process how they’re feeling and then turns to a trusted friend or support person for some additional help. In this case, the turning to another person happened after a significant effort on their own to acknowledge and process how they’re feeling.
Emotionally mature people take responsibility for their feelings.
While they may eventually look to others for support or guidance, they believe that ultimately they are the only ones responsible for how they feel.
On the other hand, people who struggle with chronic reassurance-seeking often have deep seated beliefs that other people are responsible for how they feel. And as a result, they use other people to feel better.
Here’s another way to think about it…
Reassurance-seeking means outsourcing your emotional health to other people.
And unsurprisingly, this habit of reassurance-seeking doesn’t go well long-term…
- For one thing, it harms the person doing the reassurance-seeking because, like all avoidance behaviors, the short-term relief they get from reassurance doesn’t actually address the problem.
- But even worse, reassurance-seeking lowers their confidence in their own ability to handle difficult emotions in the future—driving them to rely even more on reassurance-seeking in the future, and as a result, making them more and more insecure.
But reassurance-seeking is also dangerous for people’s relationships because it leads the other partner to feel used. Which makes sense if you think about it…
Just like we resent being used for our money or connections, we also resent being used for our empathy and support.
And having a romantic partner who depends on us to address their emotional problems is a set up for resentment.
So, pay close attention to how your partner manages their fears and insecurities…
- Do they take responsibility for their own emotions and do the work to acknowledge them, process them, and work through them in a healthy way?
- Or do they avoid them by immediately outsourcing them to other people under the guise of support or advice?
Defensiveness is another coping strategy where we attack or criticize another person in order to shift focus away from our own faults and insecurities.
- You confront your partner about his continued overspending habits and he immediately lashes back, criticizing you for being cheap and obsessed with money.
- Or maybe you ask your partner if they’ll take out the trash and they respond by pointing out how you never do stuff around the house when they ask.
Now, defensiveness is problematic for all sorts of reasons, but maybe the most important is this:
Defensiveness is unhealthy for a relationship because it shuts people off to feedback and growth.
Think about it like this:
- No relationship is perfect. Which means there will always be areas where both people need to grow.
- But if one partner can’t take criticism in a mature way—and uses defensiveness to avoid it—they can’t grow.
- And if your partner isn’t willing to grow and change, the relationship is likely to stagnate or even fall apart.
That being said, there’s a key distinction you need to be aware of when it comes to defensiveness:
Feeling defensive is different than acting defensive.
We all feel defensive when we’re criticized, given tough feedback, or someone points out one of our flaws. And when we feel hurt, it’s a natural impulse to want to avoid that hurt.And one of the ways we all learn to avoid hurt is to deflect from our hurt by hurting back.
But just because you have an impulse to hurt back doesn’t mean you have to follow through on it.
- Little kids eventually learn that it’s not okay to hit their friends when they take their toys.
- Similarly, most adults (hopefully) learn to feel hurt without acting out their hurt in the form of criticizing back, giving people the silent treatment, or whatever other manifestation of defensiveness is typically for them.
While you would never want to judge your partner for feeling defensive, you absolutely should assess their tendency to act defensive.
Specifically, if they tend to respond to feedback or good-faith criticism by immediately criticizing back or pointing out why you’re wrong, that suggests a serious lack of emotional maturity.
On the other hand, even if your partner is visibly upset when you give them feedback, if they’re willing to acknowledge the feedback in a respectful way, that signals that they’re emotionally mature enough to process feeling hurt without indulging the impulse to hurt back.
4. Low Assertiveness
Assertiveness is the willingness to ask for what you want or express yourself in a way that’s both honest to your own wants and needs and respectful of the other person.
- A guy tells his girlfriend he’d rather stay in tonight instead of going to the party.
- A woman asks her partner to watch her kids Saturday morning so she can meet a friend for coffee (even though it would mean he’d miss his weekly golf game).
Sadly, a lot of people aren’t willing to be assertive—to ask for what they really want or express themselves honestly—because they’re afraid of making the other person feel bad or triggering them getting upset….
- The guy decided to “just go with the flow” because he’s afraid she’ll get upset and it will cause a fight.
- The woman decided to reschedule the coffee date (and rearrange about 14 other events in the process) because she “doesn’t want to be a burden.”
When people are unwilling to be assertive, they sacrifice their needs because of how they imagine someone else might feel.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with sometimes sacrificing what we want for other people—it’s a very good thing in a lot of cases!
The problem is when someone does this habitually—so much so that they’re essentially addicted to “going with the flow” and can’t assert themselves even if they want to.
There are about 427 reasons why low assertiveness is bad for that person. But it’s also terrible for a relationship. Here’s why…
It’s hard to be assertive in big things if you’re unwilling to be assertive in small things.
- Suppose your partner is seriously unhappy in their job and (secretly) wants to go back to school and switch careers.
- But they’re terrified to bring this up with you because they worry a lot about money and don’t want to be a burden on you.
- How could they possibly work up the courage to be assertive about something as big as a career change if they’re not willing to be assertive about something as small as asking you to watch the kids for a couple hours so they can meet a friend for coffee?
People who can’t be assertive always end up very unhappy—usually experiencing some form of anxiety or depression—and that unhappiness eventually affects the relationship and everyone connected to it.
If you want your relationship to be happy, you should want your partner to be happy. But they won’t be if they’re unwilling to be assertive.
Gaslighting means manipulating someone else into thinking they’re crazy or emotionally unstable, often by sewing seeds of self-doubt.
Of course, there are extreme versions of this… the term gaslighting originates from an old movie where one of the characters basically tricks another into believing they’re hallucinating.
But typically gaslighting is less extreme and not necessarily done maliciously.
- After describing a particularly anxiety-inducing day at work, a woman tells her boyfriend “You’re just imagining things. It’s all in your head!”
- Or, in response to his partner opening up about an old insecurity about money, the other partner says “That was thirty years ago… You’re still not over that? Grow up!”
In other words, the less extreme but also much more common form of gaslighting is when someone criticizes you for how you’re feeling. And even when it’s done more out of habit than malice, gaslighting is horrible for a relationship because it kills trust.
Think about it…
- If your partner habitually criticizes you anytime you describe something difficult or painful, you’re going to be much less likely to bring those things up in the future.
- And if you habitually withhold important but difficult things from your partner, both of you are going to feel increasingly distant and less intimate because the level of trust in the relationship has decreased.
Even if they’re not doing it intentionally, be very careful of people who criticize or disparage you for how you feel.
Emotionally mature people understand that emotions are not under our direct control. Which means they’re not good or bad anymore than the weather is good or bad.
Consequently, while they might criticize or give feedback on specific behaviors or things you do (which you do have control over and can be good or bad), they don’t criticize how you feel.
So keep an eye out for how a potential partner reacts to your emotions—and if they treat them as something bad or criticize you for them, that’s a serious flag.
6. Poor Boundaries
Boundaries are the flip side of assertiveness:
- Assertiveness means honestly and respectfully asking for what you want or need.
- Boundaries are about honestly and respectfully saying no to what you don’t want or need less of.
In a relationship, healthy boundaries might look like:
- Your boyfriend respectfully says no when you ask him to go for a hike on Saturday morning because he’s had an exhausting week and wants to relax.
- Or, in a bigger example, your partner tells you that, if you get married, she won’t move out of state because it’s important for her to live near her family.
Even though boundaries can be hard to hear and accept in the moment, they make a relationship stronger in the long-run because each person is being honest about what they don’t want to do.
On the other hand, unhealthy boundaries wreak havoc on a relationship…
- Suppose your boyfriend always agrees to do early-morning hikes with you on Saturdays despite the fact that he actually hates hiking.
- While this might feel good to you initially, eventually resentment will build as it becomes harder and harder for him to say no because, in essence, the lie he’s been telling has gotten bigger and bigger.
- And if it does come out eventually, you will understandably be upset that he allowed this to go on for so long.
- And perhaps most importantly, as with any form of lying in a relationship, trust and intimacy will plummet.
To sum this up, being willing to set and enforce healthy boundaries is critical for the same reason that assertiveness is: Eventually, people will be miserable if their genuine wants and needs are not getting met. And that misery will affect the relationship negatively.
Here’s a final thought to reflect on…
To set and enforce boundaries means a person respects themselves enough to do the right thing even when it’s hard.
On the other hand, if someone never sets boundaries—or sets them but never enforces them—that’s an indication that they don’t respect themselves and lack the emotional strength to do the right thing despite it being hard.
In other words, poor boundaries are a sign of low self-respect.
And it’s very difficult to have a healthy relationship with someone who doesn’t have a healthy relationship with themselves.
Stonewalling is a specific form of defensiveness that involves refusing to communicate with someone in response to conflict, hurt, or some other emotional pain.
- After a big disagreement about how to handle holiday travels, one partner gives the other “the silent treatment”—avoiding communication or even eye contact for hours and eventually days.
- In response to your insensitive comment about his best friend, your boyfriend avoids interacting with you for several days by working late, not responding to texts, and generally being “busy” all the time.
Frequently, the intent behind stonewalling is to make the other person understand or change their mind by withholding interaction or communication.
This form of relational punishment often “works” because the other person eventually gets so uncomfortable that they are willing to “do anything” to ease the tension and “get things back to the way they were.”
Of course, this dynamic of stonewalling followed by appeasement doesn’t really work for a relationship…
While it may give some short-term relief, stonewalling creates a dangerous precedent of avoiding candid discussion about problems in favor of emotional manipulation and passive-aggressive communication.
You don’t have to be a psychologist to see how that’s not going to end well!
Like with any kind of defensiveness, stonewalling is a very unhealthy coping mechanism designed to avoid emotional pain.
And if the person you’re dating has to rely on such primitive ways to manage emotional discomfort, that’s not a good sign for the long-term viability of the relationship.
Reading between the lines
If you’ve been thinking carefully about these red flags, you will probably have noticed that many of them feel pretty similar… That’s not an accident.
The reason is that all of these emotional red flags, from stonewalling and poor boundaries to conflict avoidance and gaslighting, are manifestations of the same underlying deficit that all emotionally immature people have: An unhealthy relationship with their own emotions, especially fear.
Think about it…
- Why do people avoid conflict? Because they can’t manage their fear in a healthy way.
- Why do people use reassurance-seeking? Because they don’t know how to manage their own anxiety.
- Why do people act defensively? Because they can’t manage their insecurities in a healthy way.
What makes a person emotionally immature is the inability or unwillingness to manage difficult emotions well.
So they end up managing them poorly, using a variety of defense mechanisms that not only make them miserable and unhappy, but also make it nearly impossible for anyone else to be in a healthy relationship with them.
3 Final thoughts
Before we wrap up, a few things to keep in mind:
- Patterns, not points. Everybody falls into these behaviors sometimes. What makes them a red flag is that a person does them habitually, often without even realizing it.
- Awareness + willingness. Even if someone does some of these consistently, if they’re aware of them and they’ve demonstrated (behaviorally!) that they’re willing to work on them, consider it more of a yellow flag—proceed with caution.
- Beyond romance. This article is written in the context of romantic partnerships, but most of these red flags apply to any serious relationship from a business partner or a financial advisor to a therapist or coach.
If you’re interested in learning more about the emotional side of healthy relationships, you might enjoy these article: