How to Spot an Emotional Grown-Up
We hear it from our patients, from our friends, in casual conversation: “I wish that he would just grow up!” “She’s acting like a child!” “My six year-old is more mature than my husband!” “I have two kids, but it feels like I have three!” After the initial shine wears off—after dating for a while, after marriage and kids, after life throws a curve ball—it can be a shock to learn that the smart, attractive, enthralling person who swept you off your feet is not so perfect after all. After happily ever after, there may be a lot of growing up to do.
It’s terrible to discover that your amazing boyfriend has a temper, or that the woman who seemed so relaxed when you were dating is anything but. Being with someone emotionally immature creates unhappiness in the relationship, and leads to anger and a loss of respect for your partner that is draining for everyone. As psychiatrists, we see people wrestling with choices in relationships all the time: Is what I’m asking for unreasonable? Why am I always the one who has to give? Does it have to be this hard?
People come to treatment in the wake of failed relationships, trying to figure out how to do it better the next time around. They may have qualities in mind—smart, funny, kind—but we don’t often hear someone say, “I’m looking for a woman who can regulate her feelings,” or “I’m looking for a man who is emotionally evolved.”
Seeing how often people are drawn to the surface allure of the narcissist inspired us to try to describe another kind of Prince Charming: not the dashing rescuer but the Emotional Grown-up. His qualities may not be as obvious to the eye—but they are the ones that go the distance.
1. Emotional Grown-ups manage their feelings: They don’t pout, slam doors, or give you the silent treatment.
It’s great to be able to express your feelings, but being able to regulate your emotions is the most important quality of an emotional grown-up. When the skill of controlling your emotional thermostat (and it is a skill) isn’t learned in childhood, you end up with a simple on/off switch: On the one hand, there’s unalloyed joy and passion (the fun part); on the other hand, rage or uncontrolled crying in response to insignificant events. We expect to see toddlers screaming in public; but when a middle-aged man yells obscenities at a stranger for cutting in front of him on the road, we wonder what went wrong during his childhood. One of our biggest jobs as parents is to teach our kids how to self-regulate: how to recognize and name their feelings, how to react proportionally, how to calm themselves down. Emotional grown-ups have learned these skills and can keep themselves in check: They can express their feelings without blowing a gasket, and you don’t have to walk on eggshells or worry that they will lose it with the slightest provocation.
2. Emotional Grown-ups use language thoughtfully.
It couldn’t be further from the truth that “sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me.” Because words matter, words can wound; and knowing this, emotional grown-ups choose their words carefully. Everyone has moments when they feel that their partner has let them down, but phrases like “How could you be so stupid?” have no place in an intimate relationship. In managing a conflict, words and tone can mean the difference between a defensive response and willingness to change. Take the following example:
“Early in my marriage my husband had a crucial business dinner meeting. He told me that it was important that we be on time and he wanted to leave at 7. In the throes of multitasking—feeding our baby, drying my hair—I realized that it was 7:15 and braced myself, expecting my husband to yell at me like my father used to. But instead of blaming, he looked at me and said, ‘How can I help you in the future? Being on time is important to me, and it seems that you had so much to do before we left. What can I do to make it easier?’ Instead of putting me on the defensive, his language inspired me to want to try harder to be on time in the future. He may have been thinking, ‘What the f?!&!,’ but he chose his words in a way that I could hear him.”
Language can inflame or inspire, and mindful language is a gift. Taking a moment to edit your thoughts and choose your words goes very far in a partnership.
3. Emotional Grown-ups have empathy for others.
Emotional grown-ups try to see things from the other person’s point of view. Let’s say that your mantra is, “Where’s the party?” and your partner’s ideal night is Netflix and ordering in. And yet you make it work. Having empathy doesn’t mean that you agree. You might not even fully understand where your partner is coming from—but it does mean that you do your best to respect and even celebrate their viewpoint. Take the following example:
Bill likes to socialize, but his partner Steve is an introvert and hates to have people over to their home. This was a significant source of conflict in their relationship, as Bill felt guilty about never reciprocating invitations. Steve felt that Bill was being insensitive; Bill felt that Steve was holding their social life hostage. The breakthrough came when Bill came to understand that for Steve, their partnership was enough to sustain him; from Steve’s point of view, Bill’s insistence on being with lots of people felt like a rejection of their dyad. Trying to see things from Steve’s point of view, Bill was able to make more of a conscious effort to spend time together as a couple. At the same time, Steve was able to see that Bill’s desire to be with others was not a personal affront, but rather his way of recharging his social batteries—something that Steve didn’t really need. They came up with a compromise: No more than one social engagement per weekend, and when they did have people over, Bill would act as primary host.
The spirit of compromise is key to being an emotional grown-up. Here’s the mantra for the partnership that goes the distance: If it’s important to you, it’s important to me. When one partner is a neat freak and the other is messy, the messy one has to learn to tidy up—not because she suddenly cares about being neat, but because it’s important to her partner. Sometimes the annoyance of putting the clothes in the laundry hamper or unloading the dishwasher in the morning is worth the peace of mind that it gives your spouse.
4. Emotional Grown-ups own their stuff.
Owning your stuff is the most underrated sexy quality. The real hero isn’t the man who never makes mistakes; it’s the man who owns his mistakes! When emotional grown-ups mess up, they don’t point fingers, make excuses, or blame the circumstances; they take responsibility for their own actions. There’s nothing more appealing than a man who will thoughtfully say, “You’re right; I messed up. Consider it changed.” rather than retort with “But you…” Take the following example:
Jeff and Anna have been married two years and have a new baby. Sleep deprived and overwhelmed, Anna gets frustrated that Jeff doesn’t spend more time helping out at home. When he comes home late for the umpteenth time, Anna is seething. But when the first words out of his mouth are, “I’m so sorry, I screwed up. Let me get you a glass of wine and take the baby,” it’s hard for her to stay mad—especially if it leads to change in the longer term.
Owning mistakes doesn’t make an emotional grown-up weak; it makes them trustworthy and safe, it diffuses conflict and allows people to move beyond blame toward real change. The capacity to hear and incorporate feedback is a gift to the relationship; it helps both people to become their best selves.
5. Emotional Grown-ups don’t keep score.
All this empathizing and stuff-owning can leave us feeling very pleased with ourselves, but it’s hard work that may leave us wondering what we get in return, and whether our partner has done as much. The biggest gift that you can give your relationship is to throw away the scoreboard. Tit-for-tat is not just petty, it’s emotionally damaging. Relationships are give and take, and a generosity of spirit is essential. Keeping track of minutiae—who did the dishes last, who picked up the socks, who put the baby to bed—is a great way to breed resentment. This doesn’t mean that you should give and give without getting anything back; it means that balance is determined not in individual actions, but over time. As long as both partners give freely to one another, the relationship itself is the reward.
6. Emotional grown-ups love and care for themselves.
Emotional grown-ups take care of themselves as well as taking care of you. This means tending to their physical health—exercising, not using alcohol to self medicate or marijuana to escape, making healthy food choices, getting enough sleep—and also being attuned to their own emotional needs. It feels good to be needed, and having a partner who depends on you may be appealing. But in the end, people need to be responsible for their own well-being.
What’s true for your partner is also true for you. If you expend all of your energy looking after others without recharging your batteries, you’ll burn out. We charge our cell phones every night; why not ourselves? For people who are natural givers, this is a hard lesson to learn. But if your partner is consistently asking you to put aside your own needs for the sake of the relationship, that should be a red flag. Self-care is not selfish; it’s essential.
There’s a Dutch legend about a young boy who goes out walking one night by the canals. A storm comes to the area, and the water begins to rise. The boy notices a hole in the dike, and knows that if the hole is not plugged, the entire area will flood. Instead of returning home, he stops and puts his finger in the dike, spending the whole night outside in the cold, lying on his stomach, keeping the city safe. In the story, a towns person comes by in the morning and summons help, and the boy is a local hero. But what happens if no one comes by, or no one calls for help? Our friend says, “My natural impulse in relationships has always been to put my own needs aside and to think about the other person. I have the image of putting my finger in the dike to keep the floodgates from opening, except I’m putting my whole body in the dike. At first I feel like a hero, and then I realize that I can’t move.”
7. Emotional grown-ups plan and follow through.
We can fantasize about a free-spirited partner who whisks us off to Fiji on the spur of the moment with only a bathing suit and a toothbrush. But the reality is that long-term relationships require long-term planning. Children have the luxury of living exclusively in the here and now; grown-ups have to think about the future. The practical necessities of paying the rent and putting food on the table—not to mention paying for college and retirement—require a certain amount of planning. Emotional grown-ups have a plan and they follow through. If they promise to pick up the kids at a certain time, they’ll be there. If they are running late, they call. Trusting your partner is one key to feeling safe in a relationship. For emotional grown-ups, actions and words align.
8. Emotional grown-ups fight clean, not mean.
All couples disagree. It’s how you argue that makes all the difference in the world. Emotional grown-ups stick to the issue at hand; they call out your behavior rather than generalizing about your character. Instead of “What kind of a person spends $300 on a pair of jeans?” they say, “I really wish that money wasn’t an issue because you look amazing in those jeans, but the truth is I worry about how we’re spending our money.” While it’s tempting to bring up old arguments to prove why you’re right, or to pile old grudges on to the new, statements like “You always…” or “You never…” have no place in a grown-up argument.
Emotional grown-ups express their feelings without name-calling, blaming, shaming, or devaluing the other person. Cheap shots (“And by the way, you DO look fat in those jeans!”) and hitting below the belt (“You’re such a loser, just like your father!”) are not in their repertoire. We all like to win, but when you love someone, staying connected is more important than being right. Reality TV-style conflict makes good TV, but it makes terrible reality.
9. Emotional grown-ups can be flexible.
Emotional grown-ups know that there are multiple ways to get from A to B. Sometimes it’s important to let go of the need to always be right. Mothers are particularly guilty of this one: Wanting Dad to take his turn with baby, and then being upset that he doesn’t feed her the organic veggies, get her to nap at the “right” time, or put all the toys away in their proper place. Sharing responsibility means truly sharing—accepting the idea that if someone else is in charge, they get to make the rules. We all benefit from being exposed to new ways of doing things. Not only do both ways often work, but together they create a richer overall experience. Take the following example:
“We were never allowed to have junk food in the house, but when my mother had late meetings, my father would always take us to the drive-through. I have wonderful memories of open windows, music blasting, and the sweet smell of French fries. Those evenings with my father were truly special—memories of freedom and spontaneity.”
Recognizing that there is more than one way to be right leads to mutual respect—and an appreciation for your partner’s way of seeing things. Sameness is not closeness. The poet Khalil Gibran enjoined us to “fill each other’s cup but do not drink from one cup,” stressing the importance of maintaining your individuality in the context of a relationship. Appreciating your partner not only for the qualities and interests that you share, but also for those that you do not, enriches both of your lives.
10. Emotional grown-ups don’t need to be propped up.
Emotional grown-ups score low on narcissism. Narcissists take up all the air in the room; in order to feel good about themselves, they need others to adore them. When you live with a narcissist, it’s a full-time job attending to their needs—often so much so that you forget that you have needs of your own. It can feel good to bask in the reflected glory of your partner’s success. But here’s the problem: no matter how attentive you are to your narcissistic partner, you can never fill them up. Most of the time, they never get around to taking care of you.
Emotional grown-ups, on the other hand, can come into a room and say “There you are!” instead of “Here I am!” They may not be as flashy or colorful, but they are secure enough in themselves that they don’t need someone else to constantly prop them up. They both give and receive support. They are thrilled with their partner’s success—not as a reflection of them, but on its own merits. The highest form of romance is to be truly seen for who you are—and that requires a partner who can see outside the lens of his own reflection.
So what’s next?
Finding an emotional grown-up applies to both sides of a partnership. Before being with an emotional grown-up, you have to be an emotional grown-up. The movie Jerry McGuire did a head-trip on us with the line, “You complete me.” The phrase suggests that finding the right person will fill an emotional void; that love transforms us out of immaturity. On the contrary, love is the reward for doing the work of transformation! Any psychiatrist worth their salt knows that you don’t get anywhere simply by trying to get other people to change. At the end of the day, the major thing that stops us from finding an emotional grown-up may be that we have some growing up to do ourselves. If we cultivate these virtues in ourselves, they are much easier to spot in others. Now we are at the heart of the real fairy tale.
Robin Berman, MD is an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA, and the author of, Permission to Parent: How to Raise Your Child With Love and Limits.
Sonya Rasminsky, M.D. is an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at University of California, Irvine. She has a private practice in Newport Beach, specializing in women’s mental health.