A few days ago, I received an email from a man I’ll call Mark (that’s not his real name) who follows me on social media. Mark’s message to me went like this: “The girl I love tells me all the time that I’m immature and need to grow up. How can I make myself more mature?”
Upon reading this message initially, I chuckled. Something about the idea of just making yourself more mature sounded silly to me. My next reaction, however, was to sigh with sadness. Mark’s predicament hit at my heart and got me wondering about the role of “maturity” in relationships.
I wondered: Is Mark’s partner insulting him meaninglessly by calling him “immature”? Or is she voicing a legitimate concern about his readiness to be a good partner?
Of course, we don’t know her specific concerns with Mark’s behavior. But if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of the “immature” label, you may be curious what it means for you as well. Let’s break down what “immature” may mean for you and your relationship.
Cause and Effect
When someone calls their partner “immature,” it’s often because Partner A appears to not understand something that’s completely obvious to Partner B.
For example, “immature” might be the adjective of choice to describe someone who seems unaware that if you don’t keep track of your money, you run out of money. Or it could describe someone who appears to not understand that if you stay out all night, you will perform badly at your big meeting the next day. In other words, they appear to not “get” cause and effect.
This application of the “immature” label requires a deeper understanding of what’s really causing the seemingly illogical behavior. One option is that, if you’re young and have less life experience, you may have never felt the negative consequences of risky behavior before.
You may have never lost a job, squandered an opportunity, or run out of money before—and therefore don’t feel the fear of consequences in the same way a more experienced person might. This is a pitfall of youth (or a blessing of youth, depending on how you look at it) and can’t fairly be assigned as a character flaw in the other person. It’s just being young.
Alternatively, Partner A may fully understand cause and effect—she may have felt her fair share of consequences—she may simply not value the same things that Partner B does. She may know that staying up late effects work performance… she just values fun and spontaneity more than achievement at work. This is not a character flaw either; it’s simply a difference in values.
Another common behavior often deemed “immature” is the inability to deal with emotions—either one’s own emotions or someone else’s. Like understanding cause and effect, this can be a product of youth—18-year-olds are understandably less equipped to deal with strong emotions than say, 40-year-olds—but it can also be something that a person struggles with their whole life.
An inability to manage emotions, while not a character flaw per se, can indeed hurt one’s ability to be a good partner. If this is the type of “immaturity” you see in your own relationship, it’s likely a fair thing to point out to your partner.
Another common expression of “immaturity” is a refusal to take responsibility for one’s own actions or choices. This would include a partner who blames his own failings on other people, refuses to admit fault, or behaves as if he’s a victim in circumstances where he’s clearly not.
Like emotional maturity, the tendency to deflect personal responsibility is a real problem for relationships. It’s extremely hard to have a fair and equal dynamic when one person can’t take ownership for his part in the relationship. This is, in my opinion, a fair and valid complaint to have with one’s partner.
…But is the “Immature” Label Fair?
As you can see, there’s not just one cause of “immaturity.” There are probably many more related behaviors than the ones I’ve listed here. To me, this points toward the real problem with calling someone “immature” or insisting that they “need to grow up.”
“Immature” isn’t a helpful word in relationships because it’s too vague to know how to work on it. It’s a catch-all term that can mean any number of things. For this reason, it’s not actionable and therefore not useful.
This very problem is echoed in the email that sparked this whole discussion. Mark wants to improve himself and please his partner, but he doesn’t know how to “un-immature” himself. He doesn’t know what that would look like. That’s because the term itself is too vague. And it’s only possible to improve yourself if you know precisely what you’re aiming to improve.
It’s time to eliminate “immature” from our relationship vocabulary. If you find yourself wanting to use the term, ask yourself how else you could describe your qualms with your partner. This will help you more accurately describe what’s bothering you and increase your partner’s chances of being able to fix it.