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How To Handle Differing Levels Of Maturity In A Relationship

Carla Marie Manly, Ph.D.
Clinical Psychologist By Carla Marie Manly, Ph.D.
Clinical Psychologist
Carla Marie Manly, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist based in Sonoma County, California. She has a doctorate in clinical psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute and a master's in counseling from Sonoma State University.
Can You Overcome Maturity Differences In A Relationship? We Asked A Psychologist
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Are you and your partner struggling with an overt difference in overall maturity levels? Do you seem to date people who are of similar age but seem far less mature than you? Are you generally satisfied with your partner but frustrated with elements of a partner's behavior that seem oddly immature? If any of these issues resonate with you, know that there are some actionable steps for dealing with discrepancies in psychological maturity.

Research suggests that relationships fare best when partners' chronological ages are within a year of each other. The greater the age gap, the less likely it is that both partners will enjoy a mutually satisfying and lasting relationship. But what happens when chronological ages are well matched, but maturity levels are not? 

Psychological maturity, which comprises both emotional and mental development, is a foundational element of a healthy relationship. Those who have developed maturity have learned how to respond to relationship and general life challenges in wise, productive ways. Maturity does not automatically come with age; it develops over time as we learn how to navigate life with wisdom. For example, a 20-something individual may be exceedingly mature, while a person who is decades older may be extremely irresponsible and immature in many ways. So, regardless of physical age, partners who value maturity tend to fare well in the long term.

In truth, if you and your partner are not aligned in the maturity department, it's likely that you'll struggle with this issue until a level of maturational balance—or a strong level of acceptance—is reached.

So, if you and your partner are around the same age, but you worry that your maturity levels may be different, here are a few ways to help you begin a healthier and more balanced relationship journey:

1. Objectively assess the maturational discrepancy.

When you're facing maturity discrepancies, it's important to mindfully slow down to assess the nature of the issues. In some cases, there is a global lack of maturity that affects work, home life, and social interactions. At the other end of the spectrum, the maturity issues may be minor and confined to minor areas.

Many people discover that maturational discrepancies are more in the midrange, where they affect a variety of situations with varying degrees of significance. Now is the time to pause, take a step back, and nonjudgmentally assess "how, where, and when" the maturational discrepancies arise. 

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2. What are the upsides?

Interestingly, maturational discrepancies sometimes offer upsides. For example, you might find that you tend to over-focus on work and make insufficient time for relaxation and play. A partner who is more of a child at heart can actually add a bit of balance and joy to a relationship that's in danger of being "too mature."

As objectively as you can, pause to notice if there are any upsides to the maturational discrepancies in your relationship. Although it's often tough to take a "let me explore the upsides" perspective, you might be surprised by what you discover. In the most intriguing way, maturational differences—if they are healthy and not toxic—can actually be a positive force that makes a relationship even more worth the long-term investment.

3. What are the downsides?

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It's often easy to find the downsides when it comes to maturational differences. Glaring differences in psychological maturity can manifest in tiring dynamics such as avoidance of responsibility, unhealthy communication, and manipulative games. When you carefully and nonjudgmentally slow down to notice and name the downsides, you'll have greater clarity about the emotional, mental, and behavioral issues you're facing.

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4. Identify whether change is desired, ignored, or disavowed.

Although we often expect adults to mature as they age, maturity and chronological aging don't always go hand in hand. In truth, some people simply do not want to mature as they age. If you're facing a maturational disparity, it's important to know if there is a desire to mature. In some cases, a person really wants to invest in maturing psychologically. In others, there is a childlike desire to ignore the idea. Sometimes, there is a complete disavowal of the importance of maturation.

If maturation is truly desired, it's likely that positive change will ultimately occur. If not, it's wise to accept that the maturational disparities will continue until a shift is desired. Unless a major change of heart occurs, this shift may never occur. As we can't force a person to mature, it's important to determine whether or not change is even an option.

5. Ask yourself: Where do I want to be?

After looking at your situation from a more informed vantage point, you likely have a far better understanding of the issues you're facing. If your evaluation leaves you feeling that you're in a situation that you can accept "as is" in the long run, that's fantastic. However, you might also conclude that you need some big—or little—changes in order to feel good about the relationship. This is your opportunity to objectively assess what you want in the short term and where you'd like to be in the long term. Life is short; it's your right to be in a relationship that feels loving, positive, and well matched.

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6. Consider ways to grow together.

If you decide that your relationship is worth keeping despite (or maybe even because of) the maturational disparities, try to find ways you can create greater balance in the relationship. If an uptick in maturity is needed, you have a variety of choices such as couples' therapy, individual therapy, and support groups. You can also invest in self-help books to help learn and grow together. (My book, Date Smart, which focuses on creating relationships based on mutual values, similar goals, and balanced psychological maturity, may be a good place to start.)

Another terrific option is creating couple time once per week (ideally on a weekend day when you're both refreshed) to work on "maturing individually and together" issues. Couples who want to evolve together do best when a team approach is embraced.

Just be careful in your approach to growth: If the more mature partner takes on the role of being the "expert," negative dynamics can arise. To avoid a real or perceived power imbalance, couples can take turns discussing general issues such as emotional intelligence, values, and priorities. Avoid the trap of making one person play the therapist or "perfect" partner by making a humble, authentic commitment to grow together. In reality, we all learn and grow to a greater degree when we collaborate as equals. This holds true for psychological maturation as long as both people genuinely want to evolve as individuals and partners.

7. Know when it's not working.

Unfortunately, not all relationships with problematic maturational issues get the healing attention they need and deserve. In cases such as this, the "work" is deciding whether to stay, leave, or wait to see if change miraculously occurs. If you're on the fence, be on the lookout for a few key red flags such as a general lack of responsibility, power-play dynamics, stonewalling, a lack of honesty, or an unwillingness to communicate in healthy ways.

If you find yourself stuck on what to do next, reach out for support from a psychotherapist, mentor, or trusted friend. Sometimes we can only see the next right step when another person offers a wise, fresh perspective. In the end, trust that you deserve to be loved deeply and fully—and by someone who matures with you in a healthy, positive way.

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A note on age differences.

While the advice above is intended for partners who are around the same age, there are some additional considerations to keep in mind if there is an age difference in addition to a maturity difference.

When assessing a relationship where an age difference exists, pause to notice if there is genuine alignment on key issues such as values, interests, and priorities. For example, a 10-year age gap might not be problematic if both partners share the same goals and interests. However, the same age gap can create significant issues if the partners are not aligned on important factors such as having children and financial goals.

Additionally, if one partner is young and naturally less mature, an age difference of even a few years can lead to power and control dynamics that take advantage of the more impressionable, vulnerable individual. By definition, a psychologically mature person generally would not engage in a romantic relationship if problematic discrepancies in psychological maturity existed. If you find yourself in a situation where you've realized a balanced relationship isn't possible, remember that it's never too late to take care of yourself (or a younger partner) by walking away.

The bottom line.

Psychological maturation is not a given. It's a gift that we give to ourselves—and to others—as we mindfully journey through life with courage, self-awareness, and wisdom. 

There's a lot to consider if you notice a maturity discrepancy in your relationship. But if you find that you and your partner are aligned in wanting to work as a team to heal any problematic relationship issues, you'll create positive change when you stay the course with mindful perseverance. 

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