Good looks, great personality, funny, charming, and financially stable. These are some of the things many of us are typically drawn towards when on the hunt for someone to date or marry. Often times, a potential date will be accepted or cut based on these factors. But does this translate into a long and satisfying relationship?
Researchers suggest that something else plays a significant role in the longevity and happiness of a relationship — emotional maturity.
“Oh that? Of course. That’s obvious.” This might be what some of you are thinking especially with the rise of emotional inteligence. But have you ever asked yourself, what is emotional maturity and how do you measure it? Am I myself emotionally mature and what about my significant other?
One way to define and gauge emotional maturity is by looking at differentiation. This concept was developed by Dr. Murray Bowen, a psychiatrist and professor, who described differentiation as a person’s ability to “define his or her own life’s goals and values apart from the pressures of those around them.” Differentiated people are able to maintain their own individuality while being connected to people important to them.
Okay, but what does that really mean or look like? Sometimes considering the opposite can help us understand. The counterpart to a highly differentiated person is an emotionally fused person. Emotionally fused people have poor interpersonal and emotional boundaries and struggle with maintaining a sense of self apart from their significant other or family member. When confronted with someone who doesn’t act or behave the way they want, emotionally fused people take it personally and react by either trying to control how another person thinks/acts by manipulating/guilt tripping/dogmatically pushing others to change, OR quickly accommodating to the other person and repressing their own feelings leading to resentment or a diminished sense of self. Both these responses stem from trying to fight the anxiety and stress that comes from needing to control or please others in order to feel good about their own sense of self.
Differentiation, on the other hand, is the process of freeing yourself – or releasing others that you are trying to control – from defining themselves by the opinions and values of others. A differentiated person can act according to the desires of others, but it is a thoughtful choice, not a response to relationship pressures. He or she is able to balance both being independent with different views while still being in an emotionally connected relationship. And ironically, this separateness allows for more intimacy and passion. By being able to be considerate of others while not negating our own selves, excessively worrying about others reactions, or forcing/manipulating others to be responsible for our own happiness – we can truly express our thoughts and feelings more freely, genuinely and deeply. Relationships then are desired for enjoyment, not something to control in order to validate one’s self-worth or minimize anxiety.
Now of course, no one is perfectly emotionally fused or differentiated. In real life, people will fall along a scale. So where do you think you would fall? Pete Scazzero, pastor at Newlife Church, developed a scale from 0-100 in his book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. It’s broken into four ranges (0-25, 25-50, 50-75, 75-100) to help see the range of emotional health. Below is a description of the ranges.
Which range or number do you think you are? What about your significant other?
- Can’t distinguish between fact and feeling
- Emotionally needy and highly reactive to others
- Much of life energy spent in winning approval of others
- Little energy for goal-directed activities
- Can’t say, “I think . . . I believe . . .”
- Little emotional separation from their families
- Dependent marital relationships
- Do very poorly in transitions, crises, and life adjustments
- Unable to see where they end and others begin
- Some ability to distinguish between fact and feeling
- Most of self is a “false self” and reflected from others
- When anxiety is low, they function relatively well
- Quick to imitate others and change themselves to gain acceptance from others
- Often talk one set of principles/ beliefs, yet do another
- Self-esteem soars with compliments or is crushed by criticism
- Become anxious (i.e., highly reactive and “freaking out”) when a relationship system falls apart or becomes unbalanced
- Often make poor decisions due to their inability to think clearly under stress
- Seek power, honor, knowledge, and love from others to clothe their false selves
- Aware of the thinking and feeling functions that work as a team
- Reasonable level of “true self”
- Can follow life goals that are determined from within
- Can state beliefs calmly without putting others down
- Marriage is a functioning partnership where intimacy can be enjoyed without losing the self
- Can allow children to progress through developmental phases into adult autonomy
- Function well— alone or with others
- Able to cope with crises without falling apart
- Stay in relational connection with others without insisting they see the world the same
75-100 (very few people)
- Is principle oriented and goal directed,secure in who they are, unaffected by criticism or praise Is able to leave family of origin and become an inner-directed, separate adult
- Sure of their beliefs but not dogmatic or closed in their thinking
- Can hear and evaluate beliefs of others, discarding old beliefs in favor of new ones
- Can listen without reacting and communicate without antagonizing others
- Can respect others without having to change them
- Aware of dependence on others and responsibility for others
- Free to enjoy life and play
- Able to maintain a non-anxious presence in the midst of stress and pressure
- Able to take responsibility for their own destiny and life
Would your family and friends agree with your assessment? I recommend asking your partner to give you their assessment of your emotional range as well.
But if you are brave enough to do that – be prepared! It may be a little painful to hear. Reflecting on our emotional health is truly not easy because subconsciously, we tend to select the behaviors and perspectives that support the view that we are more emotionally mature than we actually are. But if you are truly honest with yourself, chances are that you don’t like your emotional health range. I know I didn’t. In fact, while we might be somewhat healthy at times with our friends, both my wife and I felt that we were so emotionally fused and unhealthy in many ways when it came to our relationship with each other. This has not been easy to acknowledge or even recognize, but reflecting on this together has really helped us take baby steps in being more emotionally healthy for each other and now our children.
And really, that is the point of all of this. It’s not to make you feel bad or cause you to beat yourself up about your past mistakes or failures. It is to give us the tools to thrive in a relationship – resolving conflict, communicating openly and respectfully, and handling stress together well. If you are not happy with your emotional scale, you are not stuck there! We can grow and progress towards greater emotional health for ourselves and our family. How do we do this? Check out my next blog to find out some practical tips.