To varying degrees, all of us have a disparity between what we know is best and how we actually live. Rather than address our immaturity, it’s often easier to just focus on doing what brings instant validation and ignore the areas where we have to face up to the disapproval or challenge of others.
One of the best ways to test the genuineness of your maturity is to see if the characteristics of solid adult functioning are displayed in each part of your life. Many people appear to be quite mature in their public profiles yet struggle to lift themselves above childish tendencies in their home lives. An example of this was Jerry, who came to counselling reeling from the distress of his wife Sally walking out on him. This shockwave came after 30 years of marriage and the raising of four children to adulthood.
Jerry said in a somewhat stunned state: ‘I have always been an optimist, believing that nothing bad would happen to me and if a problem arose I’d always be able to find my way through it. I can’t believe that Sally is refusing to come back and to work on our marriage!’
In his current circumstances Jerry was reduced to a distressing state of helplessness. Sally had told him that in her heart she had left the marriage years ago and she had only remained for the stability of the children. Jerry described his desperation in pleading with Sally to try to work things out, only to be met by her resolute declaration that it was too late now as she had lost all motivation to try. Jerry could not come to terms with the lack of options he had in trying to pull his marriage together.
In desperation he asked, ‘How could she do this to me, and to our kids? Doesn’t she realise how much this will damage us all and the family’s reputation? At least she could have given me some forewarning!’
As Jerry began to reflect on himself as a husband, he started to acknowledge that he had neglected his wife in many ways and had taken her commitment for granted. The biggest conundrum for Jerry was that intellectually he knew that a good marriage required regular times to talk, attention to a healthy sex life and working together on managing the household and parenting; yet Jerry had behaved in ways that contradicted his own beliefs. He had been a high flyer in his law practice and was admired by many. Over the years he had mentored younger associates with marriage problems, and he had even given them advice about how to get a better work–life balance.
As Jerry emerged from behind his shock and denial he started to ask himself, ‘How could I have been so wise with others and so stupid in my own marriage?’
Jerry was facing the jarring realisation that his seemingly mature persona in the outside world had not translated into a depth of principled living in one of the most important arenas of his life. He expressed his heartbreak in realising this now, when it appeared it was too late to turn things around in his marriage. Of course, there were many patterns of immaturity in his wife Sally that led her to being secretive about her discontent. It was appealing for Jerry to focus on his wife’s failings but when questioned he could acknowledge that this would do him no good in addressing his own immaturity.
Jerry is not alone with this problem of inconsistency. He knew how to function with responsibility in some parts of his life but neglected his responsibility in other important areas. When he had a public audience he was able to feed off the validation this gave him to build a strong façade; but when he was behind the scenes he was unable to find the drive to pursue his values. His behaviour was directed more by what was rewarding and comfortable in the here and now than what he believed was important and would bring longer term satisfaction.
Staying where it’s uncomfortable in relationships
To varying degrees, all of us have aspects of Jerry’s problem: a disparity between what we know is best and how we actually live. Rather than address our immaturity, it’s often easier to just focus on doing what brings instant validation and ignore the areas where we have to face up to the disapproval or challenge of others. In this way, we borrow a pretend maturity from relationships that validate us rather than grow our inner maturity to become more balanced and responsible across the spectrum of life. We gravitate to the people who admire us and don’t threaten to expose our vulnerabilities, and distance ourselves from the important people with whom we have difficult issues to work through. Choosing to avoid tension and stay in situations where we experience more positive energy from others is an attractive path to follow. But it’s a path that will restrict our growth, and that of others, towards real maturity.
Questions for reflection
»»In what parts of my life do I appear most mature? How do I depend on others’ approval to be comfortable in these areas?
»»In what parts of my life am I least responsible? Where could I start to be more of a solid adult in these areas?
Murray Bowen on pretend maturity:
‘It is average for the human to “pretend” a state [of maturity] which has not been attained. In certain situations, every person is vulnerable to pretending to be more or less mature than he or she really is.’
—Murray Bowen MD (in Kerr & Bowen Family Evaluation p 342
‘The pseudo-self is an actor and can be many different selfs. The list of pretends is extensive. He can pretend to be more important or less important, stronger or weaker, or more attractive or less attractive than is realistic.’
—Murray Bowen MD In Family Therapy in Clinical Practice p 365
‘Watch Out for Inconsistent Maturity’ – Jenny Brown