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How To Prevent Emotional Neglect In Marriage

How do you prevent Emotional Neglect in your marriage? Fortunately, it’s quite easy.

But unfortunately, it’s also easy for Emotional Neglect to take over your marriage, leaving one or both partners feeling empty and alone. All it takes is for one or both of you to grow up with it in your family.

When Emotional Neglect happens in a marriage, it doesn’t look the same as other relationship problems, like conflict or fighting. Instead, it’s more likely to look like nothing.

Failing to notice when your partner is upset.

Failing to ask, “What’s wrong?”

Refusing to answer when your partner asks, “What’s wrong?”

Ignoring the problems between you in hopes they will go away on their own.

Avoiding conflict.

Keeping your festering anger to yourself.

Failing to notice or respond to your partner’s emotional needs.

Emotional Neglect in a marriage is like a quiet monster hiding under the rug. It’s not a “problem” so much as an empty space; an absence of some essential ingredient that no one knows about, but everybody misses.

If you or your partner grew up in a family that was blind to the feelings of its members, there’s a good chance that one or both of you didn’t have the chance to learn what true emotional intimacy is.

Emotional intimacy requires emotional work; like paying attention to your own feelings and the feelings of the other person, being willing to fight things out even when it hurts, and being vulnerable to the other person: all things that are NOT done in an emotionally neglectful family. All things that are NOT learned by the child growing up in it.

As a specialist in marriage therapy, I have worked with hundreds of couples, many of them experiencing Emotional Neglect in their relationships.

3 Ways Emotional Neglect Plays Out in Marriages Over Time

  • Important topics, not only negative ones but maybe even positive ones too, are not talked about.
  • One or both partners end up feeling deeply alone in the marriage.
  • Gradually, over time, the two partners drift apart.

In these ways, the emotionally neglectful marriage gradually emotionally starves its members. Some husbands and wives feel it happening to them, while others seem to go through their days blissfully unaware.

One thing is clear: if the Emotional Neglect goes unchecked, it will eat away at the heart of the couple’s love and passion, eroding that magnetic chemistry that brought them together in the first place. They are likely, after decades of living like this, to end up feeling more like roommates than love mates.

How To Prevent Emotional Neglect In Marriage

  1. Ask yourself this question once every day: “What is my partner feeling right now?” Simply focusing on your husband or wife’s feelings will help you begin to tune in to him/her emotionally. You do not have to be right. When it’s possible, follow up your guess with a question to your spouse such as, for example, “You look frustrated right now. Are you?” Or, “You seem a little sad today. What’s going on?”
  2. Make quality time together. Emotional Neglect is not dependent upon the quantity of time. It’s all about the quality. Quality time requires a true connection, like walking and talking about something meaningful; not just taking a walk together. Bring up something you’re worried or concerned or hurt or angry or sad about. Talking with your partner about something that has feelings connected to it will deepen your connection.
  3. If you feel lonely in your marriage, tell your partner. The worst thing you can do is try to “protect” your partner by keeping silent about what’s wrong or what is missing for you. Tell your spouse how much you love him, and then explain that you want a more meaningful, intimate connection. If your spouse has no idea what you mean, have her read about Childhood Emotional Neglect on this blog or EmotionalNeglect.com. If she begins to understand what this means, and how it applies to her, it will open doors for you and your spouse that you never imagined were possible.

Strive to notice when your partner is upset.

Be sure to ask, “What’s wrong?”

Always give an answer when your partner asks, “What’s wrong?”

Address the problems between you in a direct and honest, but caring and compassionate way.

Accept that conflict is a healthy part of every strong relationship.

Voice your anger to your partner so it will not have a chance to fester.

Do your best to notice and respond to your partner’s emotional needs.

Usually invisible in your childhood and in your marriage, Emotional Neglect has the power to drain your energy, dampen your joy, and make you feel disconnected, lost and alone.

But this means that you have the power to make the invisible visible and the unspeakable speakable. Drag the Emotional Neglect in your marriage out from under the rug, shine a light on it and say:

“ I love you and I want to be closer to you. Can we please work on this together?”

How do you prevent Emotional Neglect in your marriage? Ask your partner for help. That is what true love is all about.

To learn much more about Emotional Neglect in marriage, how it looks and how to heal it, see Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.

Answering The Question: How Does Emotional Neglect Affect A Child

Emotional Neglect is the silent killer of a child’s spirit.

How Does Emotional Neglect Affect A Child?

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) happens when the parent fails to respond enough to the child’s emotional needs.

The truth is that parents fail to notice their children’s emotions in every family in every household in the world every single day. And that is A-Okay. No parent can, or should, be 100% aware of his child’s feelings all the time, and that is not a requirement to be a good parent.

Childhood Emotional Neglect only happens when the parent fails to notice the child’s emotions enough.

Every child is born with a certain threshold of need for emotional connection, validation, and responsiveness from his or her parents. As a child, your parents may meet your needs sometimes, in some ways. But they may fail you in small, everyday ways that add up over time. And this may leave the footprint of Childhood Emotional Neglect upon you.

First, let’s take a painful peek at Emotional Neglect in action, actually happening to a child.

Althea, Age 4

Happily skipping to her mother’s car, Althea gets distracted by the neighbor’s dog Bruno, who she loves, and in whom she takes great delight. Seeing that her mom is looking for her keys in her purse, she runs over to Bruno and says in a voice she usually uses only for dolls and dogs, “Hi Cutie, what are you gonna do today, huh Boy?” Bruno responds with licks and kisses and love, and Althea is instantly absorbed in the delight of Bruno. But this warm moment is disrupted suddenly by Althea’s mom.

“Althea!” she yells in a frustrated and impatient voice. “What are you doing? I told you it’s time to go! Get in the back seat right now. I’m tired of waiting for your distractions!”

Startled and taken from joy to hurt in the period of 2 seconds, Althea withdraws her hand from the licks and runs rapidly to the car, feeling ashamed. Strapped into the back seat, she tries to catch a glimpse of her mom’s face in the rearview mirror as they’re driving to see if she’s still angry. All she sees is a blank expression in the reflection, making it impossible to tell.

Althea, Age 11

Althea lies on her bed trying to do her homework but it’s impossible for her to focus. Her brain keeps replaying an incident that happened earlier that day in which her teacher singled her out in science class, calling her a “slow learner” in front of her friends and classmates. Althea knew she had an A average in the class, and her dream was to become a doctor. She was having a great deal of trouble swallowing the humiliation, disappointment, and unfairness of it all.

Through the walls of her room came the sounds of her father and sister laughing and talking. Everyone else in the world seemed happy and fine to Althea at that moment.

“I don’t understand. What did I do wrong? What should I do? What does this mean?” These questions kept replaying over and over and over in Althea’s head. Deep down she knew there were no answers.

Emotional Neglect is seldom dramatic. Instead, it is usually small and subtle and dwells in everyday events like those we just saw in Althea’s life. As you can see, Althea is not experiencing abuse or attacks. An outsider would see a typical mom in a hurry in the first scenario, and a typical “moody teen” in the second. But for Althea, there is far more going on.

The problem for Althea is that scenes like the two above do not punctuate her growing up years, they define her growing up years. Althea’s mom is usually irritable and almost always in a hurry, breaking up Althea’s joy as if there is something selfish or indulgent about being happy.

Initially a bright, happy child, Althea has learned that she should keep her joy under wraps, and her needs minimal. At age 11 she has already learned that she is on her own.

How Does Emotional Neglect Affect A Child? 5 Steps

  1. The child receives the message that all or some of his feelings and emotional needs are not tolerated or accepted in his childhood home.
  2. The child builds a wall to block off her emotions, so as not to burden her parents.
  3. The child realizes that he is alone in the world, and must solve his own problems and meet his own needs.
  4. Likely the child’s parents do come through for him emotionally sometimes, in certain situations.
  5. The child grows up recalling the times her parents were there for him. She has little to no awareness of the endless everyday moments when her joy was killed, her anger squelched or her needs ignored.

Emotional Neglect can happen in an infinite variety of different ways. But no matter how it happens in your household, Emotional Neglect is the silent killer of a child’s spirit. Althea’s well-meaning parents worked hard and provided their children with all they needed materially. They took care of everything externally, but they could not give their children what they did not have themselves: emotional awareness, emotional validation, and true emotional nurturance.

To learn if you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.

To learn how CEN plays out over a child’s adult life and how to heal it, see the books Running On Empty and Running On Empty No More.