5 Roadblocks to Dating Caused By Childhood Emotional Neglect


Recently, I wrote an article called Raised To Have No Emotional Needs. In the article, I gave an example of Kasey, who hid her desire to have a boyfriend because it made her feel ashamed of letting other people see that she had needs.

This topic, plus the example of Kasey, lit up somewhat of a firestorm of candid and expressive shares from readers who had extensive personal experience with feeling ashamed of their own feelings and needs — a natural result of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), unfortunately.

Let’s now use these real CEN adults’ actual shared comments to illustrate how being raised with your feelings ignored can lead to some difficulties years later, when it’s time to date, find your partner, and commit to a lifelong relationship. 

Below I am sharing with you several reader’s comments in italics, each followed by my commentary about it. We will cover some of the biggest roadblocks CEN sets up when it comes to dating and relationships.

5 Roadblocks to Dating & Relationships

1. Feeling and Accepting Love

Reader’s Comment

This article explains so clearly why I have always ‘muted’ my feelings to those close to me. Why would anyone be interested anyway in how I feel, my parents weren’t when I was a child, and nor was my ex-husband. It has come so naturally for me to deal with everything I feel myself yet I feel crippled with depression. Having started a new relationship with a loving, caring man, I am struggling to accept his love, I just don’t feel worthy of it.

My Thoughts

When your parents show low interest in your feelings and emotional needs, it creates a kind of emotional desert inside of you. I call it a desert because it’s an emotionally dry spot that is virtually unable to absorb the “water” or emotionally validating love, that you may later encounter in your adult life. Even when you find the ingredient you need the most, it may make you feel uncomfortable. You do not know what to do with it.

2. Fear of Rejection 

Reader’s Comment

For many people regardless of CEN plucking up the courage to ask someone out for a date, even if it is just a cup of coffee is a big deal. Many people with CEN feel very rejected by their parents and also feel unlovable because they did not get that emotional warmth and validation at a vital time. Therefore when they feel “tempted” to ask someone out part of them – in a bid to protect them slams the brakes on to stop themselves from being rejected and left alone again. It is like an overprotective parent in the mind and it can be there in other relationships too. My therapist asked me once why I always decided when our session was over and it was time to leave rather than her. I think she knew the answer! It was because if she had told me the time was up and I had to leave I would have interpreted that as rejection. I think the way around this for me, at any rate, is to admit that if someone you like doesn’t want a certain relationship with you that can be tough and maybe a bit painful. However, it does not have to be an absolutely appalling catastrophe as it is for a three-year-old when their mother is not with them and they are left with unfeeling adults. One can survive it – indeed grow stronger from it – and although some people are very lovely by human standards, nobody is completely right in every way for a person anyway.

My Thoughts

When, as a child, you go to your parents for the natural emotional support that all children need, and you do not receive it, you automatically feel rejected. In this way, children of Emotional Neglect may end up feeling fear of rejection at their very core. As an adult with CEN, you can organize your choices and actions around that fear, making it difficult to initiate a date, or even believe that someone would want to be with you.

3. Lack of Feeling

Reader’s Comment

Miserable situation. It is like being dead but alive. You’re so shut off from anything that gives connection and value to your “connections” in life.

Living with CEN is probably like being raised to be a sociopath, feel nothing, experience nothing, don’t connect with others.

My Thoughts

Children growing up in families that don’t deal with feelings learn one feeling skill and one only. It’s this: Don’t have feelings. The CEN child automatically walls their feelings off in order to cope in their childhood home. As an adult, you need your emotions to connect. This makes forming a meaningful, emotional connection with a partner very difficult.

4. Sexual Neglect 

Reader’s Comment

There is a thing like sexual neglect where parents hesitate or avoid any talk about romance and sex. Children then bury love and sex-related emotions deep in themselves and maybe abstain from sexual relationships. You might want to write an article about CEN and dating issues in adult life.

My Thoughts

Parents who do not discuss or demonstrate positive emotions, such as love, warmth, or affection, and parents who avoid mention of sex or do not educate their children about it set their children up to feel ashamed of their own positive, loving feelings and sexual needs. Many CEN children grow up to be blocked by a wall of shame from pursuing a partner and sharing romantic and sexual feelings with another person.

5. How CEN Happens + Hope 

Reader’s Comment

CEN is like having your legs kicked out from under you. You’re told, either openly or subtly, you don’t matter. You, your feelings, wants, and needs are unimportant. It is very hard to un-convince yourself of this mindset, but not impossible. Try to see yourself as a friend you want the best for in life. Value this person against all the negative, dismissive, hurtful lies you were “raised” with. “Raised with.” When it comes to CEN, we weren’t raised, we were thwarted. Step by step, year by year, we grew up in homes when we were not allowed to BE. Very possibly, our “caregivers” were abused as well. If you can SEE it, you can NAME it and give it back, not bring it forward. You have to find hope where hope was not allowed. Day by day, moment by moment, whatever it takes. You have to be the accepting, kind loving parent you never had. What have you got to lose? More of Your Life.

The Takeaway

Yes, Childhood Emotional Neglect sets you up with some challenges in your adult life. If you find yourself experiencing any of the above roadblocks in your dating and relationships, I want to assure you that there is hope. 

Just as you were separated from your feelings as a child, you can reunite with your feelings now. Just as you were blocked from accepting your normal emotional needs, you can begin accepting them now. Just as you learned to be ashamed, you can learn to welcome and believe in your emotional needs now.

By valuing your own feelings and being invested in learning how to understand and use them, you are actually becoming invested in yourself; in how to understand and value yourself.

When you care about your own true feelings, you can care about another’s true feelings. And that is the source of emotional connection. In the words of the wise reader above: “Day by day, moment by moment, whatever it takes. You have to be the accepting, kind loving parent you never had. What have you got to lose? More of Your Life.”

What have you got to gain? Love, support, partnership. Everything.

To learn much more about how to heal the effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect on your relationships see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see my first book Running on Empty 


Click Here to Leave a Comment Below
Katharine - November 29, 2023 Reply

Hello Dr. Webb – what is your advice for people who are long-term singles who would not like to be single, and who have identified that they are so because of childhood emotional neglect?

Ep - November 19, 2023 Reply

So my parents are very authoritarian and like at this point I’m a senior in highschool and I just don’t feel anything anymore and I’ve been in a relationship recently with this girl and I just feel very weird and awkward when she says nice things about me or any physical touch and a lot of the times I don’t feel present when I’m with her and it’s just feels like it’s over immediately and I feel not as like social as I should have been just like venting pretty much

    Jonice - November 24, 2023 Reply

    Dear Ep, please ask your parents (or, if you can’t ask them, ask at school) for a counselor or therapist to talk with about all this. Now is the time for you to deal with your feelings and it’s very important that you do.

Jon - October 15, 2023 Reply

So much of this rings true to me. I have never even been tempted to ask someone out. Early childhood experiences with “playing doctor” elicited a response so violent and terrifying that the idea of having an intimate relationship was impossible. Throw being gay on top of it and you have a recipe for a bleak existence. As my peers began dating I knew that there would be nothing out there for me. I did have a best friend, but once he discovered girls how could I possibly compete? Now I am fifty and alone, no friends to speak of, no goals, no life. Nothing I want is achievable and nothing achievable interests me. My only family is one surviving parent, and one day it will be my responsibility to care for them if/when they are elderly and infirm. I don’t look forward to it, I don’t particularly want to do it but it is literally the only reason I even exist. After that I can go. There’s nothing here for me anyway.

    Jonice - November 7, 2023 Reply

    Dear Jon, there is nothing wrong with being gay! Society has come a long way in accepting, and I encourage you to work on accepting yourself and loving yourself. Please contact a therapist and start talking about this! It will make a big difference for you. You deserve so much more and it’s up to you to get it for yourself. Wishing you all the best.

Kristien - June 14, 2023 Reply

Dear Jonice, I read both of your books (and several others) to try and heal myself from CEN but the emptiness stays. The fundamental shame as well as a tendency to question my identity in certain situations where it is challenged. What more can I do to heal myself?It’s sadly putting a brake on my life. Warm regards, Kristien

    Jonice - June 25, 2023 Reply

    Dear Kristien, I can’t emphasize enough the importance of the Identifying & Naming exercise and the IAAA. Feeling your feelings and learning how to listen to them, manage and use them are the key to being your true self and feeling less empty. I encourage you to find a therapist to help you or get some support through the process.

jennie - December 7, 2022 Reply

My marriage resembled my relationship with my mother a lot, my feelings were never validated. In the past 12 years since I have been single, I have dated a lot. The funny things is that there is no fighting or real reasons why any of my relationships finish. They just do. we just slowly stop communicating. Every single time. My longest relationship was 3 months. I am smart, good looking, in shape, fun. But nobody wants me enough to want to stay. I can’t figure out why. I know that I’m so good at dissociating. The moment there are too many emotions, I just turn myself off. I have been to so many therapist too but everything is still the same. Its the silent killer, just like in my childhood, the things that are not happening is what is destroying every relationship so it is so hard to pinpoint what is wrong.

Dart Cree - November 29, 2022 Reply

Every single one of these fits me. Except for me the neglect was intermittent. When mom’s blood sugar was close to normal I could read to her while she made supper. There would be streaks of this for a few months.

Then sugar would spike and she was sleeping on the couch all the time.

Or sugar would drop and she’d be crabby.

Dad was remote. tired all the time. No time to play. Rather, no interest.

As for sex. I never saw my parents kiss or hug. I don’t know how they ever got close enough to have kids. (I have two older siblings, who are screwed up, but differently than I am.) I never got The Talk. I learned about sex by watching dogs screw. The priests taught me that masturbation was a mortal sin. By 13 I was absolutely convinced I was going to burn in hell for eternity. And I couldn’t check this with any adult.

Sex was shameful. Emotions were shameful.

Well, mom, dad, you reaped what you sowed. When you died, I did not mourn. I didn’t know how. I don’t know how.

I didn’t learn to love or to accept love.

I know you were shaped by your parents. Mom, I know your dad took a horsewhip to you for plucking your eyebrows, yelling that no daughter of his was going to look like a harlot. Dad, I know your folks were so restraining that peeing while you were taking a crap was somehow wrong.

The one good decision I have made is to not have children. The screwing up of generations stops here.

Mac - September 12, 2022 Reply

Tapping nails on the head for me again Dr Webb. Thank you very much! Cheers Mac

Anonymous - September 1, 2022 Reply

Are there any CEN therapists in Egypt?

    Jonice - September 11, 2022 Reply

    Check the Find a CEN Therapist List here: https://drjonicewebb.com/find-a-cen-therapist-2019/.

Roy - July 15, 2022 Reply

Hello again Dr. J! …now I see why this has been a DISATEROUS area of my life. No one in my house even told each other “I love you” Yeah, 54 and divorced THREE times… wonder why? Well, here’s to me getting the help I have needed all my life (should have run away from home once I realized I was slowly intaking the poison of nothingness) Oh, and going back to my first love – Heavy Metal!

Anna - July 6, 2022 Reply

Hi Jonice!
In may I had tough times. I do not suffer from depression or mental health issues. But a cascade of bad things happened, I started to feel some existential crisis, like “what is the point of this all?”, got suicidal thoughts, emotionally very unwell. No I did not want to die, but it was just one on those darkest before the dawn -moments. Now I feel pretty good again. I got help from a therapist a couple of sessions and it helped.
But before that, I tried to talk about this all with a friend (when I had a moment of high anxiety). Instead of “understanding”, she started to lecture/resent me, how I “should not” feel bad, because I have such a good life, like an apartment and family. Those are awesome things of course. But I think in western world, where most of the people have the very basics covered (home, food, health care, safety)…then according to her “logic”, no one would have the “right” to ever feel anxious, stressed or depressed! But I think the truth is, in today’s world, there are many depressed and emotionally unwell people, even if from the outside, they seem to be living a good/normal life.

I feel very hurt. I have not talked with her ever since. I thought she was my friend, now I am not sure anymore.
With my cen-background, if anyone tries to invalidate my true feelings this way and instead offers toxic positivity as a “solution”, ouch, it hurts. And offends.

And to make matters worse, I have never invalidated her. She has often complained how “fat” she is (she is normal weight), and I have patiently listened to that. I never said for example, “think about the starving children in Africa, you don’t have the right to complain”. I simply would never say such things!
She also needed to move to another apartment, and sorting out her stuff and belongings caused her stress, and I have have listened her expressing this stress to me dozens of times during many months, to the point I feel fed up. Those are inanimate objects!! Such a stress because of some stupid things like old clothes…my case was much more serious, since I already had suicidal thoughts 🙁
So I feel hurt, when it was her “turn” to listen/comfort me…she didn’t. She hurt me badly. She caused me more pain. It might be, that she is under the illusion, that she has helped me. I don’t think fake positivity or invalidating feelings ever works.
Can I just end this relationship, I have no desire to reconcile anything with a person who has this kind of attitude?
Should I just accept the fact that with some people, it is not possible to get deeper…that the friendship is based only on superficial things, like chatting about make up and weight loss? It is just painful to me, because as a (former) cen-person, I yearn for a deeper connection.

    Jonice - July 7, 2022 Reply

    Dear Anna, some people are incapable of encouraging and soothing another through a hard time. You could try telling your friend, with kindness and care, how her advice affected you and see how she reacts. At least you will have spoken your truth, and you’ll get more info about what kind of friend she is/can be.

      Anna - July 7, 2022 Reply

      Thank you for your reply!

K - February 5, 2022 Reply

I’m working through trauma from my childhood now and have always suspected that it has played a crucial role in my inability to form relationships. Looking at the neglect part of the equation, it makes sense why I’ve always been desperate for a woman to take interest in me. My parents never seemed interested in me outside of getting good grades and not getting in trouble. They have no idea who I am as a person. They never seem to notice my issues. It feels like they have one mode which is pretend to be happy all the time and when they’re acting happy and i’m clearly not happy, it makes me feel even more like my feelings and me as a person have not mattered. I feel ashamed of my desire to be with someone so badly. The sexual neglect part rings very true as well. I feel like there is no possible way someone could desire me.

But I’m making progress, I see these beliefs I hold and I’m finally able to accept self-compassion. I deserve my love to be reciprocated and to be valued as a person.

    Lauren - February 24, 2022 Reply

    I feel like I could’ve written every word of this myself. Holding space for you and honoring you in doing ‘the work’.

Jill - January 12, 2022 Reply

Looking back over my life of not being able to develop loving relationships, I would describe myself as having physical reactions of shut down, of not being able to think, and talk – a bit like physically dissociating. It’s like I would become mute.
I have gained SO much knowledge from your book and posts. I understand my depression much better now.

    Jonice - January 17, 2022 Reply

    Dear Jill, I am happy to be able to give you some of the answers that you deserve. Keep up the good work!

Martin - September 13, 2021 Reply

I get negative gut feelings in social or work situations. I have learned to acknowledge these feelings and feel them internally and it seems to help. Is that enough?

    Jonice - September 13, 2021 Reply

    Dear Martin, good work! Now the next step is to learn what those feelings are telling you and learning to take action on them in healthy ways. Keep up the good work.

Kath - August 31, 2021 Reply

Inability to set boundaries and not trusting anyone plays havoc with my work life, relationships generally. Because I’m a people pleaser, people usually love my company. However, CEN and being the family scapegoat, leaves me a target for narcissists everywhere I go. I always attract people who can’t be trusted. I don’t know what it feels like to have a solid, deep, trusting relationship. Would so love to find the skills…

Jon - June 2, 2021 Reply

This all sounds painfully familiar. I am 49 and never dated. Not for lack of trying. One of the things that CEN does is trap you in a state of perpetual adolescence. My contemporaries have grown older but I am still attracted to the same 20somethings I always crushed on. Except of course that they want nothing to do with me. And I can’t blame them. I look at folks my age and find the vast majority of them unappealing, why would I expect others to do any different?

    Jonice - June 7, 2021 Reply

    Dear Jon, I don’t necessarily think that perpetual adolescence is a very common result of CEN. I can suggest that you work on nurturing and validating yourself emotionally. There is a lot you can do to change yourself.

Stephen - May 31, 2021 Reply

I never saw my parents be affectionate to eachother… they fought constantly and when my mom told me at 9 they were getting divorced, i thought thank God, it’s about time. Little did I know the trouble was just starting. My dad would scream at us until we were in tears begging him to stop calling our mom “the F’ing B*tch” that ruined his life. Then my mom would tell us how she was trying to ruin his life. I thought I had a good point in saying ruining his life will also ruin ours because he pays for everything and we are poor… no one cared. My dad would kick us for wanting to date and told my sister after talking to her first bf on the phone as a freshman that it “was the stupedist thing she could have done with her day/time!” It was like he tried to pick fights with us little kids and we would end up in screaming matches because he never respected us or our boundaries. We are his only friends for the last 30 years and he has never even gone on a date. I have dated a few girls in my 20s and he has never made any effort to get to know them. Usually he mocks me for wanting to be in a relationship and make a fun of what we talk a out on the phone. I think he wants us all to himself because he refuses to stop talking when we are together and it’s always about him or superficial topics. My mom would get drunk and high and tell me about how she was molested multiple times and tell me that men were bad but that I would be different. I think I took that at bad to have sexual desire. My gfs say I am robotic and unemotional and my relationships feel like a drag until I can’t handle it anymore and I break their hearts out of the blue. I wish I could feel a natural normal desire to be with someone and get rid of all these negative destructive narratives from the past.

    Jonice - June 1, 2021 Reply

    Dear Stephen, I am so sad to read what you have been through. Like amanda below, I encourage you to seek a therapist from my Find A CEN Therapist List so you can get support and guidance healing and recovering from all of this neglect and trauma.

Maria - May 26, 2021 Reply

Thank you dr. Jonice Webb for your expertise, articles, comments helps me transforming my value, feelings, emotional needs to heal CEN and take more risks.

Frank - May 24, 2021 Reply

I had to read this article several times to grasp it! Dating and relationships has been the dark hole of my life. I’m 69 and never married. I was the child of a toxic marriage. I was willing to do anything not to repeat it. In one regard, I succeeded. On the other hand, I feel incapable of giving myself emotionally. Haven’t had a relationship in more than a decade. It seems the only “relationship” I’m comfortable with is mutual exploitation.

I’ve been in lots of counseling over the years and while I’ve done well in most areas, this where I’ve fallen short. This is going to be a year of big change for as I am planning to move to a new state. I am hoping for a new start. I wonder what it will take to allow love to come into my life at this point, or if it’s even possible.

    Jonice - May 25, 2021 Reply

    Dear Frank, I hope you will never give up. When you value your feelings, you’re valuing yourself. that makes it hard to allow yourself to be exploited by anyone. I hope you’ll be able to find the love you no doubt deserve.

Paula - May 24, 2021 Reply

My parents did not often exhibit affection and any discussion of sexuality was taboo. I’m now getting a little bit better understanding of why both my sister and I married abusive men (we’ve both since divorced them). I want to be loved by a man but unfortunately that hasn’t happened for me. I appreciate the awareness of CEN and have been working on my feelings. Thank you.

Karlien - May 24, 2021 Reply

This is such a great article. I have experienced almost all the things mentioned. I have struggled for years to have successful relationships. It is easier not to have relationships than to contemplate possible rejection. This has also impacted my ability to be a public speaker, stand up for myself in a group, etc. It is as if I loose my ability to speak at all. I have worked very hard for many years to overcome this and have succeeded to a large degree, but I still have this niggling fear of rejection.

    Jonice - May 25, 2021 Reply

    Keep working on it, Karlien. Just keep taking risks and pushing yourself.

Kara - May 24, 2021 Reply

Thanks Dr Webb. Your comment “By valuing your own feelings and being invested in learning how to understand and use them, you are actually becoming invested in yourself; in how to understand and value yourself” really resonated with me. This is exactly what is happening to me and makes me realise how far I’ve come. Recently a man I’d been seeing for 18 months abruptly ended the relationship without giving me a reason. Instead of desperately trying to win him back and automatically blaming myself as being not good enough, I have done the work to come to terms with this without putting myself down. I’m also not devaluing myself by being resentful of him or his actions. In other words, instead of giving all my power to him, I’m investing in and valuing myself and my life – a very new experience. Your books, articles, insight and encouragement have helped enormously in this process and I thank you for your work.

    Jonice - May 25, 2021 Reply

    That is wonderful, Kara! The more you value yourself, the more others will see your value as well. It’s a win/win!

      Kara - May 25, 2021 Reply

      Lovely! Thank you Dr Webb for that encouragement. I’ll remember it as I go about building a life for myself that’s a celebration of who I am, rather than being a reflection of what I think others expect me to be. I’m taking baby steps right now but I am confident it will get easier over time.

Joann - May 23, 2021 Reply

I am a 60 year old divorced female with 4 adult children. I was child number 5 in a family of 8 children, however my mother had 14 pregnancies (lost 6 children). All of my siblings suffer from CEN, as so do I. My parents had no time/energy to meet any of their children’s emotional needs. To say we suffer from CEN is an understatement as there were many instances of emotional/physical abuse. Our mother was a very spoiled child, born to older, wealthy parents, who gave her everything her little heart desired, except a younger sibling. She was the lead actress in all school plays and had aspirations to be the next Grace Kelly or Liz Taylor. CEN will cripple you for life..It is nothing to take lightly.

    Jonice - May 25, 2021 Reply

    Yes, it can cripple you for life. But it does not have to. You can heal now, Joann, and I hope you will!

Robin - May 23, 2021 Reply

Thank you for this article. I am recovering from CEN and this article is so helpful. I can relate to all of the roadblocks. I would love to hear more about them and how to overcome them. I’m 45 and I’ve never been married. I don’t have children. I haven’t been in a romantic relationship in about 7 years. Since I have been in recovery, I now want to be in a relationship that grows into marriage and children. I have no idea how to do this. My parents had a toxic marriage and were miserable with each other. Only recently have I been able to admit to myself and the world that I want love in my life. Again, thank you for this article. And like I said, I would greatly appreciate more pieces on how to overcome these dating roadblocks.

    Jonice - May 23, 2021 Reply

    Dear Robin, the best overall way to overcome these roadblocks is to heal your CEN. Then, as you do this, take risks. It’s essential to put yourself out there and do what’s hardest for the CEN person: be vulnerable.

susan - May 23, 2021 Reply

Hope you are also sending this to Steve Finney (my brother) who has read Running On Empty, and, at first identified with it, but now rejects it all for some unknown reason. He says he doesn’t believe in ‘psychology’ or ‘feelings’ !!?? Now won’t talk to me at all about anything.

    Jonice - May 23, 2021 Reply

    Dear Susan, sadly, it’s not possible to push CEN acceptance on someone, as you probably know. People accept and address their CEN when they are ready. Hopefully, your brother will get there.

Dee - May 23, 2021 Reply

I am 32 and have never even been on a date. I only recently learned about CEN and how deep the pain goes. I would like to start connecting with people, but I don’t know how.

    Jonice - May 23, 2021 Reply

    Dear Dee, I encourage you to put your all into healing your CEN and discovering the things that are desirable and lovable about yourself. I guarantee you there are many.

Leila - May 23, 2021 Reply

My greatest fear is rejection. I’m fine if I’m slightly interested in someone; but if I really like a guy, I become uptight and my own worst enemy. My mother always told me no one would like me, if I was truly myself. I act too intelligent. I wear my “heart on my sleeve.” So when it’s important, I freeze because I learned to not act like myself and I don’t really know how I should act.

    Jonice - May 23, 2021 Reply

    Dear Leila, your mother was exactly wrong. The only way for any of us to find real love is to be, and act as, our true selves. You can turn this around with persistence, commitment and effort.

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