9 Steps to Reach Your Emotionally Neglected Spouse

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My husband says he loves me, but I don’t feel love from him.

My wife gets confused, overwhelmed or frustrated every time I try to talk to her about a problem.

My marriage feels flat. Some vital ingredient is missing.

These are complaints which I have heard many times. Almost always from folks who are in a relationship with someone who grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).

CEN happens when your parents communicate this subtle but powerful message:

Your feelings don’t matter. 

Children who live in such households naturally adapt by walling off their emotions so that they won’t bother their parents or themselves.  Since these children’s emotions are squelched, they miss out on the opportunity to learn some vital life skills: how to identify, understand, tolerate, and express emotions.

If your spouse grew up with CEN, he may have difficulty tolerating conflict, expressing his needs, and emotionally connecting with you. No matter how much you love each other, you may feel a great chasm lies between you. No matter how long you’ve been together, you may feel inexplicably alone.

7 Signs That Your Spouse May Have CEN

He or she:

  1. Seems to misread his or her own emotions – for example, says, “I’m not mad,” when clearly angry; or says, “I’m happy,” when clearly not.
  2. Often misreads your emotions or the feelings of your children or others.
  3. Has a limited vocabulary to express or describe feelings.
  4. Has a very difficult time tolerating a conversation that involves conflict or discomfort.
  5. Is often irritable for no apparent reason.
  6. Claims to be happy in the marriage despite your own complaints and expressions of unhappiness.
  7. Doesn’t seem to realize that some vital ingredient is missing in your relationship (emotional connection).

Now for the good news. CEN folks can change! And marriages with CEN can heal and become rich and rewarding.

9 Steps for Enriching a CEN Marriage

  1. Learn as much as you can about CEN. See below for links to more information.
  2. Once you feel that you have a better understanding of how CEN works, tell your husband or wife that you may have an answer to why you are not happy enough in the marriage. Explain, as best you can, what CEN is, how it can happen in even loving families, and how it is often no one’s fault.
  3. Explain to your partner that this is very important to you, and ask him/her to look into it for you.
  4. Ask him/her to take the Emotional Neglect Questionnaire and to read and learn about CEN.
  5. Since many CEN people have very good empathy for others’ true feelings, don’t hold back yours in this request. Let your spouse see the pain that this is causing you, but not in a blaming, accusing, or challenging sort of way. Be honest and open with your feelings, but have compassion for how hard this may be for him.
  6. Tell your spouse that you love her and that you are asking her to pay attention to this problem out of her love for you.
  7. If your partner starts to read and learn about CEN, be sure to express your appreciation for his efforts. Be open and available to communicate about his reactions as he goes along.
  8. Learn the Horizontal and Vertical Questioning Technique from Chapter 6 of the book Running on Empty, and use it with your spouse. It will help deepen the relationship and will teach you both new ways to communicate and connect.
  9. If you run into problems or need help along the way, it will be helpful to consult a professional. If you would like your couple’s therapist to understand CEN you can take Running on Empty to your first session, and ask him or her to look at it. Virtually any skilled, competent therapist who understands CEN can help you with it.

Keep in mind that your spouse has probably been just as baffled about what’s wrong as you have been. By following these 9 steps, you are inviting his emotions into your marriage and reversing that painful message he received as a child. You are replacing it with one of your own, a message that’s loving, healing, and connecting:

Your feelings matter to me.

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it happens, how it affects relationships, and how to heal, see the book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.

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


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Anne - August 1, 2023 Reply

CEN adult in denial, yet communicates experiences/memories that are so obviously CEN…

When a CEN affected adult transfers (in his mind, and in behavior patterns) the hurt and anger he holds for his mother who neglected and manipulated his development (her love and acceptance is conditional of her approval) onto his spouse… and spouse continually pushes back rightful accountability to his mother…

Result: Emotional wasteland
He builds his resentment wall taller and taller each passing day, and the target of all his woes? His spouse.

Refusal: He refuses to even hear about the concept of CEN being potentially responsible for the relationship struggles all along (marriage and with his own children), preferring to just blame spouse for all.

Spouse isn’t CEN, wants her children to grow in safe, secure, responsive home where the children’s needs and preferences are equal in value to the adults. Wants her union to be emotionally connected and flow. Wants to recognize and help emotional needs of all. Aches for children, longs for her own needs, and experiences such sorrow for her partner.

What then?

    Kerry - September 29, 2023 Reply

    I am experiencing the same thing! I get blamed for all of it….Family is in a shambles…teen boys are devastated. Marriage is over. Husband who is SOO CEN, but will not acknowledge. I have been talking about this for DECADES, but never knew it had a name. He gaslit me and or denied it. Said it was me being too needy, and I believed him (I have a little CEN, only in that I invalidate myself sometimes, I do NOT struggle to notice, feel and name my feelings). It has destroyed our marriage, is the thing that is standing between us for successful parenting. Not a united front. It is EXCRUCIATING that he will not see how his extraordinarily repressed childhood/parents affected him and how that is NOW wrecking his family. Again. NO ONE can talk about hard things…he refused to tell his own sons that he even HAD a brother (who we lost to suicide 25 years ago, when we were getting married) until they were teens and I absolutely INSISTED. It’s messed up….I have been desperate to make sure my boys do NOT inherit this terrible dysfunction. He actually TOLD me he got it back then and that he would work on it but I guess he really didn’t. Then I thought I could do it myself and stay married. That is proving impossible. Not satisfying for me but I am also not sure how to make sure my teenage boys escape this fate. Have been trying their whole lives. One seems to be following in his dad’s footsteps but PRAYING he won’t be as bad as his dad since he has had ME talking about, naming and validating his emotions all his life! My husband did not have a mother like that…..no one talked about that stuff at all with him growing up.

T - April 25, 2021 Reply

My husband and I have each listened to both of your books. My husband is the one who exhibits CEN. Our therapist recommended your first book which lead us to both. I see him trying. He has started to say what he wants. But as far as emotions or emotional connection it still feels a long way off. I’m trying to be patient. Can you help me know how long it takes someone to become more emotionally connected? Looking for hope to hang on.

    Jonice - April 25, 2021 Reply

    Has your husband considered working with a CEN therapist or taking the online Fuel Up For Life course? Perhaps he needs some help to get in touch with his feelings. For some, it can be absolutely essential.

Gayle - March 31, 2021 Reply

I just discovered your work this weekend and I feel like you are speaking directly to my feelings and experience. The tears are flowing and finally it feels like the missing pieces have been found after years of feeling alone, even when I am surrounded by people who I know actually love and support me in healthy ways. Thank you!

    Jonice - April 4, 2021 Reply

    I know it’s a bittersweet realization, Gayle. Thanks for sharing.

Stephen - March 23, 2021 Reply

I feel the affects of this neglect is present at all stages of all relationships. I am constantly hearing from girlfriends, friends and family that I am hard to get to know they don’t know if I’m enjoying their company or not and people can’t tell if I am interested or bothered. Girls I am very attracted to tell me they thought I was disinterested when we first met and my GF of 6 years asked me if I really loved her and I said “I think so”. I feel so opposite of those around me, I feel like I am putting a lot of effort into relationships and am often exhausted by being around people. I am also very slow to warm up to people, I see others meet, have a passionate romantic relationship then the honeymoon fades and they breakup in the time it takes me to say “hi” to someone and maybe consider asking them out.

    Jonice - March 24, 2021 Reply

    Dear Stephen, you do not need to put in the kind of effort you are putting into relationships, it’s exhausting. Instead, direct your energy toward getting in touch with yourself and feeling your feelings, and learning the feeling skills. It’s the process of CEN recovery.

Reen - March 22, 2021 Reply

My therapist recommended I read Running on Empty. My parents covered about 9 of the CEN characters. This is a very difficult process, but I am NEED IT!
One thing I would really like you to address is the situation where both spouses had CEN.

Keep it going!

Jill - March 22, 2021 Reply

My husband has previously told me I was ‘too emotional’ and that logic is the only truth. Now we have a completely emotionless relationship as I have suppressed my emotions to maintain the status quo.

    Jonice - March 24, 2021 Reply

    Dear Jill, your husband is not alone, many people cling to logic which seems less messy than feelings. But emotions are in fact the stuff of life. I encourage you to fight for your own heart and your husband’s.

Sharon - March 22, 2021 Reply

Thanks for your helpful approach, Jonice. I already understood quite a lot through “Schema Therapy”, but your books have helped me understand a lot more and also to make wise and compassionate decisions about my relationship with my Mum. It is very sad and even tragic – but I believe our mental health system with its individualistic, diagnosing brain and thoughts centred centred model often also communicates a similar subtle but powerful message: Your feelings don’t matter and they also add “You are the problem and the cause of the problem” which is extremely damaging. I wish that a frame of “emotional distress” rather than “mental illness” would become the basis of more counselling and interventions.

cristy - March 22, 2021 Reply

Dr. Jonice Webb,
I know I was raised to keep to myself and out of the way and as a only child (SO I thought till found out I had full blooded sister one year younger who was adopted out at birth, 18 years of lies) and also being taken advantage of by my step brother 10 years older than myself who was in and out as a child I was poor in farm town very small and I know it was covered up. I know my parents worked hard to give what was needed. I know it effects me but I feel like I’m being week if I think oh I have CEN. I am emotionally harder than most men I’ve been told. I have a problem being week or being a “Nancy” so I say. I have a hard time excepting gifts or dealing with “mushy” issues. my family is very deal with it yourself as I never I told of the horrid harassment during school years I endured. I just don’t feel I could ever just be a “Nancy” or not be hard core and I know it hurts my relationships with the shrug it of don’t squirt tears about it attude and I’m 37 maybe too late. now I have been sick can’t work and depending on a man to help me and it’s not going well. I mean he’s so emotional compared to my angry output and do it myself tude. any advise?

    Jonice - March 24, 2021 Reply

    Dear Cristy, you sound like a person who has been emotionally squelched. You are young and have a great chance at healing and changing! Time to start the process of un-squelching your feelings.

Debbie - March 21, 2021 Reply

I’ve been reading your articles (and books) for the past year. Each one really hits home. I know I have CEN. I just can’t unravel it. Growing up, my parents were consumed by their own issues. I didn’t even live with them until 1st grade and even then felt like an outsider. Like I didn’t belong. I can see the affects. In me, and in my young adult children. Im trying to fix it but get stuck. I’ve tried therapy before but it hasn’t done much good. I know I need help, but there are no CEN therapists in my state. I like your articles because you are direct about what might be going on. I need someone whose willing to say it out loud! Do you have any recommendations?

    Jonice - March 21, 2021 Reply

    Dear Debbie, there are many CEN therapists on the list who will do Zoom therapy. Find one who’s located anywhere in your state and contact them for an appointment. I wish you all the best!

philip - November 14, 2020 Reply

very revealing insights about my being neglected in my childhood and how i I have transferred that neglect into spousal neglect for my wonderful wife who i have been married to since 1989. I hope I can become more consistently attentive to her needs.

    Jonice - November 15, 2020 Reply

    I hope so too, Philip. Keep learning more about CEN because you may need some help and support in the process.

Infran - February 11, 2020 Reply

Noticing the paradox of CEN people often misreading emotions (poor empathy) and yet having good empathy (…at least supposedly ^_^; )

    Jonice - February 12, 2020 Reply

    Dear Infran, CEN people don’t necessarily have good empathy. Many do have plenty of compassion for other people because they have always been encouraged to focus outward, on other people and their needs. They have, typically, very poor compassion for themselves. And compassion is not the same as empathy.

Dana - February 9, 2020 Reply

Dr Jonice, thank you for bringing awareness to CEN. I have known I was emotionally neglected since therapy in my teens. Unfortunately, I was not taught how to overcome/heal from it. My life continued as it was. What I didn’t know was that it would be the root of the reason abusive men would become a part of my everyday life. Each man being more abusive than the next. My ex husband, brutally beat, unmercifully tortured and sadistically raped me day after day for many years. He currently resides in a fine state prison. He has been diagnosed as a psychopath a sexual sadist and a danger to women and children. He always blamed me for his vile behavior. In learning to love myself again, I stumbled across your book and the info from your expert opinion/advice has lead me down a path of deep healing. I am still learning, still healing from the devastation that my whole life has been filled with. I am nearing 50 so the possibility of spending the rest of my days on Earth as a happier and peaceful person is real. For the first time in many years (48), I have hope for a brighter future! Thank you! Your insight has gone a very long way in my journey to wholeness.

    Jonice - February 12, 2020 Reply

    Dear Dana, I’m so sorry that happened to you and I’m honored to play a part in your healing. Keep up the good work!

Amy - January 6, 2020 Reply

Hello, Im new to this. I have a wonderful man in my life. But he works three jobs as a drug and alcohol counselor. I see him once a week for a few hours. He can never accept my calls, and via text I have explained in many ways the importance behind not only the words we speak but how we communicate when we are away from one another. He was raised in a household where his parents were busy and the nannys raised him, and I am seeing lots of signs that different articles display that show him to be fitting the slots of being emotionally neglectful towards me. Now he wants to have a baby with me, but how can I gain comfort in that when he doesnt acknowledge or shuts down or gets defensive any time the conversation gets “real”. While we are in the same room and talk about things he seems to realize the impact of my words with the emotion to back it in plain sight. But how about the other six days and 20 hours of the week? And as a therapist…. do you think he realizes his own struggle? I genuinely care for him and when we are together he vocalizes his love for me, but i see MANY signs and I dont want to walk away I want to work through it. But how do I even express this to him without causing him to shut down? Please help… please. Sincerely, Amy

    Jonice - January 10, 2020 Reply

    Dear Amy, I hope you will require more attention and connection from this man before agreeing to have a baby with him. Please seek a therapist to help you sort out this relationship and whether it’s healthy for you or not. I’m not able to make such an important judgment with so little info, I’m so sorry.

John - October 14, 2019 Reply

Hi Jonice. My wife realized recently she lost passion for everything in her life, including me. Since her parents got into an ugly divorced when she was 12, Im pretty sure she has CEN. She shows most of the symptoms described and currently she is going to a professional Cognitive Behavioural Therapist. We decided 2 weeks ago she should be by herself for some months to focus on her (we dont have kids although she stopped taking the pill 10 months ago, when she also claimed she started realizing this disorder. Coincidence?). After 2 weeks not hearing from her (barely one message/week), I told her wether we deal with this as a couple or I’m done. I cant put my life in standby waiting what seems to be at least 1 year of treatment. Do u think it is wise for her to be alone, in a different apartment? Thank you

Lisa J Burton - October 2, 2019 Reply

I have been with my neglative husband 29 years, after saying I Do, it was as if I was like a chair in the rm. I catered to him, talking touching him ect,never got anything back, he put his needs always 1st above mine, I’ve been depressed for years,I feel he stole my life! I begged him not to go on a trip with friends ,because I knew my dad, my best friend was going to die, and I wanted my husband 4 support, well my husband left anyway, my dad died the next morning, and I told my husband ,I’m done with you! And now he wont leave me alone!

    Jonice - October 4, 2019 Reply

    Dear Lisa, please go see a therapist. Start first alone, without your husband. It’s very important you take care of yourself and make positive and healthy decisions from this point forward!

Rosy - May 25, 2019 Reply

I have been married for 9 years to a wonderful man. He is loyal to his family, friends and colleagues. For the last 7 years, I have felt neglected by his lack of interest in our marriage. He often stays away days and nights without calling or even taking my calls. I am at a lost, because does not see the problem.

    Jonice - May 26, 2019 Reply

    Dear Rosy, I strongly suggest you insist that your husband see a couple’s therapist with you. This is not OK.

Janene - October 19, 2018 Reply

Great read. My spouse and I have been going separate paths for years. I’ve been emotionally neglected for years. I have tried to work things out he didnt seem to get it. It hurts so bad we are divorcing but remain friends.

mary - July 18, 2018 Reply

When I feel someone honestly and truly loves me I cry because I don’t know what to do and the feelings of being wholly accepted scare me. I feel very vulnerable, like I’m going to get in trouble for being too happy or silly.

    Lulu - September 4, 2018 Reply

    I know exactly how you feel. When people show me that they really care for me I get so uncomfortable it’s ridiculous. I have NEVER felt accepted in my whole life. I hope one day this changes for me. As I’ve gotten older I started noticing how guarded I am against others. There is hope for us Mary.

      Lisa - September 5, 2018 Reply

      My husband and I both have these issues, but he doesn’t realize it. He refuses to even consider it, for whatever reason. He sees any problems we have as my issues. He is obviously angry with me, but won’t admit it. I have felt that we have been leading separate lives in many ways for years now. Not being able to communicate with the person you love is the most frustrating thing I can think of.

    Jennifer - February 9, 2020 Reply

    I too am uncomfortable, with people who genuinely like me.
    I don’t feel deserving of their friendship.
    I’m afraid I’m going to screw it up somehow and they will really see me and then Be angry with me and start to tell me all my faults.

      Jonice - February 12, 2020 Reply

      Dear Jennifer, this can be a reflection of your inner Fatal Flaw. I hope you will learn more about what that is, and think about it more.

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