9 Steps to Reach Your Emotionally Neglected Spouse

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.

Seven 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.

Nine 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.

This article was originally published on Psychcentral.com and has been republished here with the permission of the author and PsychCentral


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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.

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