This week, I am sharing a segment of my second book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children. It’s a vignette from the book that, I wrote for couples and families who are living with Childhood Emotional Neglect. This particular passage from the book explains what it’s like when a couple is living with, and harmed by, the effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN.
Olive and Oscar are a likable, caring couple who love each other and they clearly want to make their marriage work. But they have been experiencing a severe challenge. They both grew up in emotionally neglectful homes. Unbeknownst to them, they have been living under separate “CEN clouds” when they met, and they have lived under that cloud together for decades.
When Oscar and Olive married, they each lacked the emotion skills needed to make their marriage work. This led to a loving but emotionally devoid relationship that was functional, yet empty; loving, yet distant.
You can read the entire story of Oscar and Olive in the book, Running On Empty No More.
By the time Olive and Oscar came to my office for couples therapy, their marriage was in serious trouble. Years had gone by with little communication, while misinterpretations and false assumptions grew like weeds in an unkempt garden. Each partner sat fairly expressionless on my couch, struggling to explain why they had come to see me.
“I’m pretty much done with this marriage,” Olive finally said flatly. “We’ve been married all these years, and Oscar still doesn’t know me at all.”
“I do know her extremely well, in fact,” Oscar said. “And that’s the real reason she’s ‘done’ with our marriage.” (Yes, Oscar put sarcastic finger quotes around the word “done.”) “She never admits the real reason she does things.”
As I listened and observed this exchange in our first session, I was amazed.
Interestingly, I was able to tell after only a brief interaction with Olive that she was not the manipulator that Oscar described. I also saw the level of anger that Oscar carried, and how Olive seemed to be quite oblivious to it.
Olive’s abrupt announcement in the session that she was done with the marriage is typical of a person with CEN. Lacking the skills to communicate about subtle and varied emotions, and unable to understand or put the myriad of problems into words, she said the only thing she could formulate to communicate the intensity of her feelings in that moment. I have found that many CEN folks are prone to such extreme statements once they finally decide to voice their pain.
Olive and Oscar, in their double CEN marriage, had two emotional walls to contend with. Sadly, in this marriage, no one was knocking on anyone’s wall. Their chasm had been widening for many years and was now double-wide. They were both intelligent, good-hearted, and likable people, and they seemed like they should make a good couple. Despite the misinterpretations and despite the anger, I could sense the love between them.
Olive and Oscar had no opportunity as children to learn that emotional intimacy exists. Neither of them experienced it in their families or saw it between their parents. Both were intelligent, good, and caring people, but neither had access to their emotions, and neither had the emotion skills necessary to create and maintain true emotional intimacy with a partner.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) teaches you as a child to ignore and hide your feelings from others, and even from yourself. You learn very early in your life that emotions are useless, troublesome inconveniences and you take this philosophy forward into your adult life. You essentially wall off your feelings so that they will not bother you, and this may seem like a relief.
But, in actuality, you need your emotions to guide and connect you in your life, but the place you need them the most is your marriage.
Feelings are the spice in a relationship, the fireworks, and the glue. It is by working through feelings together that you connect as a couple and become close. An intimate marriage requires emotional exchange, emotional awareness, and emotional vulnerability.
There’s a particular feeling that I get when I work with a CEN couple. It’s similar to the experience of trying to push two magnets together that are facing the wrong directions. It’s like there’s a powerful force field between them, pushing them apart.
The only way to break the force field is to begin to help each partner to better access their own emotions in some small way. By talking about their feelings and their relationship in more nuanced, emotionally enriched ways, they each make a slight turn, followed by another slight turn, followed by another. Bit by bit, they gradually end up turning their faces enough that a slight pull can begin to form.
And when that happens, the real repair work has begun.
How To Learn More
Watch for a future post about Olive & Oscar Part 4 where you will learn how their couple’s therapy went and how they broke down the walls that divided them.
To read the rest of Olive and Oscar’s story and learn how they faced the Emotional Neglect with their children and with their own parents, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN does not go away just because you grow up.
Being raised in a family that does not address your feelings (or, in other words, an emotionally neglectful family), launches you into your adult life without two things that you absolutely need for a healthy, happy, resilient marriage. The two missing things are full access to your feelings, plus the emotional skills to manage and express them.
It’s difficult enough when one member of a couple has CEN and the other does not. But when two CEN people marry, special challenges abound. Neither spouse has full access to their emotions and neither has the necessary emotion skills.
Meet Olive and Oscar. I told their story in my second bestselling book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parent & Your Children. Today, I am sharing a free vignette from the book that describes exactly how it feels to be in a double-CEN marriage.
Olive and Oscar sit across the table from each other, quietly having their Sunday morning breakfast.
“Is there any more coffee?” Olive asks absentmindedly while reading the day’s news on her laptop. Irritated, Oscar stands up abruptly and walks over to the coffee-maker to check.
“Why does she always ask me? She’s so manipulative. She just doesn’t want to have to walk over to the coffee-maker herself,” he cranks inwardly. Returning to the table with the pot, Oscar fills Olive’s cup. Placing the empty carafe on the table with a slight bit of excessive force, Oscar sits back in his chair with a sigh and an angry glance at Olive’s still-bowed head.
Olive, sensing something amiss from the placement of the carafe and the sigh, quickly looks up. Seeing Oscar already absorbed in his newspaper, she looks back down at her laptop but has difficulty focusing on her reading.
“I wonder what’s going on with Oscar,” she muses. “He seems so irritable lately. I wonder if his work stress is coming back. It must be his job pressure getting to him again.”
After thinking it through, Olive makes a plan to avoid Oscar for the day in hopes that giving him some alone time will help his mood improve (with the added bonus that she won’t have to be around him). Olive makes a plan to ask him about work at dinnertime to see if he is indeed under stress.
Later that evening Olive returns from her errands and finds that Oscar has made dinner for both of them. Sitting down to eat, Oscar seems to be in a better mood.
After a brief exchange about Olive’s errands, she asks, “So how are things at work?”
Looking at Olive quizzically, Oscar answers, “Fine, why do you ask?”
“No reason,” Olive replied, relieved to hear him say it was fine. Do you want to watch the next episode of Game of Thrones while we eat?”
The TV goes on and they eat dinner in silence, each absorbed in the show.
The double CEN (Childhood Emotional Neglect) couple seems much like every other couple in many ways. And yet they are very, very different. This type of relationship is riddled with incorrect assumptions and false readings. And unfortunately, neither partner has the communication skills to check with the other to actually find out what he is thinking or feeling, or why she does what she does.
Since neither partner knows how to talk about the frustrations and conflicts that naturally arise (as they do in every relationship), very little gets addressed and worked out. This is a set-up for passive-aggressive retaliation that, over time, eats away at the warmth and caring in the marriage, outside of both partners’ awareness.
Small, indirect actions like carafe-slamming, avoidance, ignoring, and forgetting can become the primary means of coping and communicating in the relationship. None of them are effective.
In the scenario above Oscar misinterprets Olive’s thoughtless absorption in her reading as “manipulative,” and Olive misinterprets Oscar’s irritation with her as the possible result of job stress. Instead of dealing with these issues directly at the moment, Olive chooses avoidance for the day. Her question to Oscar that evening at dinner is too simple and off-target to yield any useful information. She is left with a false sense of reassurance that Oscar’s mood magically improved and that nothing was really wrong in the first place.
So forward they go, into the coming weeks, months, and years, with Oscar viewing Olive as lazy and manipulative, and Olive on constant guard against a return of Oscar’s job stress. Drastically out of tune with one another, they live in separate worlds, growing ever distant from each other.
Olive and Oscar sometimes feel more alone when they are together than they do when they are apart. They are divided by a chasm as wide as the ocean. They each sense that something important is wrong, but sadly, neither can consciously describe nor name it.
Fortunately for Olive and Oscar, they actually have loads of potential. They each have plenty of feelings; they are simply not aware of those feelings or able to use them in a healthy, relationship-enriching way. At the heart of their marriage are companionship, history, concern, and love. All that is really missing from their marriage is emotional awareness and skills, both of which can be learned.
There is a good chance that one day, one of them will “wake up” emotionally, and knock on the other’s wall.
Watch for Olive & Oscar Part 2 in a future article, and you will see that is exactly what happened.
Emotionally neglected kids grow up to emotionally neglect themselves. Then, when they get married, it is natural (not the same thing as healthy) that they will emotionally neglect their spouses.
In so many vitally important ways, the Emotional Neglect that happens in a marriage is no one’s choice and no one’s fault. It is literally programmed into the emotionally neglected child.
Every day, in my office, I help couples understand what’s missing and why. Together, we relieve them from the blame and shame and set them on the path forward.
In a future post, Part 2, I will share the continuation of Olive and Oscar’s story from the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children. You will see where the path of CEN recovery took them, which was right to my office for couple’s therapy. You will learn about my work with them, and how their efforts to heal their marriage sent ripple effects through their children and their parents.
To learn more about how Childhood Emotional Neglect happens, what makes it so unmemorable, and how to heal yourself, see the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
A version of this post was originally published on psychcentral.com. It has been reproduced here with the permission of the author and psychcentral.
Is Valentine’s Day just one big commercial created by the card companies? Actually, no, it is not. It’s a holiday that is rooted in ancient history. Valentine’s Day is thought to originate from the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia that was held each year in the middle of February. It was a happy occasion which, in addition to celebrating spring, also included fertility rites and a lottery that paired men and women together based on the drawing of names.
Sounds fun, right?
Society has changed since ancient times, and Valentine’s Day has transitioned through the centuries into something quite different. It’s supposed to be a happy celebration of love and, for many, it is. But it also poses unique challenges to people married and single, dating or not dating, wishing for a relationship, or happy alone.
Let’s start by taking a look at the various challenges of Valentine’s Day. You may identify one, several, or even all as applying to you. Either way, no worries. There are answers!
All of these challenges can affect anyone, of course. But they are especially problematic for you if you did not receive enough emotional validation and emotional connection from your parents during your childhood or, in other words, if you have Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).
If you struggle with any or all of these challenges this Valentine’s Day, I want to first tell you sincerely that you are not alone!
And it is surely not a bad thing to be challenged. Every challenge you encounter in your life is actually an opportunity for growth. And this holiday is no exception. I’m going to prepare you for Valentine’s Day by helping you use it as a way to flourish and progress forward in your life.
Whether you are happily single or actively seeking your person, use this day as an appreciation day for yourself. Consider the gifts you were born with and the qualities you are able to offer others. Think about what you like, what makes you happy, and what you want and need. Consider who the important people in your life are, and allow yourself to feel grateful for them. This day is your day to love and appreciate yourself.
Overall, keep this holiday in perspective. Try not to expect your partner to make you feel a certain way and, conversely, try not to expect to make your partner feel any particular way. Instead, keep your focus on simply having an enjoyable time. And keep in mind that it’s no one else’s role to make you happy. We are each responsible for our own happiness.
Relationships have extraordinary power to bring us happiness and fulfillment, yes. But they cannot be the primary source of our feelings about ourselves or our lives. Ultimately, we are each responsible for our own feelings and for making sure our own needs are met. Also, it’s hard for others to love us when we don’t yet love ourselves.
So, paradoxically, this holiday about couples is best spent focused on the very most important person in your life: yourself.
Childhood Emotional Neglect is invisible and hard to remember so it can be difficult to know if you have it. If you struggle to understand and express feelings in your relationships, Take the Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
To learn much more about getting comfortable having and sharing feelings in your relationships see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
Here is a fact that may surprise you. When you grow up in a family that ignores, devalues, or eclipses your feelings, it damages your ability to feel loved as an adult.
Hard to believe, I know, but it is true. I have seen it over and over and over again in my therapy office as I work with folks who grew up in emotionally neglectful families.
I see good, loving people with a lot to offer and much about them to love, who are incapable of fully accepting and experiencing the love that naturally comes their way.
Childhood Emotional Neglect is, in fact, the silent killer of love. It undermines the feeling of love in a family in myriad invisible but powerful ways. It raises children who are emotionally restrained and disconnected from themselves and held back from becoming who they are meant to be.
Growing up with your feelings ignored requires you as a young child to develop some special skills. You must learn how to hide your emotions, the deepest, most personal, biological expression of who you are, from your family.
Pretending you don’t have feelings is like pretending you have no right arm. To make them invisible, you must make sure you do not have them. And this comes at a great cost to you.
So perfectly lovable people walk the earth feeling unloved and people drag their CEN spouses to couples therapy because they feel shut out. And none of it is okay.
All children have a basic need to feel seen, known, and loved for who they really are. In an emotionally neglectful family, living under the “hold your feelings back” mandate, you are forced to hide this key part of yourself. How can you feel a depth of meaningful love from your family when the deepest, most meaningful part of you is never seen? So you may grow up knowing that your parents love you, but not feeling truly loved. Since the love we receive as children sets up our expectations for love as adults, you are now set up with a lowered ability to absorb and feel love. Having experienced a watered-down version of love from the people who were supposed to love you the most, it is all you know.
As a child, you had to harden yourself against your own natural need to feel loved. Above, I said: “All children have a basic need to feel seen, known, and loved for who they really are.” All children also need emotional validation and nurturance from their parents. As a child, you naturally looked to your parents, over and over again, for those things. And, as a child, over and over again, you were disappointed. Eventually, you learned that there was no water in the well and stopped seeking it. You walled yourself off from your need for validation and love. Where is your wall now? You still have it. And it is blocking you off from the genuine love coming your way.
When your parents discouraged your emotions, they inadvertently taught you some false lessons about emotions. They taught you that emotions, in general, are useless burdens that are best avoided. Now, as an adult, it’s difficult for you to feel that feelings, including love, have value. Some part of you automatically rejects the love that comes your way.
Your solution as a child was to wall off your feelings as best you could. This is the reason so many adults who grew up with CEN experience a sense of emptiness or numbness: their feelings are still blocked off. When it comes to our feelings, we cannot pick and choose. Unfortunately, out the door goes your anger, happiness, joy, and pain, and along with it goes your love. All of these feelings are sitting on the other side of your wall waiting for you to accept and acknowledge them.
To love is to be vulnerable, there is no way around it. When you don’t quite trust feelings in general and you are not accustomed to being seen, validated, and known, love can feel more like a challenge than a gift. It’s scary. You may hold back parts of yourself, fearing that if people see the real you, they will leave. Perhaps you see rejection lurking around every corner. Perhaps you are afraid to initiate friendships or activities because you fear that doing so may be burdening the other person or chasing them away. Fear of vulnerability may be holding you back from the satisfying connections you deserve.
One thing I have learned from working with hundreds, perhaps thousands of CEN people is that it is never too late to change and heal. All of the ways that CEN happened to you as a child can be reversed by you, an adult. Begin to follow these steps now.
You can do it. It’s never too late. And, most importantly, you deserve it.
“Happily Ever After.”
How many times have you heard that phrase?
Speaking for myself, it is many, many, many. And every single time I hear it, I wince.
Since the phrase is used so often to describe the hopes and expectations of people in relationships, I do find myself wincing a lot.
Every couples therapist knows that happiness in a long-term relationship does not come easily. Both members of every couple must fight for their love each and every day. Anyone who has successfully navigated a successful long-term relationship or marriage knows that there is no such thing as happily ever after.
Nevertheless, common culture continues to promote the notion that when you find the right person, things should naturally flow in a positive direction. Nothing could be further from the truth.
One of the worst enemies of happiness in a relationship is stagnation. The couple that stops growing together ends up growing apart. In every successful relationship, each member of the couple must be challenging the other to grow and change in meaningful ways.
It’s not about changing into a different person for your partner; it’s only about listening to your partner’s feelings and needs and making an honest effort, out of love, to meet them. As long as your partner is asking for healthy things (even if they’re painful or difficult), this is a process of pushing each other to grow. That is the hallmark of a successful relationship.
When you are truly in a relationship that is working, there must be friction to keep both partners growing. The friction shows that you are being honest with each other and that you are willing to fight for the relationship. The changes you make for each other are both an expression of your love and a product of your love.
Every healthy relationship follows a predictable, productive pattern. This pattern is the hallmark of a healthy, stimulating, growing, resilient relationship.
If you grew up in a family that avoided conflict, squelched emotions or discouraged meaningful conversation (Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN), you are at great risk of avoiding or squelching the healthy rupture your relationship needs or being unable to initiate and/or tolerate the meaningful conversation to repair it.
If you grew up with CEN, learning that rupture in your adult relationship is not a failure but an opportunity can open doors to building valuable communication and emotion skills and to a much more rewarding and resilient relationship.
Harmony – Rupture – Repair – Harmony – Rupture – Repair – Harmony – Rupture – Repair. On and on it goes, one phase following another. It’s not a sign of a problem, but a sign of health and love and commitment.
The harmony brings the joy, the rupture stokes the passion and the repair builds the trust.
And that’s what “Happily Ever After” actually looks like.
To learn exactly how to take the steps to connect emotionally with your partner, see the book, Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, your Parents & Your Children.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) can be invisible and unmemorable so it can be difficult to know if you have it. To find out, Take the CEN Questionnaire. It’s free.
Do you have a stereotypical picture of a person who feels lonely on Valentine’s Day? You might imagine someone who wishes to be in a relationship and is sitting alone feeling sad.
In truth, most of us know how this stereotypical picture feels since we have been there ourselves at some point. Navigating the complicated world of relationships is not easy, so it’s likely that you have spent one or more Valentine’s Days alone, or perhaps for you, this year is this one.
Surprisingly, however, this image of loneliness is often highly inaccurate. A 2010 study by John Cacioppo published in the journal Social Science and Medicine found that feelings of loneliness were unrelated to marital status or the number of relatives and friends nearby.
It’s not only possible but common, to feel lonely when you’re not alone. And to be alone, but to not feel lonely. It’s because loneliness is not a state, it’s a state of mind. Loneliness is not a situation, it’s a feeling.
Yes, indeed, scores of people feel lonely on Valentine’s Day, and many are in relationships or surrounded by people. Many have no idea why they feel alone.
Whether you are actually alone this holiday or not, it is possible for you to change how you feel this Valentine’s Day. Start by understanding where your alone feelings originate.
Did you notice the one common element that unites these three factors that lead to loneliness? It’s fear. Fear of being known, fear of having needs, and fear of being vulnerable.
These fears are powerful and can do great damage to your quality of life. If you want to stop feeling lonely, you must battle your fear. The good news is, you can!
Once you realize why you feel lonely, an opportunity automatically presents itself. You realize that fixing your loneliness has nothing to do with anyone else, and everything to do with you.
Whether you find yourself on your own, a part of a couple, or surrounded by friends this Valentine’s Day, you can face your fears and see that there is no need to feel lonely.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) is invisible and is often the root cause of these kinds of fears. To learn more about it, see the book, Running on Empty. To learn how CEN prevents deep emotional connections in adulthood see Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
Since CEN is so subtle and invisible, it can be hard to know if you have it. Take the Childhood Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
As you read the list of beliefs above, did any jump out at you? Was there one, or two, or more, that you thought, “Hey, that one’s not false!”?
If so, you are not alone. Many, many people go through their lives following some or all of these guidelines. And many, many people are held back by them. These beliefs have the power to keep you at an emotional distance from others, damage your friendships and marriage, and leave you feeling alone in the world.
The beliefs are typically rooted in your childhood. They are often messages passed down from one generation to another. They take root in your mind and live there, sometimes outside of your awareness.
These ideas tend to thrive in any family that struggles with emotions, either by over or under-expressing it. They’re so common among folks who grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) that they’re included in my book, Running on Empty. All of the beliefs are based on false notions of how emotions work.
If you grew up in a family that didn’t understand how to manage, express or talk about emotion, you probably didn’t learn how and when to share or be vulnerable. You may have learned that it’s actually wrong to communicate about these things.
And chances are some of the 7 beliefs were communicated to you, either directly or indirectly.
Take a chance, and see what happens. The False Beliefs will start to melt away as you begin to experience the value of trust, openness, and closeness. Your relationships will thrive, and a whole new world will open up to you.
To learn more about emotions, relationships, and Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) see the books Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.