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.
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.
“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.