I’ve met many lovely people who have been excluded by their families. When I see them in my therapy office I help them figure out why they have been excluded, and it is almost never for the reasons they have always assumed.
In a recent post called Black Sheep, I talked about some common myths, and how excluded folks, or Black Sheep, are usually not what they appear to be.
Surprisingly, they are invariably a simple product of family dynamics. In other words, being excluded typically has little or nothing to do with the person being excluded. You’ve always thought it’s you, and it is not.
Since I will probably never be able to see you in my office, here are 3 important things that I want you to know:
First, let’s talk about the power of exclusion. We all tend to underestimate it.
But a study by O’Reilly, Robinson, and Berdahl, 2014 proved otherwise. These researchers compared the effects of workplace ostracism (being excluded or ignored) with bullying.
They found that office workers view ostracizing a co-worker as more socially acceptable than bullying him or her. But surprisingly, they found that ostracized workers suffer more than bullied ones. In fact, ostracized workers are actually more likely to leave their jobs than are their bullied colleagues.
If the exclusion is this harmful to adults in their workplace, imagine how it affects a vulnerable child in his family, during the time that his identity is developing.
Imagine how it affected you.
A self-fulfilling prophecy is a belief that causes itself to come true. This happens because our belief influences our actions to the point that we bring the belief alive. Even when the belief is false, we make it come true simply by believing in it.
Self-fulfilling prophecy has a huge body of research supporting it, going all the way back to the 1950s. For example, it’s been scientifically proven that children whose teachers believe they are smarter than they are actually performed at a higher level.
The teachers treat the children as more intelligent, and the children respond to that treatment by making it so.
Imagine how this process works in the family of a Black Sheep.
You are a child, and your family believes that you are strange, or difficult, or different or inferior. So they treat you that way. You, an innocent child, respond to the way that you are being treated. You may start to act like you are strange, difficult, different or inferior. If this goes on long enough, you may become who your family originally believed that you were. And then you see yourself that way.
The Black Sheep family dynamic is a form of Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN. When your parents don’t see or value who you really are, it is very difficult to see or value your true self.
So now it may be hard for you to know the truth. Who are you really? Who would you be if not for all of the distorted messages you have received from the people who should love you the most?
Here is good news for you. Now that you know about Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, you can take control of it. Once you recognize the parts of yourself that were literally “projected” on you by your family, you can be freed up to either embrace those pieces of yourself or let them go.
A new journey begins which will allow you to define yourself, by yourself and for yourself. Free of judgment and prophecy.
You were chosen by your parents or your siblings for a reason. Perhaps you are the brightest in the family; perhaps you are the strongest. Perhaps you are the sweetest or most sensitive. Perhaps you’re artistic or have a different temperament or personality or appearance from the rest of your family.
Perhaps you were born at a certain time, a certain gender, or in a birth order that affected how your parents and siblings regarded you.
Perhaps you will never know why you were chosen.
But what is important for you to know is that you didn’t ask for this, and it’s not your fault. Your family does not see the real you. They don’t understand that your weakness in their eyes is actually your strength.
So embrace your difference, for it is your power.
And please know this:
You were chosen for a reason.
You are real.
You are valid.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it affects children and adults, and how to learn to see and value your true self, see the book, Running on Empty. To understand how Childhood Emotional Neglect effects play out in your adult relationships with your partner, your parents and your children, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
A version of this article originally appeared on Psychcentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of Psychcentral.
Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN has a way of making family holidays like Thanksgiving, which should feel welcoming, loving and warm, fall short.
It’s the invisible force that just slightly subdues the welcome, cools the warmth, and quashes the love. It’s the background of your family picture which no one sees. It’s the gray fog that lingers round the family, making it impossible to truly see each other.
The members of an emotionally neglectful family walk through each and every holiday with a vague feeling of disappointment and discontent.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) happens when you grow up in a family that does not “see” the emotions of its members. In the CEN family, feelings are treated as if they are irrelevant or even burdensome. Children in these families learn to ignore and hide their own feelings.
If this is your family, how do you take care of yourself so that you can enjoy Thanksgiving?
Emotional Neglect passes through the generations unseen and unnoticed. Most likely your parents have raised you very much the same as they were raised themselves.
For your healing, it’s important to acknowledge everything you didn’t get from your family. On this day, work on accepting what you didn’t get, what you did get, and why. And realize that your parents cannot give you what they do not have themselves.
Remind yourself that everything you got, and everything you didn’t get: It all adds up to who you are now.
And you’re all right.
Childhood Emotional Neglect is invisible and unmemorable, so it can be difficult to know if you have it. To find out Take the Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
A version of this post was originally published on psychcentral.com. It has been reproduced here with the permission of psychcentral.
The world is full of mothers who are wondering why their adult sons don’t answer their calls, and fathers who struggle awkwardly to talk to their daughters.
“What did I do wrong?” they ask. “Why can’t we be closer? Shouldn’t our relationship be easier now?”
It’s entirely possible to be a loving, caring parent who worked hard to do everything right in raising your child and to still end up with a strained relationship once your child grows up. It’s because parenting is so complex and multi-layered that it’s far too easy to make one crucial error that your child has difficulty either understanding or recovering from.
One of the easiest and most invisible errors that a parent can make – Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) – passes silently from one generation to the next, unnoticed and unchecked. And unfortunately, it also can lead to some of the greatest parent/child emotional gaps once the child grows up.
Sadly, it’s all too easy to make this mistake. All you have to do is fail to respond enough to your child’s emotional needs when you are raising her. This leaves your child, as a grown-up, without enough access to her emotions. It also leaves her feeling as if you don’t really know her on the most deeply personal level: the emotional level.
So she may then come to you for advice, but not for solace. She may expect you to be there for her financially, but not emotionally. She may share her thoughts with you, but not so much her feelings.
One of the most common questions I receive from readers of this blog is from parents who have realized that they inadvertently, through no fault of their own, emotionally neglected their child. This is a painful realization for any parent, and it’s extra painful when your adult child keeps her distance from you, seems angry at you, or is struggling with issues of her own.
Please know that no matter what’s gone wrong between you and your adult child, the burden generally lies on you, the parent, to initiate fixing it. So what do you do if you want to repair or deepen your relationship with your CEN adult child? The good news is that there are clear steps that you can follow.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it transfers from one generation to the next, and how it affects children once they grow up, see the book, Running on Empty. For many more specific tips and information about improving your relationship with your child see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
A version of this article was originally posted on psychentral. It has been republished here with the permission of psychcentral.
Jared has done everything he can think of to make himself feel better since his father unexpectedly passed away two years ago. But he still feels blah and numb much of the time.
Sandra keeps choosing the same kind of guy over and over; alcoholic, angry, and afraid of commitment.
Claudia is irritable and bitter after her painful divorce. She can’t seem to get back to her old self.
All three of these people are stuck in some way. Each is suffering, each is confused. “Why can’t I get out of this?” they all wonder.
Fortunately for Jared, Sandra and Claudia, there is an answer, and it is the same for each of them. It’s a simple answer, yet it requires them to do something they dread.
Grief gets a bad rap, and in some ways, it should. After all, when does it enter our lives? When we’ve lost someone, or something, important. Grief only appears at times of pain and loss. But grief itself is not pain or loss. Instead, it’s a phase of processing pain and loss.
It’s a very natural human tendency to want to avoid pain. And it takes time to process a loss. This is what makes grieving so universally difficult. The three people described above are all stuck because they are avoiding their grief.
Jared is working hard, but to some extent on the wrong things. He’s trying to make himself feel better. But unfortunately, no amount of sporting events, dates, or successful work projects will help him process his loss and pain. He can only really move past his grief phase by going through it, not around it. This means he must accept his loss and sadness. Jared must allow himself to grieve.
Sandra wants to have the kind of healthy relationship that she sees others enjoy. So she keeps trying, over and over and over. Why does she keep repeating the same pattern? Because she has never grieved the father who left when she was 8 years old. “I don’t care about that jerk,” she’s said all of her life. Sandra is protecting herself with anger, because she doesn’t want to face, or feel, the pain of being abandoned by the man who was supposed to love her the most. Because Sandra isn’t allowing herself to feel, process, and work through her loss, she keeps recreating it. She keeps choosing men who will not really be there for her, and who will eventually abandon her.
Claudia was deeply hurt by her divorce from the man she was married to for 12 years, the father of her children. She was shocked and bereft when he signed those divorce papers. To cope, she has placed her focus on her children and making sure they have a life as close to normal as possible. Surely no one could fault her for this. But what keeps Claudia stuck in her bitterness and anger is not her focus on her children; it’s her failure to focus on herself. She needs to accept, feel, and work through her shock and pain and loss. She needs to grieve.
With all this talk of grief, here’s the good news. If you, like Jared, Sandra or Claudia, feel stuck, you may not actually be. You’re not facing a brick wall after all. You may, instead, be facing a phase. A phase that you can work through, and come out the other side. Yes, you know the solution. You need to grieve.
I feel sad
I feel hurt
I feel bereft
I feel disappointed
I feel empty
I feel lost
I feel alone
I feel let down
I feel angry
I am mourning
5. Choose a trusted person and share your feelings. Talking with someone about what you’re going through is incredibly helpful.
6. Remind yourself that grief is a process, and it’s not permanent. It’s simply a phase of adjustment that is healthy and necessary.
7. Don’t put a time limit on your grief. Everyone’s grief is different, and you can’t rush recovery. It will take as long as it takes. Period.
If you’re an emotional avoider or have a tendency to avoid your feelings in general, you’re at a higher risk of avoiding your grief and getting stuck. A tendency toward emotional avoidance is a sign that you grew up in an emotionally neglectful family. Childhood Emotional Neglect is often invisible and unmemorable so it can be difficult to know if you have it. To find out Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire.
To learn much more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it happens to the child and how to stop avoiding your feelings see the book, Running on Empty.
A version of this article was originally posted on Psychcentral. It has been republished here with the permission of psychcentral.
Judy knows that her husband, Tom, drinks too much. But she also knows that he grew up in an abusive home. Judy sees how Tom’s self-esteem plummets every time he visits his parents. She sees how hard he works to prove to himself, his parents, and herself, that he’s good enough. Judy feels Tom’s emotions every time she looks at him. She gets angry and hurt when he drinks so much, but she also feels his pain.
Todd, 20-years-old, understands that his father is well-known for his business success. His father has made many millions by buying and selling businesses and has his own company with 10,000 employees worldwide. Todd knows that his father has huge responsibilities on his shoulders, and can sometimes see the strain that his father lives under. This is what he reminds his younger teenage siblings (and himself) of when they are angry or hurt by their father’s verbal abuse.
Tina is a 42-year-old mother of three. She works full-time in the Intensive Care Unit of a local hospital. Tina is an empathetic and caring person, and others know this. She is typically the first one asked by her co-workers to cover an extra shift. She is the first one asked by the PTO president of her children’s school to organize and run a new committee. Tina can be counted on to say yes because she readily feels others’ stress and need, and always wants to be helpful whenever she can.
Of all of the emotions that we humans experience, one is generally believed, by psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists and neuroscientists alike, to rise above the rest.
Empathy. It consists of feeling another person’s feelings.
We can get angry, we can feel guilty. We can be frustrated or anxious. We can grieve or feel sadness, regret or resentment. But none makes a statement about who we are as a person, or about the nature of the human race like empathy does.
It’s the glue that binds a family, the bond that helps two people resolve conflict. It’s a salve for pain and an essential ingredient in resilient romantic love. If you’re a parent, you must have it for your children in order to raise them to be healthy and strong adults.
Study after study has shown empathy’s surprising power. Empathy can motivate a wife to protect her husband, spur a man to care for his elderly mother, and even reduce the pain of an electric shock. Therapists know that when they can feel a patient’s feelings, it is a healing force for positive change.
Most people would never think of it, but empathy does sometimes go haywire. This best part of the human spirit can turn against us and, unchecked, it can damage both the empathizer and the recipient. Being aware of the risks of empathy-gone-bad is both incredibly important and vastly helpful.
1. By being excessive: This happens when you feel someone else’s emotions so deeply that you are blinded by them. Too much empathy can allow unhealthy or damaging behaviors to continue when they really shouldn’t.
Example Judy: Judy’s empathy is getting in her way because it’s preventing her from setting limits with Tom. Tom needs to hear Judy say, “I can’t take your drinking any more. It’s hurting the kids and me, and it’s hurting you. I need you to deal with your drinking problem. Now.” And he needs her to mean it. But Judy feels so much of Tom’s pain that she can’t make herself hold him accountable. This is where empathy becomes enabling, and how it can harm everyone involved.
2. By being misdirected: This happens when you feel the emotions of someone who doesn’t deserve it. Misdirected empathy makes the empathizer vulnerable to exploitation by the recipient.
Example Todd: Now an adult, Todd is being unable to hold his father accountable for the damage he is doing to himself and his siblings. He’s essentially giving his father a “pass” for his bad behavior because of his empathy for him. In this way Todd’s empathy is misplaced. By failing to protect himself from his father’s bad behavior, Todd is risking his own happiness and health (and that of his younger siblings). For this he will, all of his life, pay a heavy price.
3. By being too indiscriminate: This happens when you take a “shotgun approach” to empathy. You offer it too freely to too many people. When your empathy is free for the asking, you end up giving too much to too many people.
Example Tina: Tina has multiple responsibilities in her life: her children, her husband, her ICU patients, and herself. Yet none of these people gets as much of her time and energy as they deserve. That’s because Tina’s inability to let others manage their own stress and problems leads her to spread herself too thin. Depleted by the demands, Tina often feels exhausted and irritable around her children and husband. She wonders why she keeps gaining weight, and why there are dark circles under her eyes.
So Judy is enabling her husband, Todd is failing to protect himself, and Tina is harming herself (and by extension her family) by over-extending herself to others. These are three examples of how empathy can work against you.
Those who grow up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) learn early on that their feelings and needs don’t matter. This sets them up to be overly empathetic with others’ needs, and underly attentive to their own.
To learn more about CEN, emotions and how they affect relationships, Take the Emotional Neglect Test and see the books, Running on Empty and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
A version of this article was originally published on PsychCentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of the author.
For philosophers and clergy alike, the message is resoundingly clear: Forgive those who have hurt you, because holding on to anger is destructive. Case in point, see the small sampling of widespread broadcasting of such messages below.
Forgiveness is the final form of love
To forgive is to set a prisoner free, and to realize that the prisoner was you
-Lewis B. Smedes
To err is human; to forgive, divine
Forgiveness is often offered as a powerful solution; as an agent to not only help you heal from painful events but also allow you to move forward.
The general idea is that holding onto anger can make you bitter and hold you back from healing from harm that someone has done you. But the problem is that there are several serious problems with trying to use forgiveness as a solution.
Let’s first look at why it doesn’t work. Then, we will discuss a much better solution.
Quotes and articles about forgiveness present it as a solution to painful situations.
But forgiveness is not a solution. It’s a process.
The Process of True Forgiveness
In the process of true forgiveness, the relationship is changed forever, sometimes in a good way. Many who go through these steps together end up feeling more connected and closer than they were before the offense took place.
When There is No Accountability
Of course, it is true that in many of life’s situations the offender does not notice that she’s hurt you or does not appear to care. There is no accountability, no acknowledgment, no apology. So, sadly, there can be no meeting of the minds. These are some of life’s most difficult and painful experiences.
Here the solution becomes not about forgiveness, but about balance and self-care. If you allow your hurt and anger to rule you, you will be in danger of becoming bitter or vengeful.
Instead, please use your anger and hurt to build and enforce boundaries that will protect you from the other person. Soothe and balance your painful feelings with attention to your own health and recovery. Talk to those who care about you, eat well, and rest. Pay attention to your feelings and manage them.
And always keep in your mind the most healthy and powerful guiding principle for one who has been unjustly harmed and left with no accountability:
The best revenge is living well.
Nothing could be more true.
To learn more about emotions, how they are useful, and how to manage them in relationships, see the books National Bestseller Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
A version of this article originally appeared on psychcentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of the author.
“Accept the children the way we accept trees—with gratitude because they are a blessing—but do not have expectations or desires. You don’t expect trees to change, you love them as they are.”
― Isabel Allende
Wives wistfully long for it from their husbands. Fathers demand it from their children. Friends call upon it to restore broken friendships. Who doesn’t want unconditional love?
Unconditional love is the kind that endures despite any problem, injury, conflict or issue that may arise. Love that asks for nothing in return, and never ceases, no matter what.
Is unconditional love real? Is it attainable? Is it the foundation of a successful marriage? Is it a natural human need?
Or is it simply an epic myth?
It almost seems to be a need that is biologically built into the human condition. We long for it, but we can’t seem to find it. Is it a matter of finding the right person or doing the right thing? Can only people who are emotionally mature provide it? Is it required for a strong relationship or marriage?
Believe it or not, all of these questions have answers, and they are fairly simple and straightforward.
But first, a fascinating research study.
In 2009, a neuroscientist named Beauregard used MRI’s to look at the areas of the brain that are activated in unconditional love compared to romantic love. He found that unconditional love involves seven separate areas of the brain and that it is different from the brain activity seen in romantic or sexual love. Beauregard concluded that unconditional love is actually a separate emotion, unique and different from romantic love.
Beauregard’s study provides neurological evidence for something that is known by couples’ therapists everywhere: unconditional love has no place in a marriage.
Why can’t we expect it from our husband or wife? Two reasons. First, because it’s impossible for most people. And second, because even if a person could achieve it for his or her spouse, it would be unhealthy for both parties and for the relationship itself.
Imagine a husband who continues to love his wife even though she is a serial cheater, and hurts him over and over and over and over. What incentive does she have to stop hurting him? Actually, none. This dysfunctional, painful relationship can go on forever, unchecked. Because the husband has no bottom line to what he will accept: no limit to what he will tolerate, and his wife knows it.
When it comes to romantic relationships and marriage, we all must earn the love we receive. Unearned love (except the parental kind) is not real, it is not strong, and it is not resilient. Conditional love is meaningful because it’s earned, treasured and protected by both parties.
If you have no bottom line in your relationship, chances are you will sadly find yourself living at the bottom line. You will receive whatever you are willing to accept.
So where, then, does unconditional love belong?
In fact, it belongs in only one specific kind of relationship and going in only one direction.
And that is parent TO child; not in reverse. It is a parent’s job to unconditionally love his child. But parents must earn and deserve love from their child. This is what makes parenthood require a kind of selflessness that is uniquely different from every other kind of relationship that exists in this world.
So essentially we are all wired to need unconditional love, but we can only get it in one place: from our parents. Unfortunately, if we don’t feel unconditionally loved by our parents in childhood, we will grow up to feel in some way, on some level, alone. And we will feel in another way, on yet another level, deprived.
People who grow up without unconditional love from their parents are growing up with Childhood Emotional Neglect. In addition to feeling alone and deprived, if a parent’s love is highly conditional, the child may grow up to have depression, anxiety, or a personality disorder.
Many who grow up without unconditional love will be driven, through no fault of their own, to seek the missing love in all the wrong places: from boyfriends, girlfriends or spouses. I have seen many people go through many years looking for this special something that they didn’t get in childhood. Sadly, they seek it from the wrong people, in the wrong ways, unaware that they can, and should be, providing it for themselves.
Childhood Emotional Neglect: Happens when your parents do not address, validate, or talk about emotions enough as they raise you.
Growing up with your emotions ignored has some very specific effects on your entire adult life. Just as Childhood Emotional Neglect is a lack of emotional attention, one of its most harmful effects is also a lack of something: emotional skills and knowledge.
In my work with hundreds of CEN adults, I find, more specifically, that an almost inevitable consequence of growing up this way is a low emotional vocabulary. Many CEN people have few words to describe feelings. Some apply the same generic word to all of their feelings (like “stress,” “depressed,” or “anxious,” for example); some do not use any emotion words at all, and others use the wrong words altogether.
When emotions are seldom discussed in your childhood it is difficult to absorb and learn the thousands of words in the English language that describe emotions.
When we need to communicate a feeling we are having to another person, or even simply name it for ourselves, it is vital to be able to label it in a subtle and accurate way.
Imagine saying, “I felt hurt,” to your wife after she and her friends teased you relentlessly about your new white sneakers. Now imagine saying, “I felt chastised.” The difference may seem small, but it is significant.
The labels you put on your feelings matter.
There is no way to be alive and not get hurt. We have all been there. When someone says something hurtful to you, how do you name the feeling for yourself, and how do you express it to others?
Yes, you can say, “I’m hurt.” Or you can say exactly how you feel and this will make it far more likely that you will be — and feel — understood.
Next time you feel something painful, look through this list to see which word seems to best describe what you are feeling.
Find hundreds of additional emotion words in the extensive Emotion Words List in the back of the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
To learn much, much more about Childhood Emotional Neglect and how it happens plus access the full list of emotion words see the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
Do you have a word for “hurt” that is missing? Please share it! Simply post it in a comment on this blog.
Why is it so hard to be assertive? There are some very good reasons why it’s such a struggle for so many.
The first reason is that lots of people think they know exactly what assertiveness is, but they actually only know half of the definition.
That missing half makes a huge difference.
Pause for a moment here and think about what “assertive” means to you. Come up with your own definition.
Did your definition describe standing up for yourself? Speaking your mind? Telling people how you feel or what you think? If so, you got it mostly right. This is the aspect of assertiveness which most people are familiar with.
Now let’s talk about the other half. In some ways, it’s the most important half. So, enough build-up. Here’s the true, full definition.
Assertiveness: Speaking up for yourself — in a way that the other person can hear.
These two aspects of assertiveness, and how they work together, are what make assertiveness a skill which must be learned, rather than a natural ability. Most people have a hard time with the first half or with the second half, and many folks struggle with both. Also, our ability to be assertive varies with the situation, the people involved, and the amount of emotion that we are feeling at the time.
Most people err in one of two primary ways when they try to be assertive: they come across too weakly, making it too easy for the other party to discount their message; or they come across too strongly so that the other party becomes too hurt or too defensive to listen. Once the recipient’s defenses rise, your message will be lost.
No one struggles more with assertiveness than those who grew up in households where emotions were ignored (Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN). These emotionally neglectful families do not have the vital skills required for assertiveness because they do not understand emotions, or how they work. They do not know the Five Skills of Assertiveness, so they are not able to teach them to their children.
If you grew up in an emotionally neglectful family, it’s important to acknowledge that you struggle with these skills for a reason. And it is not your fault.
In a minute we will talk about how you can learn the skills, but first let’s consider the skills themselves.
When you put these five skills together, you are able to say what you need to say in a way that is appropriate to the setting, situation, and people involved (not too strongly or weakly), so that the recipients can process your message without their defenses being ignited. Keep in mind that talking to a defensive person is like talking to an inanimate object. Your message will not get through.
You can see from these steps why assertiveness requires not just skill, but a constellation of skills. This is why if it’s hard for you, you are not alone.
The good news is that it is entirely possible to build your assertiveness skills. If you keep all five skills in mind, you can work on building them. Follow these special suggestions to learn these vital skills.
Growing up in an emotionally neglectful family leaves you struggling with many emotion skills that other people take for granted. To find out if you grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.
See the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships to learn how to use and manage emotions with the most important people in your life.
“Sometimes I just feel like walking away and never coming back,” Craig finally said haltingly, after a long uncomfortable pause.
When he looked up into his wife Liz’s eyes, he was shocked at what he saw…
As a couple’s therapist, I’ve worked with hundreds of couples over the years. If I had to name the one most ubiquitous challenge that I see couples facing, it’s this:
How to know what you’re feeling, and manage those feelings so you can share them with your partner.
It’s just so much easier to talk about logistics and happy things. The kids, our jobs, finances, vacation plans; these are all important. And they all share one common factor: they mostly happen at the surface.
The real glue that holds two people together in a way that is strong and true does not dwell there on the surface. That glue is made of emotion, feeling, conflict and, yes sometimes pain. These can only be accessed by courageously wading deeper, into the messy world of emotions with your partner.
Literally, all couples struggle with this to some degree. But the ones who I see having the most difficulty with it are couples in which one or both partners grew up with CEN (Childhood Emotional Neglect). When you grow up in a household where feelings are ignored or discouraged, you have little opportunity to learn about your emotions: how to manage, express and work with them. This can pose a formidable challenge to any committed relationship.
Here is an easy-to-learn technique that you and your partner can use to access each other’s hearts and emotions, and build that valuable relationship glue. It’s called The Vertical Questioning Technique.
First, it’s important to understand the opposite of vertical questions: horizontal questions. These are the questions that you ask your partner on a day-to-day basis. Here are some examples:
Why are you home late?
What are the plans this weekend?
How much did you buy?
Where were you?
What do you think we should do?
All of these questions have value, yes. But they are geared toward gathering information, not deepening your relationship.
In contrast, vertical questions are geared toward accessing emotions. They are challenging questions that make your partner look inside, not outside. They challenge him to go deeper by looking more deeply into himself. Here are some examples of vertical questions:
How do you feel about that?
No, really…why did you really say/do that?
Are you angry? Why?
You look sad. Are you?
Do you realize that your expression (or body language) doesn’t match your words?
Yes, it’s true, these questions are not for the faint of heart. They are challenging and can be difficult to give and to receive. But they will take you somewhere real and meaningful.
Now let’s revisit Craig and Liz so that you can find out why Craig was shocked by what he saw in Liz’s eyes. Here is the full story.
Liz had noticed that for weeks, Craig had been coming home from work unusually late. She was worried that he continued to be angry about a disagreement they’d had several weeks ago. Several times she had asked him if anything was wrong. Each time he’d smiled and said, “No, not at all, everything’s fine.” Yet he continued to be distant and disconnected from her. He talked easily about logistics and plans but seemed uninterested in her. Try as she might, she ended up feeling frozen out.
Liz: You’ve been coming home late, and you seem kind of distant. Is anything wrong?
Craig: (With a smile) Don’t be silly. I’m just tired, everything’s fine. I’m going to bed.
Liz: Wait a second. Do you realize that your words don’t match your body language? Your smile doesn’t look real, and you’re walking away as you tell me that everything’s fine. Could there be something else going on with you?
Craig pauses and looks annoyed for a moment. Then the annoyance passes, and he looks perplexed. Liz waits while she sees his attention turn inward.
Craig: I-I don’t know. What’s the big deal? (but he is clearly flustered by Liz’s questions).
Liz: I’ve been sad lately because you seem so distant and disconnected. Can you please try to figure this out for me? I don’t want to live like this.
Craig: (Looking truly concerned for the first time, as he sees his wife’s sadness) Well, believe me, I’m over it. But I still can’t believe you talked to my mother about my drinking problem behind my back. It was a total violation of my trust. I can’t imagine why you would do that to me. Obviously, you don’t care how I feel.
Liz waits while Craig looks at the floor, tears welling in his eyes.
“Sometimes I just feel like walking away and never coming back,” he finally says.
Craig doesn’t see it, but while he’s talking Liz’s eyes are also filling with tears. She feels a combination of sad because she hurt Craig, angry that it’s taken him so long to say this, but relieved and grateful that he’s finally saying it. When he finally looks up, Craig sees how much Liz truly does care what he needs, feels and thinks.
Believe it or not, it almost doesn’t matter what happens from here. Liz’s Vertical Questioning (and her willingness to be vulnerable by sharing her own sad feelings) has helped Craig access his true feelings. And now they have shared what I call an emotional-meeting-of-the-minds.
It is truly a golden moment. Craig and Liz have both sat with their strong emotions together and felt each other’s pain. This moment forms the glue that will bind them together and keep their love and their passion strong.
So don’t be afraid. Ask those hard questions. Challenge your partner, and challenge yourself. It’s the best way to show, and strengthen your love.
To learn more about Horizontal and Vertical Questioning, Childhood Emotional Neglect, and how to build the emotional skills that are needed for a strong marriage, see the book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parent & Your Children.
A version of this article originally appeared on Psychcentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of the author.