What does the term “emotionally unavailable” mean to you? It’s a term that’s thrown around a lot, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing to everyone.
Have you ever been in a relationship or marriage with someone who you felt was emotionally unavailable? Has any friend or romantic partner ever described you this way?
The term, in my opinion, carries some irony. Because if you are truly emotionally unavailable, it will be very difficult to understand the meaning of the term. In other words, it really helps to be emotionally available if you want to understand what it means to be unavailable.
Much of this has to do with how a person deals with his or her own emotions. This typically goes back to how your emotions were treated as a child. Did your parents notice what you were feeling enough of the time? Did they ask? Did they care what you felt and what you needed, and do their best to meet your true needs? Did they succeed?
Surprisingly, it matters less whether your parents tried. What really matters is whether or not they succeeded. If your parents weren’t able, for any reason, to notice and respond to your feelings and meet your emotional needs, then you are at risk of being an emotionally unavailable adult.
Here’s why. When a child’s feelings and emotional needs are treated as if they matter, that child receives a loud and clear message: “Your feelings are real, and they matter.” This encourages the child to pay attention to his emotions, and teaches him how to manage, express, and use them throughout his adult life. The converse is also true. When a child’s emotional needs are treated as if they don’t matter, the message to the child is, “Your feelings don’t matter.”
A child who receives this message will not be consciously aware of it and will not remember it. This is because typically it was never stated outright; it was a subliminal message delivered by the absence of response and validation from the parents. But that child will accommodate, as children do. She will suppress her emotions by pushing them far and away so that they will not bother her parents or herself.
Years later, in relationships, that child will continue to lack access to his emotions. To his friends or romantic partner, he may seem to be difficult to connect with. Others can see his depth and quality but have trouble reaching it.
Here are some of the complaints that I have heard from various patients about their emotionally unavailable boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, or wife:
“He just shuts down and refuses to talk to me when there’s a problem.”
“She’s a great person, but she doesn’t tell me what she needs or feels.”
“I know that he loves me, but I can’t feel the love from him.”
If you identify with this description of “emotionally unavailable,” do not despair. There are solutions to this problem. And the solution lies with you. The solution is to get in touch with your feelings, accept them, and use them. It sounds simple, but it is not. It’s a process that requires purpose and effort and work. But it can be done.
If, on the other hand, you are in a relationship with someone who is emotionally unavailable, you are in an even more difficult spot because it is easier to change yourself than it is to convince someone else to change. However, there are somethings that you can do.
To learn much more about how to recognize CEN in your marriage and talk with your spouse about it, see the book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
This article was initially posted on Psychcentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of the author and Psychcentral.
What happens when two people, each of whom grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect, meet and marry? They create the doubly emotionally neglected couple.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) is a subtle, often invisible childhood experience that many adults experienced in their families. As children, they didn’t know it was happening. And as adults, they typically have no memory of it.
Yet its effects continue to hang over them like a gray cloud, coloring their entire adult lives. The cloud inserts itself into their marriages, causing emotional distance, miscommunication, and lack of intimacy.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): A parent’s failure to respond enough to the child’s emotional needs.
When you grow up with parents who do not validate or respond to your feelings, your child brain knows just what to do. It builds a wall to block off the most deeply personal, biological part of who you are: your emotions. Safely tucked behind the wall, your parents (and you) can pretend that your feelings aren’t even there, or don’t matter.
Decades later, when you are in a serious relationship, a series of very predictable problems ensue. That wall that helped you as a child interferes. It blocks off the invaluable internal resource you need to bind and connect you to your partner: your emotions.
Interestingly, those who grow up with Childhood Emotional Neglect tend to be attracted to one another. When your own emotions are blocked off, you are bound to feel most comfortable with a partner whose emotions are also tucked safely away.
So what happens when two people who grew up emotionally neglected marry? How does the couple deal with two walls between them, over the years of being together?
Meet Jason and Betsy, the double-CEN (Childhood Emotional Neglect) couple. They’ve been married for 10 years, and neither is aware of their CEN. It’s Saturday morning, and they are having a mundane conversation.
Betsy: I’ll drop off Curt at basketball practice at 9:30. Can you pick up Emma from gymnastics at 9:45?
As she makes this request, Betsy is secretly worried that Jason will be irritated that she’s asking him to do something. So as she asks, she watches his reaction carefully.
Jason sees Betsy giving him a look he can’t interpret, and assumes she’s trying to manipulate him somehow. He decides to call her bluff by martyring himself to make her feel bad.
Jason: What’s the big deal? Why does this require us both? I’ll do both drop-off and pick-up.
Betsy notices the edge in Jason’s tone and assumes it’s because she asked him to do a task for her. “Would it kill him to chip in on the weekend?” she thinks to herself with aggravation.
Betsy: Just forget it. I’ll do both.
As Betsy does the drop-off and pick-up that morning, she seethes inside at how unwilling Jason is to help out with the kids.
Meanwhile, Jason sits at home feeling three competing things: frustrated at his “manipulative” wife, perplexed about what really happened between them that morning, and vaguely guilty that he is sitting at home while Betsy does all the work.
Eventually, the guilt wins out. Feeling bad, he starts making a big pot of chili, which he knows Betsy likes.
No matter how connected you are by love, companionship, children, or history, you are not able to connect enough in the most important way: emotionally. It’s not that you don’t feel emotion (both Betsy and Jason have plenty of emotions in the description above), it’s just that neither of you is well enough in touch with what you are feeling so that you can share them and use them as you are meant to as a couple.
While your parents were busy ignoring your feelings, you were missing an important childhood experience. You were not learning how emotions work. You didn’t have the chance to learn how to know when you’re having a feeling, identify that feeling, put it into words, or share it with another. These are the skills required to build emotional intimacy with your partner, and you may not even realize that you don’t have them.
You probably noticed how very out of touch Betsy and Jason are with each other. Betsy views Jason as unwilling to help, which isn’t true, and Jason views Betsy as trying to pull something over on him, which she isn’t. Both end up feeling upset with each other for false reasons. And neither has the communication skills to discover that his/her assumptions and readings of the other are wrong.
In addition to the normal conflicts that all couples encounter, incorrect readings also contribute to the wedges that drive you farther and farther apart every day. The longer you are together, the more distant you feel.
I see many double CEN couples in my office, and one thing I often notice is that they usually have a genuine bond of love for each other. But despite the love, one or both members of the couple senses that something very important is missing. One or both of the members feel, despite the love, uncomfortably lonely in the marriage.
If you recognize yourself and your partner as you read this, do not despair. There are answers!
You can use this newfound understanding to reach out to your partner. Now that you know what divides you, you can break down your walls, and power forward to a brighter, more connected future.
Because the great thing about Childhood Emotional Neglect is that it can be healed.
To learn how to take the steps to reach out to your partner and break through the walls that block you, see the book, Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
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.
A version of this post was originally posted on psychcentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of the author and 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.
As a blogger, I pay attention to what readers want to know about. I’ve noticed that articles about three particular types of personality disorders (PDs), narcissistic, borderline and sociopathic, are often the most read.
Since my specialty (and the topics of my books and blogs) is Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN, I can tell you that adults who grow up with emotional neglect often seem to attract people with personality disorders. That’s because CEN teaches you to take up little space, and those with personality disorders tend to take up a lot. It’s a classic case of opposites attracting.
People who find themselves involved with a personality disordered person may often find themselves getting hurt. I have noticed that the folks who comment on posts about PD’s very often express a mixture of strong emotions like confusion, hurt, anger and helplessness. Clearly, a great many people are hungry for information and guidance on how to handle relationships with these complex people in your lives.
Here are some example questions I’ve received from readers asking for guidance on dealing with a narcissistic or sociopathic person in their lives.
“Such a pity that escape (divorce) seems to be the only viable outcome. I’ve had to divorce my wife, but she still controls the minds of my now young adult daughters, so now I live with the pain of this alienation.”
“Does it serve a purpose to see a narcissistic parent’s condition coming from childhood emotional neglect? Yes. Once I realized that possibility, I looked at myself and realized how I often did to others exactly what my father did to me: because he left me with the same fragile sense of self. Fortunately I did not pass it on to another generation, having decided to end the bucket chain of abuse.”
The world is full of people who struggle with personality disorders. In truth, the numbers are staggering. 6% of the U.S. population has a narcissistic personality disorder. 5.6% has a borderline personality, and 1% has antisocial personality (according to the National Institute of Health).
With these numbers, there’s a reasonable chance that you’ve met, befriended, been related to, or fallen in love with at least one of these personality types.
These three personality disorders are all different. Narcissists are known for being self-centered. Those with borderline personality are known for being unpredictable and highly emotional. And antisocial personalities (or sociopaths) are famous for their brutality. Generally, these three PD’s can best be understood by their ability or inability to feel two very important emotions: guilt and empathy.
Narcissistic Yes No
Borderline Yes Yes
Sociopathic No No
Here are the Four Main Questions About PD that I see you, our readers, struggling with:
1. What causes personality disorders?
We don’t know for sure, but current science tells us that it’s a combination of genetics and childhood experiences, such as emotional abuse and unpredictable parenting characterized by the repeated, sudden withdrawal of love and approval by the parent or love based on false, self-serving, or superficial factors. Neither nature nor nurture alone is probably enough to produce a personality disorder; most research indicates that it takes a combination of both.
2. Why didn’t I realize sooner that my husband/sister/father/friend, etc. has a personality disorder?
First, I’d like to suggest that you stop asking this question because it sounds like you are blaming yourself. The huge majority of people have no idea what a personality disorder is, or how to recognize it. Folks with narcissistic or borderline personality are not simply all good or all bad. They have very lovable qualities, and very maddening qualities, just like everyone else. This is why even mental health professionals require a good amount of time to make a diagnosis of personality disorder.
Sociopaths, however, fall into a special category of their own. Unlike people with borderline and narcissistic personalities, sociopaths have no capacity for guilt. But that is a very difficult thing to see in someone, especially when that someone is both highly charismatic and skilled at faking guilt and other emotions. Unfortunately, sociopaths, the most emotionally ruthless people among us, are also the most difficult to recognize.
3. Do people with personality disorders know what they are doing? Is he/she hurting me on purpose?
For sociopaths, the answer is simple: yes. Many sociopaths actually take pleasure in manipulating and hurting others. They view (and treat) the people in their lives like chess pieces.
For narcissists and borderlines, the answer is not so clear, because both of these groups are scrambling to protect their fragile inner core. The narcissist’s greatest fear is that you will see what he/she feels about herself deep down: worthlessness. Whereas the borderline person’s greatest fear is that you will abandon him.
Narcissists appear to not care if they hurt you, but it’s because they are extremely focused on protecting themselves. Borderline folks are at the mercy of their own pain and have little energy left over to offer care for others. They are capable of both guilt and empathy, but often cannot access either.
Most narcissistic and borderline people are not purposely inflicting pain or misery on others. They are more like a bull in a china shop.
4. I now hate someone I used to love. Is it OK to kick this person out of my life?
It all depends on what he/she has done, and what is your relationship with them. Of course, you must protect yourself and your children above all. And the type of PD you’re dealing with matters. Unfortunately, many people share traits from all three, making it difficult to know.
If this person is a family member, spouse or co-parent, and is not a clear sociopath, I recommend a delicate balance of self-protection and as much empathy as you can muster for the true pain that this person is living with and hiding.
Here are some Suggestions for Managing Your Relationship:
To learn how to manage your relationship with a narcissistic or borderline parent, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships. To learn how Childhood Emotional Neglect is different from emotional abuse and how to heal from it, see the book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
A version of this article was originally published on psychcentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of the author.
You can give your kids what you never had.
Few things can make a difference in your parenting as much as healing your emotional neglect.
It’s true! To explain why we must first take a look at your own parents.
Emotional neglect (CEN) happens when your parents, even if they loved and cared about you, failed to validate your emotions enough while they were raising you.
This seemingly small failure seems so simple, and yet its effects on you, the child, were profound. In fact, they still run deep within you to this day.
When your parents did not notice, respond to, or validate your feelings enough, they sent you a powerful, subliminal message:
Your feelings do not matter.
When you received this message over and over again, your adaptive child brain knew just what to do. It walled off your emotions so that they would not burden your parents, or yourself.
This may have worked to cope in your childhood home, but as you grew into an adult, you needed access to your feelings. Now, the emotions that should be energizing, connecting, directing, and informing you are less accessible than you need them to be.
This fundamental disconnection within you affects your life in many important ways. But none of the effects are as great as the ones in your parenting.
Your CEN, invisible, unmemorable, and not your fault, quietly transfers itself from you to your children. Mostly because it’s so very hard to give your child something that you never got yourself.
There are clear ways for you to heal your emotional neglect, and as you do, you will naturally become a better parent.
Believe it or not, there is a remarkable thing about childhood emotional neglect (CEN). You can begin to treat yourself in the exact opposite ways that you were treated as a child.
As you give yourself what you never got, you will then have it to give to your children.
1. The more you begin to value and attend to your own emotions, the more attuned you will be to your child’s feelings.
When you say, “Are you angry right now?” or “You look sad,” to your child, you are automatically teaching her about her feelings. She will grow up attuned to herself.
2. As you work to learn emotion skills, you will automatically teach them to your child.
Learning to name your feelings, sit with them, manage and express them when needed are all skills your child will see and experience in her relationship with you.
3. As you treat yourself with more compassion, you can help your child have more compassion for himself.
As you learn to accept that you are human and that you, like all humans, make mistakes, you will stop being so hard on yourself.
You’ll be able to show and teach your children how to learn from their missteps, forgive themselves, and move forward, instead of harshly judging themselves.
4. Beginning to pay attention to what you feel, need, like, and dislike will set a great example for your child.
You will be showing him that you are worth paying attention to, and this will make you better able to see him clearly too. You will be teaching him to pay attention to himself, and he will see himself reflected in your eyes.
He will grow up knowing himself and feeling deep down that he matters.
5. Working to accept yourself and love who you are can set your child up to feel this way about herself.
Armed with healthy self-love, and a sense that you are good enough, your child will learn self-love too and will grow up feeling strong, and knowing, deep down, that she is lovable. You did not choose to grow up with emotional neglect. In fact, as a child, you very likely didn’t even realize it was happening to you.
But now, as an adult, you can choose to heal your emotional neglect. And when you do, you are setting yourself on a clear path to being happier and healthier and being a more connected, effective parent to your children.
Making the decision to heal your emotional neglect is like saying to many generations going back in your family line: “The buck stops here. I will not deliver this burden to my children.”
And what could be more important, or more worthwhile, than that?
To learn more about how CEN affects your parenting and other relationships, Take the Emotional Neglect Questionnaire and see Jonice Webb’s book, Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
A version of this article first appeared on YourTango.com. It has been reproduced here with the permission of the author.
“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.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) happens when your parents fail to validate and respond to your emotions enough as they raise you.
Growing up this way leaves you with some significant challenges throughout your entire adult life.
As I have said many times before, Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) can be healed. Even beyond that, therapists and laypeople alike are realizing that taking the steps to heal CEN is a powerful way to change your life from the inside.
One of my greatest goals in writing and speaking and teaching about Childhood Emotional Neglect is to give both mental health professionals and CEN sufferers a common language to talk about what failed to happen, the gaps that are left by that, and what it takes to fill them.
This route to healing is both validating and compelling for those who grew up with Emotional Neglect. And more and more therapists are finding that walking their clients through the 4 CEN Recovery Steps is remarkably rewarding work.
Looking For a CEN Trained Therapist?
If you are looking for a therapist who is familiar with the CEN concept and is trained in the recovery process, see my Find A CEN Therapist Page. It lists almost 500 licensed therapists located all over the world who have either read my books or have attended one of my CEN Therapist Continuing Education Trainings. And if there are none located in your area, many of the therapists on the list do Skype treatment.
Want Your Therapist to Learn About CEN?
If you are in treatment with a therapist who is not trained in treating Childhood Emotional Neglect, you can share this article with your therapist as a way to introduce him or her to the CEN concept and the kind of work you would like to do together.
Become a CEN Specialist: You can find many more Resources and Tools For CEN Therapists on the For Therapists Page.
Fill out this Brief Form to apply to become a CEN Specialist and get listed on the Find A CEN Therapist Page.
The 4 Steps of Childhood Emotional Neglect Treatment
The treatment of Childhood Emotional Neglect is a process of 4 steps, all of which build upon each other. When you are aware of the natural progression of these steps you will be able to guide your client through them in a meaningful way.
CEN Therapist List: Clients can find a CEN trained therapist near them. If you are a therapist, you can request to be added to the list to receive more referrals of CEN folks, which I am sure you will find to be some of the most rewarding people to work with.
Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect: This book presents the concept of CEN in depth to readers, how it happens, why it can be so unmemorable, and how it affects the child, plus many aspects of the recovery process. It also has a special chapter for therapists.
Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parent & Your Children: This book is all about how to identify and heal the effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect in couples and families. It also offers lots of specific information for parents on exactly how to emotionally validate and respond to their children. I wrote this book to use as a guide for clients and therapists to go through together. It is especially helpful for Treatment Step 4.
Whether you are a CEN sufferer looking for a therapist who understands you in this deep and meaningful way or a therapist who wants to learn about Childhood Emotional Neglect and how to walk your clients through the 4 Stages of Recovery, there are many answers and resources for you.
One of my biggest goals is to provide a well-trained therapist who is passionate about treating Childhood Emotional Neglect to every man, woman and child everywhere in the world who needs one.
Please enjoy this free excerpt from the book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
How do you know if your marriage is affected by Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN)?
As you know, Childhood Emotional Neglect is invisible, and the huge majority of people who have it are completely unaware. That means that legions of relationships are weighed down by this unseen force. So how do you know if this applies to yours?
If you or your partner has already done some Childhood Emotional Neglect work, then you already know that your relationship is affected. When one partner is out of touch with his or her emotions, meaning he or she lacks emotional awareness and emotion skills, there is no way for the relationship to continue unaffected.
Even if you know that Childhood Emotional Neglect has affected your relationship, it’s important to know the specific effects. On the other hand, if you’re reading this book because you suspect your partner has CEN, then it might help to know some signs to look for.
Here are the markers I use to spot Childhood Emotional Neglect when I meet a couple for the first time for therapy. These are the main ways that it often plays out over time or can be observed in a given moment. As you read through the markers, think about whether each item is true of you, your partner, or both.
Conflict avoidance is essentially an unwillingness to clash or fight and is one of the most classic signs of CEN in a couple. It’s also one of the most damaging.
Believe it or not, fighting is healthy in a relationship. There is no way for two people to closely intertwine their lives for decades without facing some important differences of opinion hundreds, or more likely thousands, of times.
Conflict avoidance has the power to severely undermine a relationship. Not only are you and your partner unable to solve problems by avoiding them; in addition, the anger, frustration and hurt from unsolved issues goes underground and festers and grows, eating away at the warmth and love that you should be enjoying with each other.
Being in a long-term committed relationship is supposed to prevent loneliness. Indeed, when a relationship is going well, there is a comfort that comes from knowing that someone always has your back. You are not facing the world alone. You are not one, you are two.
But it’s entirely possible to feel deeply lonely, even when you are surrounded by people. And when emotional intimacy is not fully developed in your relationship, it can lead to an emptiness and loneliness that is far more painful than you would feel if you were actually alone.
Every couple must talk about something. Emotionally connected couples discuss their feelings and emotional needs with relative ease. Not so with the emotionally neglected. When you have CEN, you stick with “safe” topics. Current events, logistics or the children, for example. You can plan together. You can talk about the kids. You can talk about what’s happening, but not about what you’re feeling. You seldom discuss anything that has depth or emotion involved. And when you do, it may feel awkward or difficult, and the words may be few.
A willingness to open up, to explore problems and to have an exchange about feelings, motivations, needs, and problems is essential to the health of a relationship.
Few couples know the term “emotional intimacy,” what it means and how to cultivate it. Yet emotional intimacy is the glue that holds a relationship together and the spice that keeps it interesting. It’s essential, but it’s also hard to tell whether you have it or not. It’s also the biggest relationship challenge of all for those who grew up with Emotional Neglect. How do you know if your relationship lacks this very important ingredient?
If you’ve been together a long time, I know what you’re thinking: “Come on now, Dr. Webb. What long-married couple has passion?”
My answer is PLENTY. Passion changes over the years, for sure. But in an emotionally connected relationship, it does not go away. It simply mellows and becomes more complex over time. Passion goes from the desperate drive to be constantly together and having sex early in the relationship, to a feeling of comfort knowing that your partner is nearby. You look forward to seeing her after an absence. You have a desire to be physically close, a deep understanding of each other’s sexual needs, and a motivation to please each other sexually.
Passion is also most deeply felt during and after a conflict. Conflicts stir intense feelings, a form of passion. And working through them together fosters a feeling of trust and connection that also is passion.
Many couples don’t know that they can and should have passion, or what to look for to answer whether they have it or not. Here are some signs that can tell you that it’s lacking in your relationship.
I hope you found this chapter from Running On Empty No More helpful. If you see some of these markers in your own marriage, please do not despair. The silver lining of Emotional Neglect in your marriage is that the cause of the problems is also a powerful path to change. See the book for much more in-depth information about what it means to have Emotional Neglect in your marriage, how to talk about it with your spouse, and exactly what to do.
Do you feel like I do?
On The Outside
There’s a deep, draining feeling that many people carry through every single day of their adult lives. But few are consciously aware of this feeling, or ever actually put into words. So please allow me to do it for you, using the words I have heard many people use to describe it.
It’s a feeling of:
Deeply different from everyone else; somehow flawed
Alone and disconnected
On the outside looking in
Empty or numb
This is a feeling that saps your energy and your joy. It lurks in the background, making it hard for you to believe that you fit in anywhere, or that you are okay.
This feeling colors your world gray and holds you back from many of the most rewarding parts of life.
When you live with this feeling you are most likely not fully aware that you have it, yet it drags on you and weighs on you day after day. This feeling can become such a constant in your everyday life that you experience it not as a feeling, but as a fact of life.
Woven into the fabric of your existence, you naturally assume it’s a basic part of the human condition.
Doesn’t everyone feel like I do?
Until one day you look around, and you see that other people seem more comfortable in their own skin. Other people seem to feel that they belong. Other people seem to be living lives filled with passion and joy and heartbreak and hurt that you, in some inexplicable way, for some unfathomable reason, seem unable to fully experience.
“What do all these people have that I lack?” you wonder. Why do they seem to be so connected, so comfortable, so driven, so fulfilled?
Why do I seldom feel like I belong? Why am I living on the outside? What makes me different from everyone else?
Believe it or not, when you ask these questions, it’s actually a good sign. It means that you have finally moved beyond your lifelong assumption that everyone feels this way. You have progressed forward and reached a realization.
Everyone does not feel like I do. I am missing out on something important. Something that truly matters.
Now some good news. Keep reading and you will find that you can overcome this feeling. You don’t have to live with it anymore. But first, let’s talk more about what caused it in the first place, and also what it means.
What Causes This Feeling? Childhood Emotional Neglect
Childhood Emotional Neglect is, unfortunately, a common childhood experience. It takes place in many unsuspecting homes and is perpetrated by many unaware adults. It’s often invisible, usually unmemorable, but yet it leaves an enduring mark upon the child.
Childhood Emotional Neglect happens when your parents fail to notice your feelings enough and respond to them. So it’s not exactly something that happens to you as a child; it’s more like something that fails to happen for you as a child.
Your emotions and feelings and emotional needs go unnoticed, unvalidated, and essentially ignored.
This was the experience that caused the feeling that you live with now.
What Does This Feeling Mean?
When you grow up with Childhood Emotional Neglect, you learn that your emotions are a useless burden, and you continue to treat your own feelings in exactly that way as you move forward in your life.
Going forward, whenever you have a feeling, you either question it or doubt it or minimize or reject it. You assume that your feeling is wrong, or selfish or excessive or useless so you override it or ignore it or both.
Every time you do this to one of your emotions, you are doing it to yourself. You are pushing the most deeply personal, biological expression of who you are down, and away. In doing so, you are minimizing and marginalizing yourself. You are making yourself an incomplete version of yourself. You are squelching yourself.
What does this feeling mean? It means that you are continuing to neglect yourself.
How Can You Get What Other People Have?
In a way, the answer to this question is remarkably logical. To get what other people have, you must reverse the process of the Childhood Emotional Neglect you grew up with. You can start by absorbing and embracing the Emotion Facts below.
5 Emotion Facts
Once you understand and accept the 5 Emotion Facts above, you can make a vow to yourself that you will stop the pattern set up for you in childhood. And then you can fulfill that vow by treating yourself in a different way.
So when that inner voice says, “It does not matter what you feel,” you do not accept it; you talk back.
“It does matter what I feel,” you insist. “I will accept and pay attention to this feeling. I will listen to its message, I will take responsibility for it. I will manage it or, if needed, share it. I will own it as the deepest expression of myself.
No more, “Do you feel like I do?” No more “on the outside.”
My solemn vow to myself: I will not hide anymore.
To learn much more about how Childhood Emotional Neglect keeps you feeling disconnected from the most important people in your life, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
Childhood Emotional Neglect can be subtle and unmemorable so it can be difficult to know if you have it. To find out Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.