Childhood Emotional Neglect: How Marriages Go Wrong When Both Partners Have It

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.

Oscar & Olive in Couples Therapy

An Excerpt From the Book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships

Olive and Oscar

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.

Jonice

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Bill - December 29, 2020 Reply

I realize that I come from a family where CEN ran deep. I’ve come to terms with it and am working on myself. My wife has also pointed out the obvious CEN issues in my childhood, and was kind enough to introduce me to your work. What I don’t think she realizes is that she also suffers from CEN. And our double wide barrier makes it very difficult to break through. I am doing the work on myself, but nothing I do ultimately gets through the emotional barrier I feel from her at this point.

So my question is, how do you get your spouse to realize they also suffer from some form of emotional issues, even if they’re “good at emotions.” I fear that if I bring this up, she will assume it’s a deflection from my own work, and she’ll essentially say I’m blaming our issues on her. That isn’t it at all, it’s just that I know that, no matter what I do, I can only work on myself, and I cannot break down her barriers. She doesn’t want to go to counseling with me, because she sees the problems as mine to fix. How do I move forward?

    Jonice - December 29, 2020 Reply

    Dear Bill, that is quite a dilemma. I suggest that instead of making any overall comments about barriers, you bring up individual situations where you feel blocked; keep it to specific situations in which you talk about your own feelings instead of hers. If this gets nowhere, definitely see a CEN therapist from the list on this site. It’s usually the case that as one partner changes, the other must change too.

Nikki - December 14, 2020 Reply

It’s so helpful to just read this – as with everything you’ve written on CEN Dr Jonice. I love my husband very very much – I think he loves me – I have to read his very subtle signs to know. I think both he and I have CEN. I have two loving parents – still happily married who do very well with their own CEN. Overall I’m a person very much in touch with my emotions – but I do still have blind spots. I have that thing where I automatically assume that others are better / more important than me. I struggle with confidence and having the courage to be visible. I think that could be linked to my Dad stonewalling me if we ever got into arguments when I was a child / teenager. It’s like I wasn’t worth listening too & that it was wrong of me to feel upset or angry. My Mum used to say ‘you’re both as bad as each other’ which now – looking back feels pretty unfair given that I was the child in the situation. Maybe her own CEN at work there. Both my parents ran a shop when I was a teenager too – I realised they were so stressed & burnt out with it that I shouldn’t add to their burden so I learned to become that independent person who struggles to ask anyone for help. I must have internalised that some (not all) of my opinions and feelings were wrong and not allowed – more than that they must have been offensive by the way my dad sometimes wouldn’t speak to me for days or weeks. He was very unpredictable too – sometimes he was fine & other times it was like walking on eggshells. My husband replicates a lot of how my Dad used to be (My dad has actually worked on himself and is much better these days – incredible given that he had an emotionally abusive childhood). My husband has admitted that talking through difficult feelings makes him feel physically sick – he admits he’s learned to take the path of least resistance which for him means ignoring me, shutting me out, then resorting to very angry verbal outbursts if pressed further. I have said time and time again that I have major issues with being ignored due to my childhood & it’s taken us huge work to get to a point where he can even begin to see that that is a negative pattern for us. I have pointed out some of your articles to him Dr Jonice and they resonate with him. His Dad had a lot of issues too – my husband feels very let down by both of his parents, they are the type you have described before who don’t really seem to know him or ‘get’ him. He describes his Dad’s interest in his life & our children as seeming like that of a casual aquaintence – not a loving father or grandfather. I think there’s a long road ahead of us in terms of getting to a place where we both connect on a healthy emotional level – but the tiny seeds are there since my husband & I both now have an awareness of what causes our distance. Since I’ve found your work Dr Jonice I feel we can have a happy future together – eventually. Thank you endlessly for that xx

    Jonice - December 14, 2020 Reply

    Thank you for sharing your story with us, Nikki. I’m so glad you’re finding answers and help through my work.

SABASTIAN - December 10, 2020 Reply

very informative and truly speaking enlighten the soul. currently it is something I feel me and my wife we are going through and yet she will be moving out of the family house. I played a part because I am unable to express my emotions. I have been doing my research around such topics. I will seek help for myself, as for the divorce we shall see what happens.

thanks for the information. will keep reading.

Kim - December 8, 2020 Reply

Hi Jonice, My parents were both Holocaust survivors. My mom was a get-things-done person, responsible but little to no emotional connection. My dad wasn’t much better. I can see myself standing in my playpen holding cell hoping my mom or my oldest sister would take me out and play with me. We moved when I was about 4, and the new house created more separation. I had night terrors. I’m 60 now and I have a bridge to cross, but the bridge has no deck, and I can’t begin to understand how to build it as I go. My wife of 18 years suffered in her house as a child. As you say, we had room and board, but no emotional support. My mom picked me up from a bad day nursery school. I was upset and silent. She said “ I must have picked up the wrong kid.” That’s it. Never a hug, never a “ do you want to talk about it?” Yes I did. I was bullied a lot. Anytime someone is mean to me I just shut down. Anyway, I’m pretty lost and scared when it comes to my personal life, and my wife and I have little connection.

    Jonice - December 8, 2020 Reply

    Dear Kim, I’m so sorry you went through all of this. I urge you and your partner to start reconnecting with your inner selves and reclaiming your feelings. Once you do some of that work, you can start using those feelings to connect with each other. It’s a process of healing that many couples have followed successfully.

zeeky - December 7, 2020 Reply

Can CEN result in CPTSD?

zeeky - December 7, 2020 Reply

First of all thank you Dr Webb, you are rally doing a great job, and helping a lot of people!
Secondly I do believe this is what many people who have symptoms of complex Ptsd suffer from. I also believe most people miss out on this because its not something that happened, but rather, something that didn’t happen. Once people can recognize that it was the emotionally neglect childhood that created the trauma, they can be on their way to healing from their complex Ptsd.
What do you think?

    Jonice - December 8, 2020 Reply

    Dear Zeeky, CPTSD, by definition, involves trauma. Pure CEN in its purest form is more of an everyday drumbeat of the absence of an essential ingredient. It can become abuse if it crosses certain lines, and it sets people up to be more vulnerable when traumatic events occur in their lives. Many therapists treat trauma very well but then miss the CEN effects, which can be quite invisible and hidden by the PtSD effects. I hope this answers your questions.

Tim - December 7, 2020 Reply

Thank you for sharing this. I can certainly relate to Olive and Oscar’s heart breaking situation. I’ve been with my partner for 20 years, and whilst I think we still love each other (I know I love her) physical intimacy ceased many years ago. I know this is my doing (or ‘not doing’) and I have a reasonable understanding of why.

But it’s the anger in Oscar that I most recognise. I have within me an inner rage, a rage beyond reason I don’t understand, that consumes and destroys any goodness and love I may have.

Why, when I know my behaviours are destroying a beautiful relationship can I not stop, and change, before it’s too late!? I feel like a rabbit caught in car headlights about to be squashed by my own inaction and stupidity.

As always, your insights are invaluable. Thank you.

    Jonice - December 7, 2020 Reply

    Dear Tim, the things missing in your life and in your marriage are the keys to happiness in marriage and in life. They are things worth fighting for. You are angry for a reason and it’s important to solve that puzzle.

Annie - December 7, 2020 Reply

Dr. Jonice, you have been such a help to me. I have been only as a mature adult learning to accept and identify my emotions. So much shame and guilt and hiding my feelings, before that. And I didn’t know WHY. My husband and I are both CEN but I want to read about it and he doesn’t want to explore what his broken childhood did to him. However, with our children out of the nest, we have had time and attention to focus on each other and this has helped us both thrive. Thank you for your pioneer work in identifying CEN!

    Jonice - December 7, 2020 Reply

    Dear Annie, don’t give up on your husband’s willingness to learn about CEN. Many folks do come around, and setting an example for him is the best thing you can do.

Vernon - December 7, 2020 Reply

This was a real eye-opener for me as, although I highly suspected that I suffered from CEN, it hadn’t occurred to me that my wife could also be. She is emotional in terms of strong expressions of joy and anger but now I realise there is something lacking between us in terms of emotional subtleties. From what she told me about her parents there couldn’t have been any of the latter either. Thank you for the useful insights you publish.

David - December 7, 2020 Reply

ADHD and CEN, double tapped and going down. My wife would like me to be really sincerely sorry, and I just don’t care. The grass may be greener somewhere else, but now that I know how messed up I am, I will never subject someone else to me.

    Jonice - December 7, 2020 Reply

    Dear David, realizing the problem is step 1. Now you can heal, and you must.

Carl - December 7, 2020 Reply

I am in a marrige where we each have our own cen version. But we are aware and knock on each others walls all the time.

My wife kindly advises me when I am acting more like my dad. One of his features was to yell as much or more than a drill sergeant, and to proclaim himself right about everything.

But I often catch my didactic tone, back up and apologize. Then I will say something like, “I’m sorry, I didn’t say that very well. Let me do that over and rephrase it a little better,” which I do.

My wife’s version was her dad always telling her she “shouldn’t feel that way.”

My therapist told me years ago you have to be willing to eat humble pie, and that healing is a way of life. I never forgot that.

For anyone in the cen realm, from my experiences, I would say all you need is to want things to be different, and believe they can be. Feeling is everything! And yes you are worth it!

    Jonice - December 7, 2020 Reply

    Dear Carl, you are addressing motivation, confidence in yourself, and emotion. 3 key factors in CEN healing.

Simon - December 6, 2020 Reply

I recognise this very much. I suffer in silence, allowing the pressure to build and then explode in my head intending to end my marriage because it just isnt working for me. Often this would be on a long journey, I would tear my life apart, sob even at the wheel, but always thankfully I had also put it right by journeys end and my marriage is now thankfully a happy one.

I have ordered the first book but, as per the advice, in the meantime I stop myself regularly and ask myself how am I feeling?. It’s working. I thought I was the tin man, but now I am beginning to feel my own heart again, emotion IS returning. Also when answering that question I didnt realise that actually, I’m quite happy most of the time!.

Whilst I greatly sympathise with everyone suffering as a result of CEN it has brought great relief to know I am not the only one feeling huge emptiness and a complete lack of connection with any emotion, and whilst I already understood I had suffered childhood neglect from sessions with a counsellor regarding depression and grief over the death of my parents (but they wernt dead, just estranged narcissists), I hadn’t connected the feelings lately of the complete emptiness I felt to it, thinking perhaps it was some sort of physical issue. Doh!…. I wish I’d googled it earlier…. and found this book…

Please keep sharing your thoughts and experiences, its helping others (me!) understand more by reading it. Perhaps one day we can have a CEN group picnic day….. each stood alone in our own field! 🙂

    Jonice - December 7, 2020 Reply

    Dear Simon, I love your comment, “I thought I was the tin man, but now I am beginning to feel my own heart again, emotion IS returning. Also when answering that question I didnt realise that actually, I’m quite happy most of the time!” I’m so glad you’re tuning into your true self. Keep it up!

Ethel - December 6, 2020 Reply

I like Linda , had a husband who turned out to be a narcissist, very charming until we were married, did not want to work spent money on himself . Very self indulgent and reduced me to a shell of myself. I have the first book and with a councillor have realized I am a child of An immature parent. Having to work through the rest on my own, due to lack of money , but will get the next book. Thank you for bringing this into the open, most therapists have to catch up in this area. Ethel

    Jonice - December 7, 2020 Reply

    Dear Ethel, you can do so much work on this, even without a therapist. Whatever you do, don’t stop this work.

Susan - December 6, 2020 Reply

This is a very similar to my husband and I. After 18 years of marriage, we began couples therapy to repair the unconscious damage from our childhood. Unfortunately, he began an affair whilst we were trying to fix our marriage and now the entire thing is in shambles

    Jonice - December 6, 2020 Reply

    I am so sorry Susan. I encourage you to focus on growing and healing yourself during this difficult time.

Tia - December 6, 2020 Reply

I can’t wait til I can buy Running on Empty No More. Reading the first book has really opened my eyes to so much about why i’ve always felt weird and strangely awkward around my family as an adult when I always felt like we were a close knit family.

This sounds like my marriage except, I’m the one with all the unexplained anger that I blame on my husband and threaten divorce. We love each other very much… but we both have CEN and I just have no idea how to improve our emotional intimacy. I’m going to get your book asap and try. I want to break this cycle before we have kids. I recommended your first book to my mom and brother and I hope they read it. Thanks

    Jonice - December 6, 2020 Reply

    Dear Tia, I have seen many cen marriages saved by healing the cen. Don’t give up!

Linda - December 6, 2020 Reply

Jonice,
Thank you so much for these cont.emails. Even though I am not in one of your groups you have offered. Just not able to at present. But like Olive and Oscar I was in a Double CEN marriage, for 35 years, but there was much more involved from both our childhoods and personalities. It has been 10 years since I finely gained the strength and courage needed to leave though he made it pure hell and made sure my family and whole support system heard enough lies and bad stuff that I left with few if any people willing to even talk to me. I was shocked at some of them but my ex is such a charmer, smooth talker, and liar that he is hard NOT to believe. It’s been hard because my life was so wrapped up in him and family and friends, I’ve always been shy except at work, where I needed to be the outgoing one. I did fine in those cases I was not worried about being “stupid, worthless, out of line, etc….” things that my older sibs bullied me with and my ex said and showed me daily. Now I just do it to myself—which is horrible!! I’m retired and on disability, have tried to get involved with those around me and make new friends, joined ALANON and went for 4 years, working on the steps. But now my major depression and anxiety have raised their ugly heads and COVID-19 keeps me in esp now that those over 60 should really be careful. I feel shame at myself for not doing or being up to the standards I was raised to be but I am working hard daily to realize that it is one day at a time, and who do I need to impress? Just take care of myself and my dogs (oh, bless my dogs for being here) and know that one day things will be better. I am safe from my ex, my family doesn’t bother me now. Sure I miss and love them but I do not miss there juvenile talk and behavior when we are all together. They would rather invite my ex now then their own sister—they can have the liar, he always is really looking out for how he can get something out of whoever he’s around.
I really dream of freedom from the past the pain and the freedom to express the true joy I have inside me, I had times and places I freely expressed through the years and that will come again, if I just let go and let God and the learning work on me. Instead of ramming my way through places I don’t know where I’m going.
Thank you for listening,
Linda

PS I tried to find one of your therapist but they were right in saying I was too acutely depressed, still am but finally a psychiatrist came open in October, but I still need a therapist and hope can find one soon through insurance.
L

Mary - December 6, 2020 Reply

I notice deep anger too and it just pops out of nowhere. It’s scary and makes me feel like I can’t trust myself. That just makes me even angrier with myself.

Cinzia - December 6, 2020 Reply

Dr. Webb, is it possible to be operating under CEN even though I knew at some level my parents loved me? What I mean is I knew or wanted to believe they loved me but they never understood how sensitive I was. They were always telling me to toughen up and not to have such thin skin whenever I expressed hurt or sadness. I grew up burying my emotions and though I’ve worked hard to get in touch with them it’s still difficult. Also, my father had an affair with another woman so the only emotion for a while in their marriage were feelings of betrayal, hurt, anger, guilt and shame. Bottom line, I still struggle at times to pinpoint what I’m feeling and why. I’m great at compartmentalizing my feelings, wiping my own tears, taking a deep breath and soldiering on. Thank you for any insight.

    Jonice - December 6, 2020 Reply

    Dear Cinzia, most emotionally neglectful parents do love their child. They simply are unable to identify, validate, or respond to their child’s feelings. Soldiering on is the special powers of the cen adult. I hope you will take the time to heal.

Doug - December 6, 2020 Reply

Hi Jonice,
The story of Oscar and Olive resonated with me like a finely tuned violin. My wife and I both were deeply affected by CEN. I only identified with this reality after reading your first book. My wife has not yet been enlightened to CEN. We have been married for 42 years but haven’t been close for a long time. After our youngest daughter unexpectedly died 22 months ago, my wife and I stopped talking. We didn’t talk much to begin with. Our divorce will be final in a few weeks. Our daughter was the ‘glue’ that held the family together and now the family is in shambles. It’s too late for me but I’m glad you’re bringing CEN to forefront. The damage CEN causes can, and does, literally wreck lives.

    Jonice - December 6, 2020 Reply

    Dear Doug, I’m so sorry for the multiple losses you are enduring right now. I hope you will be able to use this time to focus on yourself and your own feelings and needs so you can heal from the inside.

susan louise - December 6, 2020 Reply

be sure to send this olive & oscar story to steve —– ( my brother)

    Jonice - December 6, 2020 Reply

    Dear Susan, please ask your brother to check my website and/or join my newsletter so that he can see this article and learn more about CEN.

The Thinking Other - December 6, 2020 Reply

I was the other woman in a marriage like this.

I knew enough to see that something like this was going on, but it was hard to put my finger on just WHAT. At first I thought the wife really didn’t love the husband and was just using him. Finally he reported to me something she’d said that clued me in to the fact that she just couldn’t access any emotions at ALL. As usual, Something Had Happened In Childhood.

It didn’t matter because this guy dumped me to go into marriage counseling with her anyhow. From what he said, she had a bad attitude going in. I thought it would take a VERY skilled marriage counselor to make any progress with these two, and I turned out to be right.

Two years later, I heard from this guy again. No progress had been made. This time I just sidestepped the whole thing and stayed out of it even though my heart was breaking. He said the entire family threatened to disown him for trying to leave, and he “had made my bed and now I have to lie in it.”

Okay. So I let him.

Hopefully one day they will find a marriage counselor who’s read your books!!

    Jonice - December 6, 2020 Reply

    Dear TTO, I encourage you to focus on yourself rather than this man who was going outside his marriage. You deserve someone who isn’t married and I hope you will demand nothing less for yourself in the future.

Debbie - December 6, 2020 Reply

I don’t know what I would do without this knowledge I honestly thought I was going mad now I know I just have to try to heal

    Jonice - December 6, 2020 Reply

    I’m so glad to be helpful, Debbie.

Patrice - December 6, 2020 Reply

I have never had a relationship at all. All relationships lasted about 9 months. And one of the last men I dated, told me that I had no “sense of self”. I don’t know how to love or feel. My mother did not bond with me, I have come to realize . I don’t know if there is any hope for that severity of emotional neglect. ( I am 66 and have just recently come to that realization that it was the complete lack of bonding and connection that caused me and my siblings unsuccessful at relationships. I have been told that 2 things happen when bonding does not occur. You never emotionally develop and establishing mature relationships is pretty unlikely.

John - December 6, 2020 Reply

Thank you for what you do, could have used this 30 years ago, my life has always been a complete mess. I have bought your first book and would use your online classes but I work 60 hours a week and get home late.

Richard - December 6, 2020 Reply

There is a fair amount of Oscar in me. An anger that I have no idea where it comes from (aside from obvious irritations), and having no idea what intimacy looks like. And TV and Movie relationships are not the best way to learn about intimacy.

    Jonice - December 6, 2020 Reply

    Dear Richard, the best way to learn about intimacy is to increase your intimacy with yourself. By that, I mean get to know yourself and your own feelings and accept and respond to your own feelings. It’s the process of healing your CEN.

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