Four Steps to Heal an Emotionally Neglectful Relationship

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I have often talked about the effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN on a marriage. It’s somewhat like an invisible barrier that blocks spouse from spouse, holding the two emotionally apart, creating and feeding distance and a deep sense of being alone.

But since Childhood Emotional Neglect can be so difficult to pinpoint in your own, or your partner’s, history, it’s not easy to know if it’s playing a part in your marriage.

3 Signs of Emotional Neglect in Your Marriage

  • Fighting

Why is the lack of fighting a potential sign of Emotional Neglect? Strangely enough, often it’s the couples who fight the least who are in the most trouble. This is because fighting requires a willingness to challenge each other, an ability to tolerate anger (your own and your partner’s), and some element of emotional connection.

Emotional connection, the opposite of Emotional Neglect, is not made up solely of positive feelings like warmth, affection, and love. It also requires an ability to tolerate conflict with each other, and a mutual trust that you, as a couple, can get angry and upset, share difficult words, and come through to the other side with your relationship intact.

A willingness to fight is a willingness to share painful emotions. And that’s a sign of emotional connection.

  • Loneliness

There is no feeling of loneliness worse than that experienced inside of a relationship. It feels terrible to feel alone when you’re with someone. And loneliness is one of the greatest warning signs of an emotionally neglectful couple.

You can have a relationship that seems great, with a partner who has a good sense of humor, common interests, a good job, and kind nature, but still feel alone.

This happens when your relationship with your partner is good on the surface but lacks emotional substance. Emotional connection is the foundation of a relationship. When it’s weak, the relationship has an emptiness to it. It can take two people years to see past their good surface connection and realize what is missing underneath.

  • Support

Do you find yourself using friends or family to “fill in” for your spouse when you need support? If so, is it because your spouse isn’t there? Because she often says the wrong thing? Because you’re not sure he’ll care?

In a close, connected, non-neglectful marriage, your spouse will be the first person you want to tell when things go wrong or when something great happens.

One key question to ask yourself is: Does she want to be the first person? If you don’t think so, this is a sign of other problems in your marriage. I encourage you to find a skilled couple’s therapist and convince your partner to go with you.

If you think your mate does want to be your go-to person, then the problem may be simply that he doesn’t know how to be that person for you. This is a matter of skills, and the good news is that these skills can be learned.

Four Steps to Heal an Emotionally Neglectful Relationship

  • Do your best to identify, as specifically as possible, the type of Emotional Neglect in your relationship. If needed, talk to a friend or therapist for help sorting it out. Put the problem into words for yourself so that you’ll be able to explain it to your partner when you’re ready.
  • Think about your own contribution to the problem. How emotionally aware and skilled are you? Might you be partially responsible? What are you willing to do to fix this?
  • Find a way to tell your partner that there is a problem. Do this with full awareness of the significance of your message. This means taking great care with the way you express it. Use words like:

“I’m happy in our relationship in some very important ways, but yet it feels like something is missing.”

“I read an article about relationships that struck a chord with me. Will you read it for me, and let me know if you have a reaction to it too?”

“Did you know that not fighting in a relationship is not necessarily a good thing?”

“I love you so much, and I want us to be even closer. Will you work on this with me?”

To learn how to build your emotion skills see the book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. To learn how to share them in your marriage to build emotional intimacy see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.

A version of this article was originally published on Psychcentral. It has been republished here with the permission of the author and psych central.


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Rebecca - April 13, 2020 Reply

I’ve read your books and have come to understand that CEN is something both my husband and I experience. My husband is very high functioning but also a little bit on the spectrum which complicates the emotional intelligence aspect. He agrees that he has both CEN and is on the spectrum and does not understand my need to do anything about healing our emotional connection. Do you have any experience and/or advice for this particular CEN partnership?

    Jonice - April 14, 2020 Reply

    Dear Rebecca, it does take two to fix a marriage. I suggest you insist that your husband see a CEN-trained therapist (see the list under the HELP tab on this website). If your husband will not go, then I suggest you go on your own. You will likely need some help with this.

Kim - April 6, 2020 Reply

Thank you for the work you do! I have recently learned that I do have CEN from my teen years. 20+ years later my marriage is also in extreme neglect. I have learned to speak up for my needs, however my husband dismisses them still and thinks I’m selfish.
Is it possible to move forward in a marriage that comtinues to promote all the things I’m trying to get away from? How can there be any hope?
I am still unheard 30 years later…

    Jonice - April 7, 2020 Reply

    Dear Kim, I am so sorry that your husband’s not able to tolerate you having needs and asking for things. It sounds like maybe you have a CEN therapist? If not, I suggest you get one. Once a therapist gets to know you they will be far better able to advise you about your marriage. It is very important that you keep moving forward and speaking up regardless of your husband’s reactions.

Louise - March 23, 2020 Reply

Hi Jonice, Thank you for this. I identify with the woman’s comment above. Have been experiencing some form of emotional and verbal abuse in marriage for about 20 years, though I never recognized it until about 4 years ago, as it had intensified. I have tried to figure out the ways that I treat myself or what I experienced as a child that made me susceptible. I did not have an intense CEN experience that I can recognize, although there was not a lot of conversation and language around emotion. I came into marriage not knowing how to deal with anger and conflict because I didn’t see a lot of it, and was also predisposed to be avoidant. I would ignore rather than address, and with the defiance/emotional battery from spouse, I tried to escape all the more. I am trying to face all of this now, and we are in counseling, but it is difficult. He has narcissistic tendencies, is also on medication that may be affecting his ability to reason and focus, and presents illogical, demanding behaviors. Trying to love myself in the midst of hanging on to a relationship that feels very unloving, and is a rollercoaster. The children and the hope of something better keeps me.

    Jonice - March 29, 2020 Reply

    Dear Louise, I am very sorry for your experience of abuse and i’m glad you are getting help with it! When you say you haven’t had any “intense CEN experience” I want to tell you that most people have not. CEN is not intense; in fact, it feels like nothing.

ashlynn - March 22, 2020 Reply

I am working on growing and healing from my own past of codependent emotional responses (after caregiving for parents as a child) and codependent communication patterns that persist, event after the root problem of feeling too responsible for others has been cut. My over-accommodating patterns are one way our marriage has been challenged. At the same time, my partner has been verbally aggressive (pervasively insulting, demeaning, etc. – not name-calling nor withholding) towards me for a number of years. I am looking to begin individual counseling again. But conceptually, can you speak to this? Is it CEN or verbal abuse or both that is blocking our growth and perpetuating pain and distance? And what to do about it? Note: we have tried couples counseling in the past, and it is very painful to me bc the aggressive aspects of our relationship remain under the table. I prefer individual counseling until one or both of us is ready for couples counseling again. Meanwhile, thoughts re CEN and verbal abuse and how to heal?

    Jonice - March 22, 2020 Reply

    Dear Ashlynn, CEN can make you believe you deserve to be treated as less-than. Fortunately, it sounds like you are working your way towards the point where you can demand to be treated with dignity and care. Please do see an individual counselor. You do not deserve to be abused! It is undoubtedly harming you in ways far beyond what you can imagine right now.

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