How Childhood Emotional Neglect Affects Your Relationships

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Growing up with your feelings ignored, Childhood Emotional Neglect or (CEN), takes its toll on you. It’s true. In fact, it takes such a lasting toll that I can see its lingering effects decades later in my adult patients.

The Lingering Effects Of CEN

  • A lack of awareness of your own feelings, wishes, and needs.
  • A feeling that you are less important than everyone else.
  • A massive struggle to talk about and share your own feelings.
  • Difficulty asking for help and accepting help from others.
  • A lack of understanding of how feelings work in yourself and others.

Children who grow up with their feelings ignored take a very powerful step to get by in their childhood home. They wall off the deepest, most biological part of who they are: their emotions. That way they can stop burdening others with their feelings. What a brilliant and powerful tool for your child’s brain to make for you.

But as an adult, your life is affected greatly.

The lingering effects above are important parts of the toll of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). When your feelings are walled off, you are missing some life ingredients that will have a profound effect on your quality of life.

I know this because I see it in my office every single day.

Whether you realize it or not, this particular group of struggles affects you in many areas of your life. You are living without access to some vital life ingredient that everyone else enjoys. For example, it can make it hard to ask for a promotion or a raise at work, or to trust yourself to try new things or take risks.

But I have also seen that there is one area of life that’s affected far more than any other. It’s your relationships. As you read the 5 Important Ways below, be sure to keep in mind that none of these 5 are permanent. They are only effects from your childhood. You can fix every single one!

5 Important Ways Childhood Emotional Neglect Challenges Your Relationships

  1. It makes them one-sided. Generally, CEN people are not able to be fully present in their relationships. The first two Lingering Effects of CEN all contribute to this result. When you’re not aware of your own feelings, wishes and needs enough, how can you share them with your husband, wife, partner or friend? How can you take up your fair share of space in your relationships when you view other people and their needs as more important than your own? Many of your relationships become too much about the other person, and not enough about you.
  2. Your relationships seem fewer and feel less rewarding than other people seem to have. This is partly because they’re one-sided, just as we discussed above. Since you’re not fully emotionally present in your relationships, they are naturally limited in depth and resilience. They may break apart more easily, and may not reach their full potential. You offer up so very much in your relationships, but you’re holding back the most valuable gift you can give someone: your emotional vulnerability.
  3. It makes social time more tiring than it should be. Spending time with people you care about should be rewarding, energizing and enriching. But you often find it draining instead. That’s because your relationships are one-sided (you give too much and don’t take enough for yourself), and also because you spend so much energy trying to be the person you think others want or expect you to be — instead of just being yourself. That takes a lot of energy.
  4. You feel alone, even with people who love you. All of us humans share a common bond, and that bond is largely based on our feelings. When your emotions are too blocked off, you may not have enough access to your own deep font of warm emotional energy; the source of relationship “glue” that should be connecting you. Since you are unaware of the problem, you’re left feeling, on some level, emotionally isolated at key times. Even though you are actually not!
  5. It holds your relationships back from becoming as rich and deep as they should be. Just as emotion is the glue that binds you to others, it’s also the fire that lights your passion, and the stick that should be poking you saying, “Speak up!” Without full access to this vital resource, your relationships are missing an important vital ingredient: You.

3 Answers Taken From Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children

  1. Your Emotional Awareness: This involves being aware of what you are feeling and what the other person is feeling. It’s being able to observe your own behaviors and responses to things and understand the emotions involved.
  2. Emotion Skills: Learning to identify what you feel, accept your feelings, tolerate your feelings, manage them, and put them into words. You can learn all of them!
  3. Communication Skills: How do you tell someone they hurt your feelings? Or that you are angry at them? How do you ask someone for what you need or want? Once you get better at emotional awareness and emotion skills, you’ll have the foundation to learn how to communicate far more effectively.

You can learn much more about CEN in relationships sign up to watch my free CEN Breakthrough Video Series!

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see my first book Running on Empty No More. 

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) can be subtle and unmemorable, so it can be hard to know if you have it. Take The CEN Test. It’s free!


Click Here to Leave a Comment Below
Bob - January 15, 2023 Reply

Reading your book I see myself in so many of the characters you introduce. Fair to say I am sad that at 65yo I am only just finding the resource you have given. However, I intend to use the information you lay out to help myself find and enjoy the remaining years of my life.
Kind regards
Bob, (New Zealand)

Charlotte - June 1, 2021 Reply

I am trying to get over someone. I married once to him then divorced after only a year. He was very strong manipulater and it All steamed from his neglect from childhood. Personality Disorder. How can I help this man. I know he Loved me or thought he did but with these personality disorders I don’t know if we could Ever make it. Should I just Run. He has hurt me over and over again. We both go to a Strong Christian Church. However it’s more me than him in that but he does attend. How can you help this Narcissism personality problem. Everything I have read so far its hard to beat. I have No Trust with him anymore of the opposite sex

    Jonice - June 7, 2021 Reply

    Dear Charlotte, I cannot advise you with such a small amount of info. But one thing I do know is that you cannot help someone who is not wanting and seeking the help. Please protect yourself and be aware there are limits to what you can do.

Aaron - May 25, 2020 Reply

As I read this at age 49, the only thing that I can think is, “I’m f***ed.” This is me 110%. I feel so alone in this world. I’ve been in therapy for years, but will I ever heal from this? It seems like not.

    Jonice - May 27, 2020 Reply

    Dear Aaron, if you feel CEN is an important key to your healing you may want to consult a CEN-trained therapist from my Find a CEN Therapist list on this site. Targeting the CEN directly is very powerful.

Be - December 8, 2019 Reply

Well this is unbelievable. I knew something was up and somehow i found cen. Literally every parental description fit my past or upbringing. However my question is, what if I just don’t see the benefit in healing those issues. All the traits described make you stronger and you’ll be able to do work on your own for example as you’ll always work harder, because of being hard on yourself
So in the end I wanna go more in depth about cen and the effects of it yet don’t wanna address oder solve them

    Jonice - December 9, 2019 Reply

    Dear Be, maybe you’re not ready for healing yet. It’s OK, as long as you’re not unhappy.

Alegria - November 23, 2019 Reply

I’ve never read such a description revealing the roots of my relationship failures. I always feel that I put so much into it and focus on the other person and they think it’s great but I’m not getting what I need out of it at all. I tend to just hope they will care about me. Inevitably it ends all too soon. I can’t fall in love let alone have a long term, fulfilling bond with someone.

    Jonice - November 24, 2019 Reply

    Dear Alegria, this is a sign that your next step is to focus on yourself and what you want and need. I hope you will take the steps to heal your CEN so that you’ll be able to express your emotions and advocate for yourself in your relationships. It’s important!

Nicky - January 2, 2019 Reply

Dr. Webb, do you have any advice for the spouses of someone who suffers from CEN? My husband has identified this in himself. I understand how his upbringing has affected him, but sometimes struggle when he gets in a “rut”. We have three children and would both like to make sure they don’t suffer themselves. Thank you.

Vinita Gurjar - October 22, 2018 Reply

Your articled gave words to my feelings. I was always found myself incapable to feeling love all these years and wondered what was wrong with me! I chose Psychiatry for my medical specialization and started learning about emotions as prt of my profession which helped personally. I tried finding aswers to my emotional numbness in my past and could remember few incidents which I would like to share-
1. when I was 7y old and was feeling sad, was crying. My father told me that only weak people cry and I have to be brave. I seldom cried after that and I made sure that nobody knows my sadness as I might appear weak.
2. I was 9y old and one fine day my father was upset over something in family and he threw away all my toys, the oldest ones which were with me since I remeber, in the trash. I still remember the event vividly. I felt devastated that day and learned that things I love and the way I feel has no value.
3. I was in a boarding school, 12y old came home as I had loose motions while in hostel. In home afterwards I was all fine, no loose stools. I remember my father jokingly telling his friends that- Oh this was just a trick of hers and she actually was missing her mother so she tols this lie. After that day I never told my parents if I was sick and went to see doctors aone or with friends whenever needed to the government run hospital so that I won’t need amy money.
My mother was emotionally extremely aloof.
It took me a long time, 3y in Psychiatry residency to actually realize what the problem was.
Now reading you has made things more clear. I am very glad to have come across your blogs!

Anna - September 26, 2018 Reply

I struggle with one-sided relationships and giving too much. Everything becomes about accommodating my friends and making them feel good. For example, I’ve bought birthday gifts for people who I realize later did not even send me a card. I notice this pattern in quite a few of my long-term friendships. I like making people happy. It makes me feel good. But I also end up feeling hurt or puzzled that others are not doing the same for me.

Rose - September 22, 2018 Reply

I find that I am very aware of others feelings and am very articulate.

I have trouble expressing and receiving love in a relationship, and trouble trusting whether or not I care for my significant other or if I am manipulating them and myself.

It causes huge amounts of silent conflict and I often operate as if I am standing just back from myself finding it hard to connect on every intimate level. I often find with my friends I change in order to try and be what I think they would like me to be, and do feel very tired after seeing them.

Often I cant tell if it is because I am feeling vulnerable or because I truly do prefer to be on my own.

I have ordered ‘Running on Empty’ and I hope to explore more.

Sue F - May 17, 2018 Reply

Yes, I also felt unheard and unseen. I also felt that my opinions were not important – they definitely were not validated.

At the end of the day the healing is for me. I understand now all the ‘why’s’, have grieved for those lost relationships and have forgiven the people who really did not have a lot of emotional intelligence themselves.

    Jonice - May 18, 2018 Reply

    That is some excellent work Sue. Thanks for sharing!

Heather - May 12, 2018 Reply

Yes, I agree as I was one of those children. I also found researching self awareness, self concept and the ego answered alot of questions . Fascinating really…..

    Jonice - May 13, 2018 Reply

    I’m glad you have worked to address what went wrong in your childhood Heather. Best wishes!

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