How To Know If Your Marriage is Affected By Childhood Emotional Neglect

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.

The Main Markers of CEN in a Relationship

Conflict Avoidance

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.

Look For:

  • You try not to bring up hurtful topics or issues that you’re angry about.
  • You are so uncomfortable with clashes or arguments that you sweep problems under the rug instead of talking about them.
  • Bringing up something negative feels like unnecessarily opening Pandora’s Box.
  • You or your spouse uses the silent treatment when unhappy or angry.

Feeling Lonely or Empty in the Relationship

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.

Look For:

  • Even when you’re with your spouse, you sometimes feel a deep sense that you are all alone.
  • You lack the feeling that you and your spouse are, or that you work together as a team.

Conversation Is Mostly about Surface Topics

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.

Look For:

  • Talking about a topic that involves emotion is a huge struggle for one or both of you. Emotional intimacy requires vulnerability on both sides. When you have no choice but to talk about something emotional, it’s a challenge of epic proportions. Trying to put feelings into words seems impossible. You typically, as a couple, end up blowing up and/or abandoning the topic altogether.
  • It’s difficult to find things to talk about. You go out to dinner for your anniversary, and you expect it to feel warm and romantic. But instead, the table between you feels like a barrier that divides you. In general, the conversation can feel stilted or awkward, especially when it “should” be the opposite.
  • One or both of you have a limited vocabulary of emotion words.

Emotional Intimacy Is Lacking

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?

Look For:

  • You are uncomfortable showing emotion in each other’s presence. When you’re feeling sad, angry, anxious or upset, or hurt, lost, vulnerable or overwhelmed, you try to hide it from your partner. Maybe you don’t want to burden her, or perhaps you don’t want to appear weak. Maybe you prefer to keep things positive.
  • You are often surprised by how poorly your partner seems to understand or know you. You’ve been together long enough that you should be able to predict each other’s actions and decisions. Yet your partner frequently misinterprets what you mean, or incorrectly predicts what you will do.
  • One or both of you frequently misreads or misrepresents what he is feeling; for example, he insists, “I’m not angry,” when he is clearly, visibly angry.
  • One partner claims to be perfectly happy, even when the other expresses deep dissatisfaction in the relationship. (When a couple is emotionally connected, one cannot be happy with the relationship unless the other is also happy.)
  • It feels like something important is missing, even though you like and love your partner. Holding back your feelings in any of the ways described above leads to an absence of the very stuff that makes a relationship rich and meaningful. It’s hard to put it into words, but something key is missing, and some part of you knows it.
  • You are living very separate lives, even though you like and love each other. You are two planets revolving around each other, and only sometimes do your orbits meet. Lack of teamwork and lack of connection leaves you each pursuing paths that work for you, regardless of whether those paths bring you together or not.

Lack of Passion

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.

Look For:

  • Very little fighting takes place in the relationship
  • Lack of physical affection on a casual or daily basis
  • Inadequate sex and/or desire for sex
  • Lack of need or desire to see each other

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.

Jonice

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George - May 11, 2019 Reply

Hi Jonice,

I can’t even begin to describe how my journey has led me to you, and I am probably going to be reading your book as soon as possible. My wife and I have been struggling for years, and after diving in to literature and researching every possible thing I could, I have come to the conclusion that she is a 38 year old with the emotional maturity of a toddler… when I describe all of her actions as narcissistic, you will probably have a good idea what I am talking about. In fact, I have been recently trying to uncover a hidden idea in my mind that personality disorders and arrested development go hand in hand in regards to anxiety and our alert systems (See Dr. Neufeld). I have been covertly abused for years (emotionally and psychologically) and it has taken a tole on me that I didn’t know was possible. She is repressing her emotions with alcohol, and has been since her mid teens. This is one of the most shocking things I have ever experienced and I could really use your advice… we have two little girls and it’s not something I can just walk away from given the cercumstances.

Thank you.

    Jonice - May 11, 2019 Reply

    Dear George, please insist that your wife go to see a marriage counselor with you. It is vital for the health and happiness of you and your children. If she refuses, then I suggest you go alone. You will need support and guidance through this situation.

      George - May 13, 2019 Reply

      Hi Jonice,

      We have tried multiple sessions already…. she refuses to discuss anything. She has been telling me for months that “That is something to discuss in therapy” and now that therapy is happening, she is saying in therapy “I’ve been telling you for a while that I do not have the mental energy to discuss these issues.” — I feel like I am being stringed along, and she will manipulate her way out of anything/everything if she can. She goes on to say “See, I am doing something that you want” in regards to therapy… because she keeps telling me/others that she keeps trying but nothing seems to work…. which is her way of saying “I keep trying to gaslight and manipulate him, but he is now aware of what I am doing” but she refuses to do something for me, or something I believe would help. So this is her way of claiming she is doing something for me but not actually doing anything because she refuses to answer one serious question in therapy. Some things from your book have strange parallels…. your case of Tim and Trish, where Tim was stonewalling in therapy for many sessions. It feels like that a lot. But the best description you gave was that of the Sociopath Parent. My wife mirrors that description perfectly…. our entire relationship is on the Power and Control wheel, not the Equality wheel. The problem is that the Differential Diagnosis between ASPD and alcoholism are very similar in psychiatry but my wife REFUSES to believe she has a problem and will lie and manipulate everyone in to believing that. She is very high functioning. Do you recommend anyone at all I could contact for session with her one-on-one…. perhaps yourself, or anyone else that knows how to deal with this type of situation? It would most likely have to be video sessions due to our remote location. Any help/advice would be very helpful. Thank you.

        Jonice - May 14, 2019 Reply

        Dear George, I have a list of CEN therapists on my site but they would not generally be a good fit for your wife. Based on what you are saying, I suggest you look for a therapist who specializes in treating personality disorders.

Hayley - March 11, 2019 Reply

Do all people with CEN ALSO have trouble with emotional intimacy, and vice versa, do all people with emotional intimacy problems ALSO have CEN?

    Jonice - March 11, 2019 Reply

    Hi Hayley, the word “all” is extreme and so I would not use it here. I would say “many” or even “most.”

Kate - February 22, 2019 Reply

I have only discovered that I experienced CEN since the breakdown of my marriage. My husband has Aspergers so as a combination we were against the odds anyway because communication was minimal throughout our marriage. But I didn’t realise any of this while we were still together and it breaks my heart over and over again to think that I could have been a better wife if I’d been able to adapt to the effects of my childhood and his AS. I’m stuck now in a ‘what if’ situation with no desire to return to a relationship that left me feeling ignored, depressed and alone but a regret that I left a man I love without really being able to explain exactly why. I know I need more in my life, I suspect I am capable of more but at the moment I swing from absolute terror and despair to fleeting moments of clarity and confidence. I know I’m healing, I’m having therapy and have done a lot of digging in to my childhood. I’ve a long way to go and it hurts so much.

Denia cobian - January 21, 2019 Reply

I can’t read this without being in floods of tears. I don’t even know the exact reason I’m so affected although I know it affects very aspect of my life. Grown with 4 children, all I want to do is have children and keep giving them my energy love and care to somehow avoid this extreme hurt inside me. I suffered tremendous physical and emotional abuse by a mentally unstable father , growing up till age 18 when I left home. It was horrendous. My mother can’t accept it, she immediately shuts down in self pity and thinks I’m being cruel and critical. She frowns upon my having so many children. Then my brother has made headlines due to his criminal behaviour which I believe is a result of growing up in a terrifying abusive environment . Thanks so much dr Jonice because no one has really written how to get over this or there doesn’t seem to be much on this topic. I’m going to buy the book. I can’t afford therapy right now.

    Jonice - January 22, 2019 Reply

    Dear Denia, I’m very sorry you’ve had to live with all of this. I assure you there is lots of info about healing in both books. I hope you find them helpful.

Lorraine - January 15, 2019 Reply

Thanks for a great article, Jonice! It clearly highlights the intergenerational nature of CEN because how can you show/be something different if your parents never demonstrated that to you growing up? Change takes time and conscious effort. Education and awareness are the key to change.

    Jonice - January 17, 2019 Reply

    Yes, Lorraine, exactly. Thanks for your comment!

Sue F - January 14, 2019 Reply

Thanks Dr Jonice. I need to be aware of not being “cold” or dismissive when my husband is talking to me or sharing things with me. I know where this comes from and I certainly don’t want to repeat what I learned or saw in childhood. There is nothing worse than not having your feelings validated.

    Jonice - January 17, 2019 Reply

    Very true Sue. It’s great that you’re aware and working on it!

June Stone - January 14, 2019 Reply

I have been an advocate of your books and weekly blogs for a good many years now. As an integrated Health and Wellness Coach in South Africa, I see couples and individuals on a regular basis that display elements of CEN problems in their relationships. I personally have benefited from your books in my own healing from CEN through both parents. I too have a long-term relationship with another CEN person and it can be very challenging. I love all the advice/information that I get through your blogs and responses to the many that connect with you to share their struggles with CEN related challenges.
For me, the biggest breakthrough was the simplicity of your books and the wisdom within. Just being consciously aware of the damage done through CEN, gives me the fortitude to nurture myself and reinvent myself to a version that I value and respect.
It’s hard work having a relationship with a CEN type partner, but our relationship has evolved into partnership that is values based and functional (mostly due to us both being in our 60’s and have shared financial commitments) It works most of the time and I’m happy to say that I have learned to argue and state my case and ask for what I need, which is very empowering.
Thank you Jonice, I spread the word about CEN that is both invisible but a dramatic condition for Adults to try and comprehend.
I see the changes immediately with the clients that I work with, once they have your book/books and I wish your books were available in our local bookstores rather than online ordering from Amazon/Takealot.

    Jonice - January 14, 2019 Reply

    Dear June, thank you so much for your support of my work. I love that you are spreading the word about CEN in South Africa. I hope you will take good care of yourself as you help others. Sending you all my best wishes!

Karen - January 14, 2019 Reply

You describe my parents’ marriage and both my own perfectly. No wonder CEN has plagued my life. It’s really hard to shake off that emotional and mental programming from early childhood. I find it’s two steps forward and one step back. There’s times of exhilarating clarity and light and times when it’s so difficult. I appreciate your work that has helped so much in understanding and finding better ways. I’m not there yet but there’s hope.

    Jonice - January 14, 2019 Reply

    Dear KAREN, that is indeed how real change happens. It sounds like you’re doing it. That is wonderful.

Anne - January 13, 2019 Reply

My marriage failed because of our not knowing how to disagree or fight. After 13 years, we had a dead relationship. No closeness or understanding. It is very sad for me to realize that we had no emotional skills and the marriage counseling we had was not helpful at all. Thank you for Your work is very important, Jonice.

    Jonice - January 13, 2019 Reply

    Dear Anne, many couples do not learn the emotion skills in childhood, and that makes them unable to work through conflicts with their spouse. I’m so sorry you had to end your marriage because of it. But now you know what’s wrong and how to fix it, so that’s the silver lining for you, I hope. Best wishes to you!

anon - January 13, 2019 Reply

You’ve described my marriage exactly. But if your spouse is so shut down that they even refuse to see a reason to heal themselves, think everything is fine, stuff pain down with unhealthy coping mechanisms, etc. is it possible to do the healing in a marriage from a spouse’s CEN by yourself? My spouse refuses even to disusss that they have a problem. I know this is due to the CEN itself, so I know it’s just another arm/part of the problem, but I’ve gone so far as to beg and they won’t budge. To them, there’s no problem (and yet they’re suicidal and self-medicating). So, I have to do whatever I can to move the needle alone. Is it possible or should I give up and focus on myself and let my partner figure it out by themselves? Honestly, I’m exhausted from trying to pry their eyes open to what is going on.

    Jonice - January 13, 2019 Reply

    Dear Anon, that sounds like a really hard situation. In Running On Empty No More, there is a whole section about what to do if your spouse won’t budge. There are 3 possible paths to take. I suggest you read them and then decide which works best for you. Sending you all my best wishes.

Anne - January 13, 2019 Reply

Just discovered your book and CEN. Despite having relationship counselling last year this was not mentioned although it’s very clear my husband and I both have this. His is more severe than mine. We have two young children, been married 7 years and are going to separate because I can’t continue with an emotionally void relationship – no intimacy, passion. Just angry outbursts, always blaming me and I’ve become emotionally void because of this. I tell myself I am extremely happy with him out of the equation and I’m excited about my future with my girls. I can’t even feel sad. Is there any help. I’m seeking out all these resources and sending them too him but he doesn’t want to help himself.

    Jonice - January 13, 2019 Reply

    Dear Anne, I’m sorry you’re going through this. I do know that you cannot help someone who’s not willing to help themselves. I hope your path forward makes things easier for you and your daughters.

    A - January 13, 2019 Reply

    Anne
    I went through a
    Very similar experience . I initiated a divorce in July 2017 after 8.5 years of of marriage. I have been so happy on my own with my girls I never looked back. I met someone and I see the emotional neglect internal struggles resurfacing . It doesn’t go away and it’s soemting I’m working through now so I can have a healthy relationship in the future. If you’d like to connect offline I’d be happy to.

Emma - January 13, 2019 Reply

I think we both have CEN. I’ve recently discovered that my mother has NPD, but his family are very different – I was attracted to their ‘normality’, kindness & togetherness. I only know that he was ‘quiet’ (a few clear examples where he did not engage) from quite a young age, no explanations, they seem proud of it! I am married to a stone wall & feel as isolated as I felt as a child & yet I chose to bond with this old familiar treatment!! Is there any hope at all?

    Jonice - January 13, 2019 Reply

    Dear Emma, that is a difficult situation. You will have to push and press your husband to open his mind to the possibilities for growth and change. Maybe you could get him to read one of my articles or books? Do not give up on him.

    Kate - February 22, 2019 Reply

    Hi Emma. I can relate to some of your comment. My parents are proud of the fact that my brother and I were such well behaved children. We were quiet, repressed, submissive and didn’t put a toe out of line and they compared us favourably to other kids our age.

    Interestingly I was also attracted to the ‘normality’ of my ex-husband’s family but all was not as it seemed.

Marnie - January 13, 2019 Reply

My soon to be ex-husband thinks I have Borderline Personality Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, depression and that I’m ‘sick’. I’m definitely a product of CEN – how do you explain the difference when the behaviours are often one and the same?

    Jonice - January 13, 2019 Reply

    Dear Marnie, please do not let your ex-husband diagnose you. If it still matters what he thinks because there are children involved, for example, I suggest you consult a professional for answers so that you and he will be dealing with a true professional assessment of what is wrong.

Anna - January 13, 2019 Reply

Dangerous to be too open, what I reveal about myself might be used as a weapon against me in the next argument

    Jonice - January 13, 2019 Reply

    Dear Anna, this is not how a marriage is supposed to work. I hope you will demand more and better from yourself and your partner.

Broken - January 13, 2019 Reply

This was our marriage, because of me. He left me for a younger woman who showed her feelings and vulnerable side. I don’t blame him.
I apologised to him for being who I am and now at 64, believe that my future is one of being on my own. I now recognise all the aspects of CEN in myself, but too late to save the relationship with the man I loved for 40 years. So sad.

    Jonice - January 13, 2019 Reply

    Dear Broken, I have seen many good people your age and older heal their CEN. Now that you know what’s wrong, your future can be bright.

      Coco - January 13, 2019 Reply

      I’m 70. My husband was a product of CEN. His late sister confirmed my conclusions but my husband is adamant his parents were nearly perfect. I, too, was emotionally neglected. You, Lenora Thompson and Darius Cikanavicius are helping me so much!

      I see so much about changing/correcting things but little about ways to cope. My biggest problem, now, is husband’s refusal to shower often enough. He has no sex drive. It took me 10 yrs to get him to understand it is a physical THING. Last time we had sex was 1998. He’s fine with that. I can’t afford to live on my own. I’m very healthy so running-away-by-dying isn’t on the near horizon. My challenge is to bloom where I’m planted and to keep my eyes, my heart and my snorkel above the stench. I’d appreciate any references to sources with advice and encouragement. Leaving him isn’t an option. THANKS.

        Jonice - January 13, 2019 Reply

        Dear Coco, it sounds like your husband has more going on than CEN. He may be severely depressed, it sounds like to me. If he is unreachable and you have tried everything, then leaving is the only option. But if you absolutely cannot do that, as you say, it seems that the only thing you can probably do is focus on yourself and building up your own life. I’m sorry you are in this situation.

          Christine - January 14, 2019 Reply

          If I may, thanks to my own research into my own difficulties, those signs that Coco mentions about her husband – lack of interest in showering and sex, inability to emotionally understand her and connect – are also signs of someone with Aspergers Syndrome. Particularly his having so little interest in sex he was ignorant about what it even is, because Aspies tend to put off, avoid, and ignore things that are not interesting to them, or are overstimulating, because their brain will shut down. And because of this back when he was a kid he would have been subjected to CEN and often outright abuse, since back then autism wasn’t generally known about.

          Jonice - January 14, 2019 Reply

          That could be possible but those few symptoms are far from enough to make such a diagnosis as aspergers. Thanks for sharing your ideas!

Marisa - January 13, 2019 Reply

Great chapter. If there are recommendations in the book I will need to buy it.

    Jonice - January 13, 2019 Reply

    I’m glad you found it helpful Marisa.

Lelah Kaufman - January 13, 2019 Reply

Thank you! I never realized what my issues were, just that I had some. You have defined and clarified them for me. I want to start a board on Pinterest with your posts if that would be okay? This would allow a few people I know to be able to easily access. I have ave your book and have purchased one for a relative as well. Blessings, Lelah

    Jonice - January 13, 2019 Reply

    Dear Lelah, I would be happy for you to share my posts on Pinterest. I’m so glad to be of help to you!

Dorothy - January 13, 2019 Reply

I’ve been with my husband 14 years now. I still feel like he does not know me

    Jonice - January 13, 2019 Reply

    Dear Dorothy, I hope you, and your husband too if he’s willing, will learn everything you can about CEN. Removing the blame from the equation is key. Then follow the intimacy-building exercises from Running On Empty No More. If you really want this to change, you will have to make it happen. And you can!

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