How To Prevent Emotional Neglect In Marriage

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How do you prevent Emotional Neglect in your marriage? Fortunately, it’s quite easy.

But unfortunately, it’s also easy for Emotional Neglect to take over your marriage, leaving one or both partners feeling empty and alone. All it takes is for one or both of you to grow up with it in your family.

When Emotional Neglect happens in a marriage, it doesn’t look the same as other relationship problems, like conflict or fighting. Instead, it’s more likely to look like nothing.

Failing to notice when your partner is upset.

Failing to ask, “What’s wrong?”

Refusing to answer when your partner asks, “What’s wrong?”

Ignoring the problems between you in hopes they will go away on their own.

Avoiding conflict.

Keeping your festering anger to yourself.

Failing to notice or respond to your partner’s emotional needs.

Emotional Neglect in a marriage is like a quiet monster hiding under the rug. It’s not a “problem” so much as an empty space; an absence of some essential ingredient that no one knows about, but everybody misses.

If you or your partner grew up in a family that was blind to the feelings of its members, there’s a good chance that one or both of you didn’t have the chance to learn what true emotional intimacy is.

Emotional intimacy requires emotional work; like paying attention to your own feelings and the feelings of the other person, being willing to fight things out even when it hurts, and being vulnerable to the other person: all things that are NOT done in an emotionally neglectful family. All things that are NOT learned by the child growing up in it.

As a specialist in marriage therapy, I have worked with hundreds of couples, many of them experiencing Emotional Neglect in their relationships.

3 Ways Emotional Neglect Plays Out in Marriages Over Time

  • Important topics, not only negative ones but maybe even positive ones too, are not talked about.
  • One or both partners end up feeling deeply alone in the marriage.
  • Gradually, over time, the two partners drift apart.

In these ways, the emotionally neglectful marriage gradually emotionally starves its members. Some husbands and wives feel it happening to them, while others seem to go through their days blissfully unaware.

One thing is clear: if the Emotional Neglect goes unchecked, it will eat away at the heart of the couple’s love and passion, eroding that magnetic chemistry that brought them together in the first place. They are likely, after decades of living like this, to end up feeling more like roommates than love mates.

How To Prevent Emotional Neglect In Marriage

  1. Ask yourself this question once every day: “What is my partner feeling right now?” Simply focusing on your husband or wife’s feelings will help you begin to tune in to him/her emotionally. You do not have to be right. When it’s possible, follow up your guess with a question to your spouse such as, for example, “You look frustrated right now. Are you?” Or, “You seem a little sad today. What’s going on?”
  2. Make quality time together. Emotional Neglect is not dependent upon the quantity of time. It’s all about the quality. Quality time requires a true connection, like walking and talking about something meaningful; not just taking a walk together. Bring up something you’re worried or concerned or hurt or angry or sad about. Talking with your partner about something that has feelings connected to it will deepen your connection.
  3. If you feel lonely in your marriage, tell your partner. The worst thing you can do is try to “protect” your partner by keeping silent about what’s wrong or what is missing for you. Tell your spouse how much you love him, and then explain that you want a more meaningful, intimate connection. If your spouse has no idea what you mean, have her read about Childhood Emotional Neglect on this blog or If she begins to understand what this means, and how it applies to her, it will open doors for you and your spouse that you never imagined were possible.

Strive to notice when your partner is upset.

Be sure to ask, “What’s wrong?”

Always give an answer when your partner asks, “What’s wrong?”

Address the problems between you in a direct and honest, but caring and compassionate way.

Accept that conflict is a healthy part of every strong relationship.

Voice your anger to your partner so it will not have a chance to fester.

Do your best to notice and respond to your partner’s emotional needs.

Usually invisible in your childhood and in your marriage, Emotional Neglect has the power to drain your energy, dampen your joy, and make you feel disconnected, lost and alone.

But this means that you have the power to make the invisible visible and the unspeakable speakable. Drag the Emotional Neglect in your marriage out from under the rug, shine a light on it and say:

“ I love you and I want to be closer to you. Can we please work on this together?”

How do you prevent Emotional Neglect in your marriage? Ask your partner for help. That is what true love is all about.

To learn much more about Emotional Neglect in marriage, how it looks and how to heal it, see Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.

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


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Michael - October 10, 2023 Reply

I just diagnosed my wife with Vulnerable Narcissism, as she has an excessive need for praise and tends to be more sensitive than superior-feeling. After reading some of Dr. Jonice’s articles years ago, I determined that I have CEN. I have both her books and am working on recovery. In “Running on Empty No More,” she says that CENs attract narcissists like a hand fits a glove. Who is a better match for a take-up-no-space CEN than a take-up-a-lot-of-space narcissist? My relationship with my wife is a testament of that. But I still want to recover from CEN, while at the same time, maintaining my marriage. When I try to invite my wife to help me meet my deeply-seated needs, she tends to feel threatened, like she’s losing control, and refuses to cede control by twisting the situation around and making it all about her—why can’t we work more on meeting her needs? It’s frustrating. Now I’m studying about how to live with a narcissist.

    Jonice - October 10, 2023 Reply

    Dear Michael, I’m sorry you are struggling like this! But please be very careful about diagnosing your spouse. I urge you to have a meeting with a trained therapist to check on your current way of thinking about yourself, your wife, and your marriage. A couple’s therapist would be best and your wife should be there too. I hope you can make this happen.

Michelle - March 7, 2021 Reply

I love my husband dearly and we have been married 10 years this year and have two great kids together. I have emotionally neglected not husband for years and he has been great with talking openly abput how he feels, but I have left it too late as he has distanced himself from me and we have lost the connection we once had. He finds me frustrating and I feel does not want to be in my company anymore and I am more of a hindrance rather than a partner in his life now. I promise to change the issues that have been addressed but fail to deliver not because I don’t want too, totally the opposite I keep letting him down……I feel sick with pain of mistreatment of him. I love him and in love what we had and want to get connected with him again, but have left it too late. Can you help?

    Jonice - March 7, 2021 Reply

    Michelle, watch for my Healing Emotional Neglect in Marriage online program for couples, it will be available soon. You can also contact a therapist on my Find A CEN Therapist List awho specializes in couples therapy. There is help available.

Starr - August 22, 2020 Reply

I love my husband but I dont think he understands how much he has hurt me over the years an I want to get over them an need to talk about something I get told to just leave stuff alone .I have supported him in his decisions then a few months ago his family tried to get him to leave me for somebody from his past. Then he talked t ok her on my phone his was broke we had ymwifi so I just connected my phone an he used mine to talk to somebody else. Now I was ready to leave I packed some stuff an drove for a bit . I ended up at my parents an he ran there to ask me to come home. I want to believe it wont happen again but iv been hurt in the past by my high school sweetheart

Dan - October 8, 2019 Reply

Hi Jonice,

After being the emotionally neglectful one myself, how an earth can i come back from it after realizing it. Because now were in deadlock and she refuses to be receptive to me trying to sort it. So it feels like ive made a mistake… 1 mistake (over a month or so) and the marriage is doomed. How can we all not be emotionally neglectful sometimes, no one is perfect! Its so frustrating. Seems a marriage is impossible if one time you forget to validate your partners feelings, or one time you act neglectful its over. Please Help!

    Jonice - October 9, 2019 Reply

    Dear Dan, please seek the help of a cEN therapist on the Find A CEN Therapist page. You will do much better with guidance and support, and help to understand more about how CEN works. e.g., it’s never just one incident.

Paul - December 7, 2018 Reply

I see the importance of tuning into your spouse’s feelings. However, when your spouse chooses to have a negative perspective of life as the fuel of her feelings, and when she chooses to blame you for most of the things that she sees are wrong in the marriage, it is scary to try to tune into her feelings. It’s scary because you know that every time you ask “what’s wrong?” she will reply, “you did x and I feel hurt by you.” Over time you find out that you do so many things wrong that it eats up your confidence and you end up convincing yourself that you must be a very unfit person that inadvertently causes so much pain to the person that you’re supposed to love. Therefore, you must change who you are. How can you love yourself if you constantly bring so much pain to your spouse?
I think the crux of this discussion would be to determine what x is. The definition of x will be different for the spouses. It’s very hard when each movement you do, each sentence you say, each decision you make is defined as x by the other person.
Perhaps compromise on the definitions of x would be an option? Or simply not take every criticism you hear about yourself personally and take it as an opportunity to change into this being that will make your spouse happy? This being that obviously I’m not. Do I not deserve to be loved the way I am?
What would happen if both spouses would decide to have a positive outlook of life as the source of their feelings? If the eggs are burned in the morning, could we choose to say “I see that you’re sad for burning the eggs but hey, it’s a great opportunity to have other sources of protein that day”? Wouldn’t that be better than saying “How incompetent you are, you didn’t go to sleep early last night, therefore this morning you can’t pay attention to anything and you even burned the eggs. I feel angry at you because you’re wasting my time, and you don’t even make enough money for me to go buy breakfast at a decent place. Why can’t you be like Steve? He’s a good cook. He wakes up early and has his shit together, so that he can make edible eggs on time. I’ll be late to work because of your incompetence, because you chose to waste your night watching YouTube videos instead of taking care of yourself” Would you, Jonice, ask that spouse the next time “What is wrong?”

    Jonice - December 7, 2018 Reply

    Dear Paul, you ask a good question but I cannot answer it in this way. All I can say is that I strongly recommend you and your wife go to a recommended couple’s therapist.

Leigh - June 25, 2018 Reply

How do I move the program along? I know you said not to rush but I have been living “thinking” about this first session for over two weeks now but just recently signed up. I feel I can and need to move ahead now. It seems the next module won’t open or allow me to go to the next session being recognizing the “wall”. Can you help me move ahead quicker than the program seems to allow me to. Thanks. Leigh Summer

    Jonice - June 27, 2018 Reply

    Dear Leigh, I’m sorry I just responded to your email about this earlier today. I’m usually much quicker to reply but I was away for a couple of days. Thanks for your patience and please check your email!

Moving on - June 25, 2018 Reply

My fifteen years of marriage is over. Your description of how a once magical love eroded overtime is the exact story of my failed marriage. While I am not perfect, my spouse let anger fester until it was a cancer that had metastasized to many aspects of our relationship.

I repeatedly asked what was wrong, if something I had done caused anger, frustration or distress and was acused of being a nag and looking for trouble. When I expressed frustation and resentment, I was berated for being negative.

It was painful to walk away, although I feel significant relief. I believe the divorce was preventable, but my spouse was unwilling or unable to fight for us.

Keep up your good work and I feel affirmed reading your posts and website.

    Jonice - June 27, 2018 Reply

    I’m sorry you went through that! I hope you’ll keep working on making yourself stronger now that you are out of the marriage. All my best wishes to you.

Freyda - June 24, 2018 Reply

A lot of times when a person won’t connect with the spouse, it’s because the person is a narcissist, in which case he/she would not be reading articles like this. The narcissist is not interested in feelings or emotions and so it is important for the spouse who is feeling neglected to be able to identify the signs of narcissism.

    Jonice - June 27, 2018 Reply

    Hi Freyda, I think there are many reasons that people won’t connect with their spouses. A very common one is Childhood Emotional Neglect. And I agree that sometimes it can be narcissism but then there are definitely other signs to indicate that. Thank you for your comment!

      Julie - October 14, 2018 Reply

      Thank you for this comment. How do I know I’m not a narcissist? I started reading your book and I feel strongly that I was emotionally neglected as a child. My marriage is on the rocks and I want to so badly to give him vulnerability by being to talk to him about what I’m feeling. Honestly, most the time I do not even know what my true emotions are so I just say everything is fine when they’re not. I love my husband but I don’t show it the way he needs it. I’m just afraid that if he knew how I truly feel that it will upset him then eventually leave. It’s difficult to get out of that mindset because he really wants to know my true emotion and him not knowing is what’s going to drive him to leave.

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