Love and Wealth are Not Enough

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What’s the most important ingredient for a happy life?

Philosophers, clergy, psychologists and researchers of all kinds have offered opinions on this question over the last five decades. Some say wealth, some say religion. Still others say family is the most important thing.

But one factor emerges over and over in study after study as a primary ingredient which must be present in childhood to produce a happy, healthy and well-adjusted adult. That factor is emotional attachment, warmth and care. In a word, love.

This factor was recently studied very specifically by Harvard researchers (Vaillant, 2012) who wanted to compare the effects of childhood financial wealth with childhood warmth. By following over 200 men (yes, only men) over an extended period of 70+ years, they were able to identify clear patterns. They saw that childhood financial wealth has little to do with adult success, satisfaction and adjustment. And that parental warmth and care throughout childhood is a much more powerful contributor.

Some may wonder, “What’s the big deal? Don’t virtually all parents automatically love their children?”

In my years as a psychologist, I have seen for myself that money is not enough to raise a healthy child. But I’ve also seen that love is not enough. At least not the generic, “I love you because you’re my child” kind of love.

Beyond feeling loved, a child has to feel known. A child has to feel that her parents know her and love her for who she truly is: strengths and weaknesses, personality traits, preferences, foibles and quirks. She must feel that her parents see the real her and know the real her. That’s the only kind of love that feels true and genuine. It’s the only kind of love that produces a child with healthy self-esteem, a strong sense of identity, and resilient self-worth.

One question that I often ask my patients is: “Growing up, did you know that your parents loved you? Or did you feel that your parents loved you?” It’s a vital distinction. Because you can know that someone loves you without actually feeling it. Here are some examples of known love vs. felt love:

Known Love:

• A man looks back on his childhood and can see his parents’ love for him in the fact that they provided him with a good home, nice clothes, plenty of food and a good education.

• A woman knows that her husband loves her because he has stayed married to her for 20 years and has never cheated.

• A child knows that her parents love her because they buy her lots of toys and games and take good care of her.

Felt Love:

• A man looks back on his childhood and can feel his parents’ love for him in the memory of his parents taking turns comforting him every night for weeks after his beloved hamster died.

• A woman feels that her husband loves her because he noticed that she seemed unhappy lately, and asked her about it with care and concern.

• A child feels that her parents love her because they understand that the reason she got in trouble in school is because she was upset that her friends have been excluding her lately.

Of course, there is no clear line between knowing and feeling. Most people look back on their childhoods and see some of both. The real question is did you feel it enough? Did you feel that your parents truly “got” you? Did they understand and know you for who you truly are? Do they now?

If the answer is “yes,” then you probably got an excellent foundation for success in your life. You probably know yourself, your own preferences, foibles, weaknesses and strengths. And you probably feel that overall, when you add it all up, it adds up to “good enough.”

If the answer is “perhaps not,” then you may still have received some positive things from your childhood. And it certainly helps if you at least had the knowing type of love from your parents.

But without enough of the true, genuine kind of feeling love in your childhood (Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN), you may struggle in adulthood with self-doubt, self-discipline, self-blame or self-care somewhat more than other people. You may marry someone who, like your parents, does not have the ability to know the real you, and love you for the full and complete picture of who you really are.

If you suspect that this may be true for you, here are some suggestions to put you on the road to providing yourself with both knowing and feeling love:

1. Acknowledge that your parents were limited in what they could provide you. There is a reason for your struggles. It’s not your fault.

2. Make it your goal to get to know yourself. Pay attention to yourself in a way that you never have before. Notice your interests, passions, preferences, likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses. If you can, write down every discovery so that you will have a long list of words that describe you.

3. Start paying more attention to your own feelings and emotions. As often as you can, pause and ask yourself, “What am I feeling right now? And why?” Make an effort to accept what you feel as valid and important. Work on learning to accept, understand, manage and express your feelings.

4. These three steps can be very challenging. For guidance walking you through the process, and to learn more about the effects of growing up without feeling love, Take the Childhood Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.

You can spend a lifetime chasing dollars, possessions, or the wrong kind of love. Or you can stop, realize that life is short. And focus on what really matters.

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see my first book Running on Empty. 

This article was originally published on and has been republished here with the permission of the author and PsychCentral.


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Alex - August 23, 2020 Reply

I think that this article touches bit on what I have come to feel about love.

As a child, my parents were too emotionally pre-occupied to be particularly nurturing and supportive – particularly during my adolescence. From my mother, I developed the idea that my best way to express love was through patience, deferring my needs, and through self-sacrifice. My father worked away, and when I
attempted to share my feelings with my mother, I was actually teased and ridiculed. In retrospect, my family was experiencing significant financial trouble at the time, that was kept from us kids (ostensibly to protect us) and I am sure that the magnitudes of my teenaged angst seemed petty, at the time, in comparison – but the impression made felt permanent.

I was lucky, in one respect: I experienced love as a source of emotional support, from my grandmother.

Anyway, I grew up thinking that the way to express love was through acts of patience, overlooking transgressions, and doing nice things for the people in my life, but not expecting much from others, accepting impassivity (or the absence of complaint) as approval.

People who expressed their love emotionally, potential partners who ‘led with their hearts’, freaked me out – I didn’t know how handle them. I missed out on a lot of life as a result of a lack of confidence in emotional expression.

Eventually, I sought therapy, and got to the point where I met someone, we got married, and had a child.

It’s not perfect, but we try to make it work. What I have found, and what led me your work, was this renewed sense of love, particularly as a parent, expressed as acts of patience, but my son, as a child gives and receives love in terms of emotions. I take care to make sure that he ‘feels’ loved, but I lack confidence that he does indeed feel it – particularly when he acts in ways that are different to my expression of love – acting impatiently, or making excessive demands for my time or attention and I begin to feel frustrated and resentful.

In those instances, I suspect that he knows he’s loved, but may not really feel it. Not like when we share happier times, and we share a sense of joy with each other.

Carol E - August 23, 2020 Reply

Dear Jonice, I feel (yes feel) such gratitude for you and your work and your continual, reliable, helpful, hopeful articles that help me feel and know someone really does care and listen and respond – such a wonderful contradiction to my early experience. I’ve taken your course, read your books, attended one or your workshops and sometimes tune in to the Q&A calls and it all has helped in my healing and my healing of my relationships with my grown sons. I feel I have done a good job in nurturing my granddaughters and we love each other. YEA! Thank you. Carol E

    Jonice - August 24, 2020 Reply

    That’s so wonderful, Carol! Good work all around. You should be proud of yourself and I hope you are!

cathy - August 19, 2020 Reply

I never felt love from my parents but I always knew something was missing. I have a wonderful husband but I am not always sure I know that feeling of love towards others. I know I love my family but I feel I hold back. I tell my adult boys as often as I feel comfortable that I love them and I know they love me. I was 30 when I realized I never heard those words from my parents. I am having a more difficult time with saying it to my daughter in law who has given me an amazing granddaughter. I take pride in the way my son and daughter in law love this little girl as if she is the best toy ever. I know I did not repeat my history but it still pains me that I feel incomplete. I work at the feelings list and right now I feel very sad that I missed out with parents.

    Jonice - August 20, 2020 Reply

    Dear Cathy, you should be so very proud of yourself. You have stopped the CEN with your own generation and your son and daughter in law and granddaughter are the reward. I hope you will focus on nurturing yourself, self-care and seeking joy. You deserve all of it.

Anna - August 18, 2020 Reply

I visited acupuncture practitioner for the first time. I was surprised, when she said that liver can become “stagnated” because of repressed/unexpressed emotions. That doesn’t surprise me, I’m a very much cen-person. I’m probably full of those! It is interesting to learn that emotions are not just some “imaginary” fluff, but they indeed have profound impact!

    Jonice - August 18, 2020 Reply

    Dear Anna, feelings are physical and they are your body’s responses. And they can have a profound impact, for sure. Thanks for your comment!

Leni - August 18, 2020 Reply

Thank you dr. Jonice. it’s very helpful for mw

Taylor - August 17, 2020 Reply

Your articles are very comforting. Thank you for writing them.

    Jonice - August 17, 2020 Reply

    You are welcome, Taylor!

Judy - August 17, 2020 Reply

Thank you Jonice for all you have done, learned, and shared about this hidden condition. Your books have really opened my mind and heart to my real problem, making it real, understandable, and given us all a path out!

    Jonice - August 17, 2020 Reply

    I am very happy to be helpful to you, Judy! Just keep walking that path.

    Penny - August 20, 2020 Reply

    Every time I read your posts, they resonate with me so clearly. I had cen and I married a man with cen. He struggles with ptsd and alcohol addiction and I have struggled but thankfully am now recovering from codependency. Your insights go along so well with what I need to do for codependency recovery, namely identifying and owning my feelings, preferences and opinions.

Larry - August 17, 2020 Reply

Thank you again, I learn something new in every article you write.
I was 40 with a wife and two daughters when I got up the courage to ask my father if he ever loved me.
What does that say about me?

    Jonice - August 17, 2020 Reply

    Dear Larry, I’m not surprised you were 40 when you asked. The important thing is that you needed to ask. Your dad had not communicated love to you. That is Emotional Neglect and I’m sorry you have experienced it.

Peter - August 17, 2020 Reply

In addition to both books, this article is great in helping me find answers to many questions. I wish I read them earlier.

Deborah - August 16, 2020 Reply

Dr. Webb, thank you for this article and especially the list of actionable suggestions to help one “know” and “feel” love. I recognized that I do have a void that I continue to look for people to fill despite being disappointed many times. I realize now that I am the only one who can fill that void on a daily consistent basis but it’s difficult to do. Guess I believe, at some level, that we can never replace what we didn’t receive in childhood and heal the effects it had on our physiological and psychological make-up. But I’ll continue with the help of your suggestions to work at overcoming this belief and toward feeling that love.

    Jonice - August 17, 2020 Reply

    You can do this, Deborah. Keep going!

David - August 16, 2020 Reply

Well, I am 0 for 22 on the quiz. Not good, but I kind of knew that anyway. Both of my parents (and stepfather) were extreme, extreme ( I could add ten more ‘extremes’, and it still would not be enough) alcoholics.
But, therapy is not affordable, and it’s via Zoom (which is pathetic).
It all seems so utterly hopeless.

    Jonice - August 17, 2020 Reply

    Dear David, many of the CEN therapists accept insurance or have sliding scales. And telahealth therapy works quite well, actually. Research proves it! Give it a try. It is not hopeless at all.

Anne - August 16, 2020 Reply

So glad and appreciative of your regular articles …bought the books and have read some but will get around to reading all of them…such a relief to know so many of us are in the same boat emotionally speaking…the sense if aloneness is lifted for a while at least..

    Jonice - August 17, 2020 Reply

    Dear Anne, remember to ask yourself if the aloneness is more of a feeling or a true reality. And as you break down your walls, people will begin to come in.

Carol - August 16, 2020 Reply

Hello Dr Webb, I have take your online course and it has awakened me. Difficult at first as it took some time to even acknowledge that I matter.

Patient and kind can be added to the list of emotional security.

Thanks for all your help!

    Jonice - August 16, 2020 Reply

    Dear Carol, I am delighted that you feel changed by Fuel Up For Life. Good work on your part! And those are good words to add. All my best to you.

Leslie - August 16, 2020 Reply

This was my biggest fear having a child in my recovery from CEN…that my child would not feel loved. I worried and cried about it often as how would I know? I actually thought to ask my daughter this yesterday! She is 13 now and it occurred to me that she could tell me! She said YES. Her father left us for a woman he found on Craigslist when she was almost 11 and went from daily presence/“best friend” to MIA overnight. He didn’t get a place with a room for her…ask for a 50% custody arrangement. He secretly moved in with the girlfriend and was SCARCE. He is an adult who has a severe case of CEN. My daughter wants nothing to do with him….of course she is in terrible pain. But he has no clue why she feels that way or why she doesn’t feel loved by him. My daughter said she feels loved by me because I get her the help she needs.

    Jonice - August 16, 2020 Reply

    I’m sorry you and your daughter are dealing with this painful situation. At least she has your support and love which can carry her through. You don’t need to worry if your daughter feels loved by you as long as you do love her. Children know!

Rose Cook, MSW - September 4, 2018 Reply

Seeing all this is writing is so validating! I tote your 2 books many
places to share your invaluable integrated insights. I think CEN is pandemic and we are all touched by its effects directly or
indirectly. Your weekly comments and accompanying related
articles are absolutely outstanding! You are doing huge service
to humankind sharing your sensitive awareness! Thank you!!!
Please list me & include me in ALL your emails!

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