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“Why Can’t You Just Be Happy?” How to Heal a CEN Marriage

My husband says he loves me, but I don’t feel love from him.

My wife gets confused and overwhelmed every time I try to talk to her about a problem.

My marriage feels flat. Something vital ingredient is missing from it.

As a psychologist who specializes in couple’s therapy, I have worked with hundreds of couples over the years. One of the greatest challenges that I see couples struggling with is when one of the members of the pair grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). Often the spouse of the CEN person ends up making statements like those above in their first session of therapy together.

CEN happens when your parents communicate the subtle but powerful message, “Your feelings don’t matter.” Children who live in such households often adapt to their environments by pushing their emotions away so that they won’t bother their parents or themselves.

When you grow up in a household where your emotions are squelched, you miss out on a vital opportunity:  to learn how to identify, understand, tolerate, and express your emotions.  This causes big problems years later, in adulthood.

The CEN adult ends up struggling with emotional awareness, expression, and connection. So they have difficulty tolerating arguments, expressing opinions, and emotionally connecting with their spouses. “Why can’t you just be happy?” is a common statement that CEN people make to their husbands and wives. It comes from a lack of understanding of how emotions and relationships work. The spouse is often left feeling helpless, disconnected, and alone.

Tim and Trish

In Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect, I used the example of Tim and Trish. Trish dragged Tim to couple’s therapy because she felt very unhappy in their marriage. She said that Tim often seemed irritable and unhappy with Trish and their children, despite his claims that he was happy. Tim was loath to come to see me with Trish, saying, “I don’t see why she won’t just let things go. Why can’t she just be happy?” Trish was experiencing the full impact of marriage to a person with CEN. She said that she knew that Tim loved her, but that she often didn’t feel love from him. Trish was also in the miserable, no-win Catch 22 served up by the CEN spouse, “Why can’t you just be happy?”

It can be very challenging to be married to someone with CEN. Here are some:

Signs That Your Spouse May Have CEN

The CEN Spouse:

  1. Seems to misread his or her own emotions – for example, says, “I’m not mad,” when clearly angry, or says, “I’m happy,” when clearly not.
  2. Often misreads your emotions or the feelings of your children or others.
  3. Has a limited vocabulary to express or describe feelings.
  4. Has a very difficult time tolerating a conversation that involves conflict or discomfort.
  5. Is often irritable for no apparent reason.
  6. Doesn’t seem to realize that some vital ingredient is missing in your relationship (emotional connection).

Now for the good news. CEN folks can change, and marriages with CEN can heal and become rich and rewarding. If you are married to a CEN man or woman, there are some things that you can do. I suggest that you follow these:

How to Enrich a CEN Marriage

  1. Read as much as you can about CEN. Read my website and, if possible, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.  If you feel that you are reading about your partner, then proceed to Step 2.
  2. Tell your husband or wife that you may have an answer to why you are struggling in the marriage. Explain, as best you can, what CEN is, how it can happen in even loving families, and how it is often no one’s fault.
  3. Explain to your partner that this is very important to you, and ask him/her to look into it for you.
  4. Ask him/her to take the Emotional Neglect Questionnaire, and read about CEN on my website and Running on Empty.
  5. Since many CEN people have very good empathy for others’ true feelings, don’t hold back yours in this request. Let your spouse see the pain that this is causing you, but not in a blaming, accusing, or challenging sort of way. Just be honest and open with your feelings, but have compassion for how hard this may be for him.
  6. Tell your spouse that you love her and that you are asking for her to pay attention to this problem out of her love for you.
  7. If your partner reads Running on Empty and starts doing the Healing Sections, then it is very important to check in with him about how it’s going and express your appreciation for his efforts. Be open and available to communicate about his reactions as he goes along.
  8. Learn the Horizontal and Vertical Questioning Technique from the book Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships, and use it with your spouse. It will help deepen the relationship and will teach you both new ways to communicate and connect.
  9. If you run into problems or need help along the way, please consult a professional. Take either the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect, which explains Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it happens and affects adults; or Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships, which describes exactly how CEN plays out in couples, to your first session, and ask your couple’s therapist to look at it. Virtually any skilled, competent therapist who has a copy of the book can help you with CEN.
  10. If all this rings a bell with you but you’re not sure if CEN applies to you or your spouse, Take the free Emotional Neglect Test.

And Don’t Forget

Throughout this whole process, remember that your CEN spouse didn’t ask for this and is probably just as baffled about what’s wrong as you have been.

Offer loads of compassion, plenty of assurance, and don’t feel bad about asking your partner to do this for you. After all, you deserve a happy, fulfilling, emotionally connected marriage. And so does your partner.

Reverse Golden Rule: Treat Yourself as You Would Treat Others

 

“What the heck is wrong with you?”
“You are an idiot.”
“How could you make such a stupid mistake?”

 

These may sound like nasty, abusive comments that someone might say to his spouse during a major fight.

Actually, they are typical, everyday comments that many people say to themselves on a regular basis. Many of these people would NEVER say anything that hurtful to their spouse or anyone else.  These are thoughtful, caring people who would not want to hurt another person that way, because they feel compassion for others. The problem is that they do not have that same amount of compassion for themselves.

Why would a person “talk” to herself this way?  I have often found the roots of it to lie in Childhood Emotional Neglect.  When our parents don’t teach us in childhood the process of:  1) acknowledging a mistake; 2) figuring out what we can learn from it; and 3) forgiving ourselves and putting it behind us, we have no choice but to become our own internal “parent,” which we then carry forward through our adulthood.

In the absence of a balanced, forgiving parent who holds us accountable, we become our own internal parent.  A child-like parent who is excessively harsh.

Attacking putdowns like these can become almost a habit. When you do not treat yourself with the same compassion you have for others, you gradually break down your own self-esteem and self-confidence without even realizing it. You are doing as much damage to yourself as you would if you were living with someone who put you down and attacked you constantly.

If you were emotionally neglected in this way, and find yourself with that harsh internal voice, the good news is that it can be fixed.

Here’s the Reverse Golden Rule:  Don’t say anything to yourself that you wouldn’t say to someone you love and care about.

Start paying attention, and catch yourself in your “automatic putdowns.”  Consciously put in the effort to challenge those destructive comments, and counter them with more productive one. This does take work, but it is well worth it. And please don’t hesitate to find a good therapist near you.