Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN does not go away just because you grow up.
Being raised in a family that does not address your feelings (or, in other words, an emotionally neglectful family), launches you into your adult life without two things that you absolutely need for a healthy, happy, resilient marriage. The two missing things are full access to your feelings, plus the emotional skills to manage and express them.
It’s difficult enough when one member of a couple has CEN and the other does not. But when two CEN people marry, special challenges abound. Neither spouse has full access to their emotions and neither has the necessary emotion skills.
Meet Olive and Oscar. I told their story in my second bestselling book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parent & Your Children. Today, I am sharing a free vignette from the book that describes exactly how it feels to be in a double-CEN marriage.
Olive and Oscar sit across the table from each other, quietly having their Sunday morning breakfast.
“Is there any more coffee?” Olive asks absentmindedly while reading the day’s news on her laptop. Irritated, Oscar stands up abruptly and walks over to the coffee-maker to check.
“Why does she always ask me? She’s so manipulative. She just doesn’t want to have to walk over to the coffee-maker herself,” he cranks inwardly. Returning to the table with the pot, Oscar fills Olive’s cup. Placing the empty carafe on the table with a slight bit of excessive force, Oscar sits back in his chair with a sigh and an angry glance at Olive’s still-bowed head.
Olive, sensing something amiss from the placement of the carafe and the sigh, quickly looks up. Seeing Oscar already absorbed in his newspaper, she looks back down at her laptop but has difficulty focusing on her reading.
“I wonder what’s going on with Oscar,” she muses. “He seems so irritable lately. I wonder if his work stress is coming back. It must be his job pressure getting to him again.”
After thinking it through, Olive makes a plan to avoid Oscar for the day in hopes that giving him some alone time will help his mood improve (with the added bonus that she won’t have to be around him). Olive makes a plan to ask him about work at dinnertime to see if he is indeed under stress.
Later that evening Olive returns from her errands and finds that Oscar has made dinner for both of them. Sitting down to eat, Oscar seems to be in a better mood.
After a brief exchange about Olive’s errands, she asks, “So how are things at work?”
Looking at Olive quizzically, Oscar answers, “Fine, why do you ask?”
“No reason,” Olive replied, relieved to hear him say it was fine. Do you want to watch the next episode of Game of Thrones while we eat?”
The TV goes on and they eat dinner in silence, each absorbed in the show.
The double CEN (Childhood Emotional Neglect) couple seems much like every other couple in many ways. And yet they are very, very different. This type of relationship is riddled with incorrect assumptions and false readings. And unfortunately, neither partner has the communication skills to check with the other to actually find out what he is thinking or feeling, or why she does what she does.
Since neither partner knows how to talk about the frustrations and conflicts that naturally arise (as they do in every relationship), very little gets addressed and worked out. This is a set-up for passive-aggressive retaliation that, over time, eats away at the warmth and caring in the marriage, outside of both partners’ awareness.
Small, indirect actions like carafe-slamming, avoidance, ignoring, and forgetting can become the primary means of coping and communicating in the relationship. None of them are effective.
In the scenario above Oscar misinterprets Olive’s thoughtless absorption in her reading as “manipulative,” and Olive misinterprets Oscar’s irritation with her as the possible result of job stress. Instead of dealing with these issues directly at the moment, Olive chooses avoidance for the day. Her question to Oscar that evening at dinner is too simple and off-target to yield any useful information. She is left with a false sense of reassurance that Oscar’s mood magically improved and that nothing was really wrong in the first place.
So forward they go, into the coming weeks, months, and years, with Oscar viewing Olive as lazy and manipulative, and Olive on constant guard against a return of Oscar’s job stress. Drastically out of tune with one another, they live in separate worlds, growing ever distant from each other.
Olive and Oscar sometimes feel more alone when they are together than they do when they are apart. They are divided by a chasm as wide as the ocean. They each sense that something important is wrong, but sadly, neither can consciously describe nor name it.
Fortunately for Olive and Oscar, they actually have loads of potential. They each have plenty of feelings; they are simply not aware of those feelings or able to use them in a healthy, relationship-enriching way. At the heart of their marriage are companionship, history, concern, and love. All that is really missing from their marriage is emotional awareness and skills, both of which can be learned.
There is a good chance that one day, one of them will “wake up” emotionally, and knock on the other’s wall.
Watch for Olive & Oscar Part 2 in a future article, and you will see that is exactly what happened.
Emotionally neglected kids grow up to emotionally neglect themselves. Then, when they get married, it is natural (not the same thing as healthy) that they will emotionally neglect their spouses.
In so many vitally important ways, the Emotional Neglect that happens in a marriage is no one’s choice and no one’s fault. It is literally programmed into the emotionally neglected child.
Every day, in my office, I help couples understand what’s missing and why. Together, we relieve them from the blame and shame and set them on the path forward.
In a future post, Part 2, I will share the continuation of Olive and Oscar’s story from the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children. You will see where the path of CEN recovery took them, which was right to my office for couple’s therapy. You will learn about my work with them, and how their efforts to heal their marriage sent ripple effects through their children and their parents.
To learn more about how Childhood Emotional Neglect happens, what makes it so unmemorable, and how to heal yourself, see the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
A version of this post was originally published on psychcentral.com. It has been reproduced here with the permission of the author and psychcentral.
What happens when two people, each of whom grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect, meet and marry? They create the doubly emotionally neglected couple.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) is a subtle, often invisible childhood experience that many adults experienced in their families. As children, they didn’t know it was happening. And as adults, they typically have no memory of it.
Yet its effects continue to hang over them like a gray cloud, coloring their entire adult lives. The cloud inserts itself into their marriages, causing emotional distance, miscommunication, and lack of intimacy.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): A parent’s failure to respond enough to the child’s emotional needs.
When you grow up with parents who do not validate or respond to your feelings, your child brain knows just what to do. It builds a wall to block off the most deeply personal, biological part of who you are: your emotions. Safely tucked behind the wall, your parents (and you) can pretend that your feelings aren’t even there, or don’t matter.
Decades later, when you are in a serious relationship, a series of very predictable problems ensue. That wall that helped you as a child interferes. It blocks off the invaluable internal resource you need to bind and connect you to your partner: your emotions.
Interestingly, those who grow up with Childhood Emotional Neglect tend to be attracted to one another. When your own emotions are blocked off, you are bound to feel most comfortable with a partner whose emotions are also tucked safely away.
So what happens when two people who grew up emotionally neglected marry? How does the couple deal with two walls between them, over the years of being together?
Meet Jason and Betsy, the double-CEN (Childhood Emotional Neglect) couple. They’ve been married for 10 years, and neither is aware of their CEN. It’s Saturday morning, and they are having a mundane conversation.
Betsy: I’ll drop off Curt at basketball practice at 9:30. Can you pick up Emma from gymnastics at 9:45?
As she makes this request, Betsy is secretly worried that Jason will be irritated that she’s asking him to do something. So as she asks, she watches his reaction carefully.
Jason sees Betsy giving him a look he can’t interpret, and assumes she’s trying to manipulate him somehow. He decides to call her bluff by martyring himself to make her feel bad.
Jason: What’s the big deal? Why does this require us both? I’ll do both drop-off and pick-up.
Betsy notices the edge in Jason’s tone and assumes it’s because she asked him to do a task for her. “Would it kill him to chip in on the weekend?” she thinks to herself with aggravation.
Betsy: Just forget it. I’ll do both.
As Betsy does the drop-off and pick-up that morning, she seethes inside at how unwilling Jason is to help out with the kids.
Meanwhile, Jason sits at home feeling three competing things: frustrated at his “manipulative” wife, perplexed about what really happened between them that morning, and vaguely guilty that he is sitting at home while Betsy does all the work.
Eventually, the guilt wins out. Feeling bad, he starts making a big pot of chili, which he knows Betsy likes.
No matter how connected you are by love, companionship, children, or history, you are not able to connect enough in the most important way: emotionally. It’s not that you don’t feel emotion (both Betsy and Jason have plenty of emotions in the description above), it’s just that neither of you is well enough in touch with what you are feeling so that you can share them and use them as you are meant to as a couple.
While your parents were busy ignoring your feelings, you were missing an important childhood experience. You were not learning how emotions work. You didn’t have the chance to learn how to know when you’re having a feeling, identify that feeling, put it into words, or share it with another. These are the skills required to build emotional intimacy with your partner, and you may not even realize that you don’t have them.
You probably noticed how very out of touch Betsy and Jason are with each other. Betsy views Jason as unwilling to help, which isn’t true, and Jason views Betsy as trying to pull something over on him, which she isn’t. Both end up feeling upset with each other for false reasons. And neither has the communication skills to discover that his/her assumptions and readings of the other are wrong.
In addition to the normal conflicts that all couples encounter, incorrect readings also contribute to the wedges that drive you farther and farther apart every day. The longer you are together, the more distant you feel.
I see many double CEN couples in my office, and one thing I often notice is that they usually have a genuine bond of love for each other. But despite the love, one or both members of the couple senses that something very important is missing. One or both of the members feel, despite the love, uncomfortably lonely in the marriage.
If you recognize yourself and your partner as you read this, do not despair. There are answers!
You can use this newfound understanding to reach out to your partner. Now that you know what divides you, you can break down your walls, and power forward to a brighter, more connected future.
Because the great thing about Childhood Emotional Neglect is that it can be healed.
To learn how to take the steps to reach out to your partner and break through the walls that block you, see the book, 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.
CEN can be invisible and unmemorable so it can be difficult to know if you have it. To find out, Take the CEN Questionnaire. It’s free.
A version of this post was originally posted on psychcentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of the author and psychcentral.
I have often talked about the effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN on a marriage. It’s somewhat like an invisible barrier that blocks spouse from spouse, holding the two emotionally apart, creating and feeding distance and a deep sense of being alone.
But since Childhood Emotional Neglect can be so difficult to pinpoint in your own, or your partner’s, history, it’s not easy to know if it’s playing a part in your marriage.
Why is the lack of fighting a potential sign of Emotional Neglect? Strangely enough, often it’s the couples who fight the least who are in the most trouble. This is because fighting requires a willingness to challenge each other, an ability to tolerate anger (your own and your partner’s), and some element of emotional connection.
Emotional connection, the opposite of Emotional Neglect, is not made up solely of positive feelings like warmth, affection, and love. It also requires an ability to tolerate conflict with each other, and a mutual trust that you, as a couple, can get angry and upset, share difficult words, and come through to the other side with your relationship intact.
A willingness to fight is a willingness to share painful emotions. And that’s a sign of emotional connection.
There is no feeling of loneliness worse than that experienced inside of a relationship. It feels terrible to feel alone when you’re with someone. And loneliness is one of the greatest warning signs of an emotionally neglectful couple.
You can have a relationship that seems great, with a partner who has a good sense of humor, common interests, a good job, and kind nature, but still feel alone.
This happens when your relationship with your partner is good on the surface but lacks emotional substance. Emotional connection is the foundation of a relationship. When it’s weak, the relationship has an emptiness to it. It can take two people years to see past their good surface connection and realize what is missing underneath.
Do you find yourself using friends or family to “fill in” for your spouse when you need support? If so, is it because your spouse isn’t there? Because she often says the wrong thing? Because you’re not sure he’ll care?
In a close, connected, non-neglectful marriage, your spouse will be the first person you want to tell when things go wrong or when something great happens.
One key question to ask yourself is: Does she want to be the first person? If you don’t think so, this is a sign of other problems in your marriage. I encourage you to find a skilled couple’s therapist and convince your partner to go with you.
If you think your mate does want to be your go-to person, then the problem may be simply that he doesn’t know how to be that person for you. This is a matter of skills, and the good news is that these skills can be learned.
“I’m happy in our relationship in some very important ways, but yet it feels like something is missing.”
“I read an article about relationships that struck a chord with me. Will you read it for me, and let me know if you have a reaction to it too?”
“Did you know that not fighting in a relationship is not necessarily a good thing?”
“I love you so much, and I want us to be even closer. Will you work on this with me?”
To learn how to build your emotion skills see the book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. To learn how to share them in your marriage to build emotional intimacy see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
A version of this article was originally published on Psychcentral. It has been republished here with the permission of the author and psych central.