Recently, I wrote an article called Raised To Have No Emotional Needs. In the article, I gave an example of Kasey, who hid her desire to have a boyfriend because it made her feel ashamed of letting other people see that she had needs.
This topic, plus the example of Kasey, lit up somewhat of a firestorm of candid and expressive shares from readers who had extensive personal experience with feeling ashamed of their own feelings and needs — a natural result of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), unfortunately.
Let’s now use these real CEN adults’ actual shared comments to illustrate how being raised with your feelings ignored can lead to some difficulties years later, when it’s time to date, find your partner, and commit to a lifelong relationship.
Below I am sharing with you several reader’s comments in italics, each followed by my commentary about it. We will cover some of the biggest roadblocks CEN sets up when it comes to dating and relationships.
This article explains so clearly why I have always ‘muted’ my feelings to those close to me. Why would anyone be interested anyway in how I feel, my parents weren’t when I was a child, and nor was my ex-husband. It has come so naturally for me to deal with everything I feel myself yet I feel crippled with depression. Having started a new relationship with a loving, caring man, I am struggling to accept his love, I just don’t feel worthy of it.
When your parents show low interest in your feelings and emotional needs, it creates a kind of emotional desert inside of you. I call it a desert because it’s an emotionally dry spot that is virtually unable to absorb the “water” or emotionally validating love, that you may later encounter in your adult life. Even when you find the ingredient you need the most, it may make you feel uncomfortable. You do not know what to do with it.
For many people regardless of CEN plucking up the courage to ask someone out for a date, even if it is just a cup of coffee is a big deal. Many people with CEN feel very rejected by their parents and also feel unlovable because they did not get that emotional warmth and validation at a vital time. Therefore when they feel “tempted” to ask someone out part of them – in a bid to protect them slams the brakes on to stop themselves from being rejected and left alone again. It is like an overprotective parent in the mind and it can be there in other relationships too. My therapist asked me once why I always decided when our session was over and it was time to leave rather than her. I think she knew the answer! It was because if she had told me the time was up and I had to leave I would have interpreted that as rejection. I think the way around this for me, at any rate, is to admit that if someone you like doesn’t want a certain relationship with you that can be tough and maybe a bit painful. However, it does not have to be an absolutely appalling catastrophe as it is for a three-year-old when their mother is not with them and they are left with unfeeling adults. One can survive it – indeed grow stronger from it – and although some people are very lovely by human standards, nobody is completely right in every way for a person anyway.
When, as a child, you go to your parents for the natural emotional support that all children need, and you do not receive it, you automatically feel rejected. In this way, children of Emotional Neglect may end up feeling fear of rejection at their very core. As an adult with CEN, you can organize your choices and actions around that fear, making it difficult to initiate a date, or even believe that someone would want to be with you.
Miserable situation. It is like being dead but alive. You’re so shut off from anything that gives connection and value to your “connections” in life.
Living with CEN is probably like being raised to be a sociopath, feel nothing, experience nothing, don’t connect with others.
Children growing up in families that don’t deal with feelings learn one feeling skill and one only. It’s this: Don’t have feelings. The CEN child automatically walls their feelings off in order to cope in their childhood home. As an adult, you need your emotions to connect. This makes forming a meaningful, emotional connection with a partner very difficult.
There is a thing like sexual neglect where parents hesitate or avoid any talk about romance and sex. Children then bury love and sex-related emotions deep in themselves and maybe abstain from sexual relationships. You might want to write an article about CEN and dating issues in adult life.
Parents who do not discuss or demonstrate positive emotions, such as love, warmth, or affection, and parents who avoid mention of sex or do not educate their children about it set their children up to feel ashamed of their own positive, loving feelings and sexual needs. Many CEN children grow up to be blocked by a wall of shame from pursuing a partner and sharing romantic and sexual feelings with another person.
CEN is like having your legs kicked out from under you. You’re told, either openly or subtly, you don’t matter. You, your feelings, wants, and needs are unimportant. It is very hard to un-convince yourself of this mindset, but not impossible. Try to see yourself as a friend you want the best for in life. Value this person against all the negative, dismissive, hurtful lies you were “raised” with. “Raised with.” When it comes to CEN, we weren’t raised, we were thwarted. Step by step, year by year, we grew up in homes when we were not allowed to BE. Very possibly, our “caregivers” were abused as well. If you can SEE it, you can NAME it and give it back, not bring it forward. You have to find hope where hope was not allowed. Day by day, moment by moment, whatever it takes. You have to be the accepting, kind loving parent you never had. What have you got to lose? More of Your Life.
Yes, Childhood Emotional Neglect sets you up with some challenges in your adult life. If you find yourself experiencing any of the above roadblocks in your dating and relationships, I want to assure you that there is hope.
Just as you were separated from your feelings as a child, you can reunite with your feelings now. Just as you were blocked from accepting your normal emotional needs, you can begin accepting them now. Just as you learned to be ashamed, you can learn to welcome and believe in your emotional needs now.
By valuing your own feelings and being invested in learning how to understand and use them, you are actually becoming invested in yourself; in how to understand and value yourself.
When you care about your own true feelings, you can care about another’s true feelings. And that is the source of emotional connection. In the words of the wise reader above: “Day by day, moment by moment, whatever it takes. You have to be the accepting, kind loving parent you never had. What have you got to lose? More of Your Life.”
What have you got to gain? Love, support, partnership. Everything.
To learn much more about how to heal the effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect on your relationships see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
This week, I am sharing a segment of my second book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children. It’s a vignette from the book that, I wrote for couples and families who are living with Childhood Emotional Neglect. This particular passage from the book explains what it’s like when a couple is living with, and harmed by, the effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN.
Olive and Oscar are a likable, caring couple who love each other and they clearly want to make their marriage work. But they have been experiencing a severe challenge. They both grew up in emotionally neglectful homes. Unbeknownst to them, they have been living under separate “CEN clouds” when they met, and they have lived under that cloud together for decades.
When Oscar and Olive married, they each lacked the emotion skills needed to make their marriage work. This led to a loving but emotionally devoid relationship that was functional, yet empty; loving, yet distant.
You can read the entire story of Oscar and Olive in the book, Running On Empty No More.
By the time Olive and Oscar came to my office for couples therapy, their marriage was in serious trouble. Years had gone by with little communication, while misinterpretations and false assumptions grew like weeds in an unkempt garden. Each partner sat fairly expressionless on my couch, struggling to explain why they had come to see me.
“I’m pretty much done with this marriage,” Olive finally said flatly. “We’ve been married all these years, and Oscar still doesn’t know me at all.”
“I do know her extremely well, in fact,” Oscar said. “And that’s the real reason she’s ‘done’ with our marriage.” (Yes, Oscar put sarcastic finger quotes around the word “done.”) “She never admits the real reason she does things.”
As I listened and observed this exchange in our first session, I was amazed.
Interestingly, I was able to tell after only a brief interaction with Olive that she was not the manipulator that Oscar described. I also saw the level of anger that Oscar carried, and how Olive seemed to be quite oblivious to it.
Olive’s abrupt announcement in the session that she was done with the marriage is typical of a person with CEN. Lacking the skills to communicate about subtle and varied emotions, and unable to understand or put the myriad of problems into words, she said the only thing she could formulate to communicate the intensity of her feelings in that moment. I have found that many CEN folks are prone to such extreme statements once they finally decide to voice their pain.
Olive and Oscar, in their double CEN marriage, had two emotional walls to contend with. Sadly, in this marriage, no one was knocking on anyone’s wall. Their chasm had been widening for many years and was now double-wide. They were both intelligent, good-hearted, and likable people, and they seemed like they should make a good couple. Despite the misinterpretations and despite the anger, I could sense the love between them.
Olive and Oscar had no opportunity as children to learn that emotional intimacy exists. Neither of them experienced it in their families or saw it between their parents. Both were intelligent, good, and caring people, but neither had access to their emotions, and neither had the emotion skills necessary to create and maintain true emotional intimacy with a partner.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) teaches you as a child to ignore and hide your feelings from others, and even from yourself. You learn very early in your life that emotions are useless, troublesome inconveniences and you take this philosophy forward into your adult life. You essentially wall off your feelings so that they will not bother you, and this may seem like a relief.
But, in actuality, you need your emotions to guide and connect you in your life, but the place you need them the most is your marriage.
Feelings are the spice in a relationship, the fireworks, and the glue. It is by working through feelings together that you connect as a couple and become close. An intimate marriage requires emotional exchange, emotional awareness, and emotional vulnerability.
There’s a particular feeling that I get when I work with a CEN couple. It’s similar to the experience of trying to push two magnets together that are facing the wrong directions. It’s like there’s a powerful force field between them, pushing them apart.
The only way to break the force field is to begin to help each partner to better access their own emotions in some small way. By talking about their feelings and their relationship in more nuanced, emotionally enriched ways, they each make a slight turn, followed by another slight turn, followed by another. Bit by bit, they gradually end up turning their faces enough that a slight pull can begin to form.
And when that happens, the real repair work has begun.
How To Learn More
Watch for a future post about Olive & Oscar Part 4 where you will learn how their couple’s therapy went and how they broke down the walls that divided them.
To read the rest of Olive and Oscar’s story and learn how they faced the Emotional Neglect with their children and with their own parents, 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
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.
As you read the list of beliefs above, did any jump out at you? Was there one, or two, or more, that you thought, “Hey, that one’s not false!”?
If so, you are not alone. Many, many people go through their lives following some or all of these guidelines. And many, many people are held back by them. These beliefs have the power to keep you at an emotional distance from others, damage your friendships and marriage, and leave you feeling alone in the world.
The beliefs are typically rooted in your childhood. They are often messages passed down from one generation to another. They take root in your mind and live there, sometimes outside of your awareness.
These ideas tend to thrive in any family that struggles with emotions, either by over or under-expressing it. They’re so common among folks who grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) that they’re included in my book, Running on Empty. All of the beliefs are based on false notions of how emotions work.
If you grew up in a family that didn’t understand how to manage, express or talk about emotion, you probably didn’t learn how and when to share or be vulnerable. You may have learned that it’s actually wrong to communicate about these things.
And chances are some of the 7 beliefs were communicated to you, either directly or indirectly.
Take a chance, and see what happens. The False Beliefs will start to melt away as you begin to experience the value of trust, openness, and closeness. Your relationships will thrive, and a whole new world will open up to you.
To learn more about emotions, relationships, and Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) see the books Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.