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Four Steps to Heal an Emotionally Neglectful Relationship

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.

3 Signs of Emotional Neglect in Your Marriage

  • Fighting

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.

  • Loneliness

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.

  • Support

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.

Four Steps to Heal an Emotionally Neglectful Relationship

  • Do your best to identify, as specifically as possible, the type of Emotional Neglect in your relationship. If needed, talk to a friend or therapist for help sorting it out. Put the problem into words for yourself so that you’ll be able to explain it to your partner when you’re ready.
  • Think about your own contribution to the problem. How emotionally aware and skilled are you? Might you be partially responsible? What are you willing to do to fix this?
  • Find a way to tell your partner that there is a problem. Do this with full awareness of the significance of your message. This means taking great care with the way you express it. Use words like:

“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?”

  • No matter how your partner responds, start working on beefing up your own emotional skills. The more you understand your own feelings and are able to identify, name, share, tolerate and work through them, the better equipped you’ll be to provide emotional connection for your partner.

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.

How Childhood Emotional Neglect Affects Your Relationships

Growing up with your feelings ignored, Childhood Emotional Neglect or (CEN), takes its toll on you. It’s true. In fact, it takes such a lasting toll that I can see its lingering effects decades later in my adult patients.

The Lingering Effects Of CEN

  • A lack of awareness of your own feelings, wishes, and needs.
  • A feeling that you are less important than everyone else.
  • A massive struggle to talk about and share your own feelings.
  • Difficulty asking for help and accepting help from others.
  • A lack of understanding of how feelings work in yourself and others.

Children who grow up with their feelings ignored take a very powerful step to get by in their childhood home. They wall off the deepest, most biological part of who they are: their emotions. That way they can stop burdening others with their feelings. What a brilliant and powerful tool for your child’s brain to make for you.

But as an adult, your life is affected greatly.

The lingering effects above are important parts of the toll of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). When your feelings are walled off, you are missing some life ingredients that will have a profound effect on your quality of life.

I know this because I see it in my office every single day.

Whether you realize it or not, this particular group of struggles affects you in many areas of your life. You are living without access to some vital life ingredient that everyone else enjoys. For example, it can make it hard to ask for a promotion or a raise at work, or to trust yourself to try new things or take risks.

But I have also seen that there is one area of life that’s affected far more than any other. It’s your relationships. As you read the 5 Important Ways below, be sure to keep in mind that none of these 5 are permanent. They are only effects from your childhood. You can fix every single one!

5 Important Ways Childhood Emotional Neglect Challenges Your Relationships

  1. It makes them one-sided. Generally, CEN people are not able to be fully present in their relationships. The first two Lingering Effects of CEN all contribute to this result. When you’re not aware of your own feelings, wishes and needs enough, how can you share them with your husband, wife, partner or friend? How can you take up your fair share of space in your relationships when you view other people and their needs as more important than your own? Many of your relationships become too much about the other person, and not enough about you.
  2. Your relationships seem fewer and feel less rewarding than other people seem to have. This is partly because they’re one-sided, just as we discussed above. Since you’re not fully emotionally present in your relationships, they are naturally limited in depth and resilience. They may break apart more easily, and may not reach their full potential. You offer up so very much in your relationships, but you’re holding back the most valuable gift you can give someone: your emotional vulnerability.
  3. It makes social time more tiring than it should be. Spending time with people you care about should be rewarding, energizing and enriching. But you often find it draining instead. That’s because your relationships are one-sided (you give too much and don’t take enough for yourself), and also because you spend so much energy trying to be the person you think others want or expect you to be — instead of just being yourself. That takes a lot of energy.
  4. You feel alone, even with people who love you. All of us humans share a common bond, and that bond is largely based on our feelings. When your emotions are too blocked off, you may not have enough access to your own deep font of warm emotional energy; the source of relationship “glue” that should be connecting you. Since you are unaware of the problem, you’re left feeling, on some level, emotionally isolated at key times. Even though you are actually not!
  5. It holds your relationships back from becoming as rich and deep as they should be. Just as emotion is the glue that binds you to others, it’s also the fire that lights your passion, and the stick that should be poking you saying, “Speak up!” Without full access to this vital resource, your relationships are missing an important vital ingredient: You.

Never fear! I know these 5 challenges might seem practically insurmountable. But I have watched many people transform their relationships by working in 3 key areas.

3 Answers Taken From Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children

  1. Your Emotional Awareness: This involves being aware of what you are feeling and what the other person is feeling. It’s being able to observe your own behaviors and responses to things and understand the emotions involved.
  2. Emotion Skills: Learning to identify what you feel, accept your feelings, tolerate your feelings, manage them, and put them into words. You can learn all of them!
  3. Communication Skills: How do you tell someone they hurt your feelings? Or that you are angry at them? How do you ask someone for what you need or want? Once you get better at emotional awareness and emotion skills, you’ll have the foundation to learn how to communicate far more effectively.

You can learn far more about how to become more emotionally aware and skilled and how to communicate on an emotional level in the book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.

Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) can be subtle and unmemorable, so it can be hard to know if you have it. Take The CEN Test. It’s free!

How to Tell Emotional Neglect From Emotional Abuse in a Relationship

Let’s face it, relationships are complicated. I wish I had a dollar for every time someone has asked me, “Is this normal?” about their relationship.

One of the most confusing gray areas is the difference between emotional abuse and Emotional Neglect. Since neither is physical, both are difficult to perceive at all. Even more difficult is telling them apart. Even mental health professionals sometimes struggle to define the difference. And sometimes Emotional Neglect can be so severe that it crosses over the line, and becomes abuse.

How good are you at differentiating between them? Read about this interaction between Marcy and Jeremy below. Identify each option as emotional abuse, Emotional Neglect, or neither. Then read on to see if you got them right.

Marcy sits in the car outside Jeremy’s office, waiting for him. She is fighting off panicky feelings about attending her high school reunion. Marcy was bullied in high school and is anxious about facing the people from her past. She explained all of this to Jeremy last night and he had seemed sympathetic and understanding.  “Why couldn’t he be on time just this once? He knows how upset I am about this reunion,” she says aloud to herself.  Finally, after 45 minutes of anxious agony, Jeremy appears:

Option 1:

“Hi, Hon,” he says perkily, kissing her on the cheek. He hops behind the wheel and starts to drive as he talks about his day.

Option 2:

“Where were you?!” Marcy demands. “You know how nervous I am about this.” Jeremy explains that his boss kept a meeting going late. “We’ll drive fast,” he offers.

Option 3:

Jeremy sees the angry look on Marcy’s face before she says a word. “What’s your problem?” he says defensively.

First, let’s talk about Option 3. Whether Jeremy intends it or not, his behavior here is emotionally abusive.  He is not only drastically out of touch with Marcy’s feelings and her need to be emotionally supported, he fails to take responsibility for the fact that he kept her waiting, and how it affected her. In addition, he turns it back upon her by starting out defensive and stating that the “problem” is hers. That is abuse.

Option 1: Here, Jeremy is not abusive, but he is emotionally neglectful. By acting perky and failing to notice Marcy’s feelings, considering the situation, he is showing a profound lack of emotional attunement and care for Marcy. A lack of consideration this profound can approach (even cross) the border, and become emotional abuse.

Option 2: This one is probably the most difficult to identify. In this scenario, Jeremy is not abusive. And he explains why he was late, which shows that he recognizes that he left Marcy in an uncomfortable situation. However, he is still emotionally neglectful. The Emotional Neglect is subtle, but it is there. It’s because Jeremy fails to acknowledge the reality of the situation. Marcy isn’t panicky about being late, she’s panicky about her high school bullying and facing the people. So when Jeremy fails to notice her panic and misattributes it, his  “I’ll drive fast” is neither soothing nor helpful.

If you got all three correct, good for you!

If you missed one or more, it does not mean that there is something wrong with you. But it could be a sign that you grew up with some elements of emotional abuse or Emotional Neglect.

Now here is Option 4: Emotionally Attuned

Jeremy gets in the car, looks into Marcy’s eyes, and takes her hand firmly, immediately steadying her. “I’m so sorry to keep you waiting. It must have been hell for you. Are you okay?” he says. He listens to her response and lets her vent. Then he says, “Don’t worry, we’re going to have a good time tonight. And if anyone’s mean to you, I’ll give them an atomic wedgie they will never forget.” They both laugh, and Marcy feels reassured, and ready to face her past.

Here Jeremy practiced all Five Components of Emotional Attunement:

  1. Make eye contact
  2. Be accountable
  3. Acknowledge /validate
  4. Ask
  5. Listen

Sometimes the lines between emotional attunement, emotional abuse, and Emotional Neglect can be blurry. Many relationships contain all three, showing themselves at different times. But that doesn’t mean that it is okay.

Watch for signs of emotional abuse or neglect. When you see one, tell your partner. Take responsibility, and talk about what went wrong. Strive to follow the Five Components.

Make a decision together that the emotional abuse or neglect stops here. And you can rest assured that you will not deliver either to the person you love.

To learn more about emotions, emotional needs, and Childhood Emotional Neglect, Take The CEN Questionnaire. It’s free.

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

Childhood Emotional Neglect: Man vs. Woman

“CEN people, both men and women, are exceptionally likable folk. This is part of the tragedy of CEN. These are some of the most lovable people in the world, and yet they feel the most alone.”

I often get asked whether Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) affects men and women differently. My answer is,  “yes, it does.” Although the essential effects are the same, some of those effects tend to play out differently in men than in women.

In Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect I tried to represent both genders in my descriptions, examples, and vignettes. Before I talk about this more, I need to mention one large caveat. The differences that I’ve seen between CEN men and women are general descriptions that do not apply across-the-board. I often see the masculine effects in women and vice-versa. Since there is significant crossover, please don’t take these differences too firmly or stringently. And definitely, do not think there is something wrong with you if you fit more neatly into the opposite gender. It does not indicate a problem of any kind.

As you look over the table below, you may notice that the differences are not very surprising. In recent years, neuroscientists have found that men have more connections in their brains from front to back and within each hemisphere than women, making them more suited to perception and coordinated actions. Women, on the other hand, have more connections between the hemispheres. This gives women an advantage in the areas of intuition and interpersonal processing.

TABLE OF CEN GENDER DIFFERENCES 

Adult CEN Characteristic Women Men
 
Emptiness or numbness Attempt to fill selves with other people and their needs Seek adventure to feel something or isolate themselves
Counter-Dependence Seek to fill others’ needs in place of their own Fervently embrace and pride themselves on independence & competence
Little Compassion For Self Harsh judgments drive down self-esteem Harsh judgments become pressure to be “the best,” often at work. May become driven.
Fatal Flaw Feel unlikeable or unlovable Feel invisible and overlooked
Struggles With Self-Discipline Self-care suffers: eating, exercise, sleep and rest May become overly or compulsively self-disciplined at times
Alexithymia May learn the language of emotion but it’s hard to apply it to themselves Emotions go underground and come out as irritability
Self-Directed Anger and Blame Anger is directed at themselves and may turn into depression Anger is more likely to also be turned outward at others

 

Generally, men and women suffer equally when it comes to CEN. But women tend to be harder on themselves and to become excessive caretakers and givers, ignoring their own needs and feelings. They can end up feeling drained and exhausted because they are not taking care of themselves and have difficulty saying “no” to others.

Men, on the other hand, are more inclined to embrace and value the feelings of isolation and disconnection that go along with CEN. Men with CEN may misperceive their isolation as a sign of masculine strength. Yet these men are also pained by the feeling that they are not connected when they are with other people. They struggle with feeling ignored and overlooked by others but lack the words to express it.

One thing that I have seen over and over in CEN men is an acute discomfort (often anxiety) in large groups of people, especially when they are expected to socialize. In these situations, their intensive individuality combines with the feeling of being ignored to create a special type of misery.

The other primary difference I see between women and men’s CEN is what they do with their feelings. Women feel ashamed for having emotions. They turn their anger against themselves. Men are more likely to be totally unaware that they have feelings at all.

Anger is more accepted from men than from women in today’s world. So men don’t suppress their anger as much as women. Instead, they may alternate between suppressing it and then feeling it unexpectedly, sometimes directing it towards others and sometimes toward themselves.

What happens when two people with CEN form a relationship or marriage? I can tell you that it makes for some very interesting challenges. Check back to see a future blog on this topic.

Some of the most remarkable characteristics of people with CEN deserve mention here. CEN people, both men, and women are exceptionally likable folk. This is part of the tragedy of CEN. These are some of the most lovable people in the world, and yet they feel the most alone. They are typically excessively competent, stand-up folks; yet they feel invisible. They suffer because some vital ingredient is missing from their lives. Yet that missing ingredient is their own emotions, which are not missing; just suppressed.

If I could gather all of the CEN men and women in the world together in one huge room, here is what I would say to them:

You are not invisible, and you are not to blame. You have no reason to be ashamed. Ask yourself what you feel and why, and you will find your true self there. Your emotions will become your compass, your comfort and your connection to life. And then you will realize how very much you matter.

To learn much more about how to heal your marriage if you and/or your spouse grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect see the book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.

To find out whether you grew up with CEN, Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.

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

Childhood Emotional Neglect and Assertiveness Don’t Mix

“What do you think?”

“How do you feel?”

“What do you need?”

“What do you have to say?”

Imagine a child, let’s call him Zachary, growing up in a household in which he is seldom asked the above questions (Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN). Perhaps his parents are emotionally neglecting him because they have five children and are overwhelmed with getting them all dressed in the morning, much less what they think or feel. Perhaps his father died, and his mother is so enveloped in her own grief that she is barely functioning. Perhaps he has an older sibling who is autistic and who takes up the huge majority of his parents’ attention and resources. Or perhaps his parents are self-centered, and pay attention mostly only to what they think and feel.

The reason for Zachary’s parents’ apparent lack of interest is almost irrelevant. Because whatever the reason, the impact upon Zachary is the same. Since his parents are NOT asking him these questions, he is NOT receiving this vital message in his childhood: Your thoughts and feelings matter.

Think of childhood as the “programming phase” of life. The way our parents treat us in childhood sets up all of the “programs” for how we will treat ourselves throughout our lifetime. If our parents don’t ask us these questions when we are children, we will not naturally ask ourselves these questions as adults. Zachary will grow into a man whose natural default setting is to undervalue and under-attend to his own feelings, needs and thoughts. Zachary will be out of tune with himself. He will have difficulty asking for things, expressing his feelings, and perhaps even knowing his own needs.

In a sense, Zachary is growing up receiving the classic, invisible and subtly conveyed message of CEN: Don’t value or express your feelings and needs. This message is the complete opposite of assertiveness, which calls upon us to do just that. In order to be assertive, you have to:

  1. Know what you feel and need
  2. Believe that what you feel and need matters
  3. Know how to express your feelings and needs in a way that the other person can hear

Having been raised with the wrong message, Zachary will naturally follow his default setting – unassertive. If he is troubled by his difficulty standing up for himself, he will have to make a conscious decision to override the default. He will have to make changes in his basic views of himself and his own importance.

If you identify with Zachary, good news! It is entirely possible to do this. Once you understand what’s wrong and why, you can make a decision to change how you view yourself, and you can learn the skills involved in assertiveness.

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect and how it might be affecting you, see my book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

The Seven False Beliefs About Relationships

 The Seven False Beliefs About Relationships

People who grew up in households with low tolerance for emotion tend to carry particular beliefs about emotions in relationships into their adulthoods.  Below is a good, but not exhaustive, sampling of beliefs that I’ve heard many emotionally neglected people say.  Please read through these seven beliefs, and put a mental check-mark next to the ones that you feel are true.

 

1.      Sharing your feelings or troubles with others will make them feel burdened.
2.      Sharing your feelings or troubles with others will chase them away.
3.      If you let other people see how you feel, they will use it against you.
4.      Sharing your feelings with others will make you look weak.
5.      Letting others see your weaknesses puts you at a disadvantage.
6.      It’s best not to fight if you want to have a good relationship.
7.      Talking about a problem isn’t helpful. Only action solves a problem.

 

When you grow up receiving consistent direct or indirect messages, no matter how subtle, that you should keep your feelings to yourself (Childhood Emotional Neglect), it is natural to assume that your feelings are burdensome and undesirable to others. But the reality is that feelings and emotions are the glue that binds people together. Sharing feelings or troubles with a friend draws them closer and makes you seem stronger.  Fighting out a conflict with someone you care about, when done right, is the best way to get through to the other side of that conflict. And talking about a problem has been proven to help people feel better.

Fortunately, not one of the above Seven Beliefs is true. In fact, they are each and every one dead wrong. Subscribing to any one of these false beliefs can set you at a disadvantage in friendships and relationships of all kinds. They will each and every one hold you back from making healthy, solid and meaningful connections with people; whether it be girlfriend, boyfriend, spouse, sibling, family or friend.

If you put a mental checkmark next to any one of the Seven Beliefs, it may mean that you were emotionally neglected, in some way, in childhood. If that is the case, it will be vital for you to figure out how you were emotionally neglected so that you can overcome it. Read more about Emotional Neglect: what it is, how it works, how it affects people and how to overcome it throughout this website. Much more information on Emotional Neglect can be found in my book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect, at Amazon, or your local bookstore.  The Kindle version is also available Here.

If you feel you need more help in dealing with this, I hope you will contact a qualified psychologist or psychotherapist to help you attack your false beliefs. If you don’t they may hold you back in every area of your life, but especially in your relationships with the people you care about the most.