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

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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.

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


Click Here to Leave a Comment Below
Betty - August 29, 2021 Reply

These stories resonate. Thank you for your work and kind sensitivity. Childhood was definitely CEN. I always wanted to have a child to know the love cited above. But didn’t meet my husband during the “normal life years for marriage”. I’m not counting or citing “age”. But a relationship started developing 2 years ago and is going towards marriage. We are geographically distant but talk and pray nearly every day. He tells me he loves me at the end of every call. He hopes to visit soon. He understands how I missed the motherhood experience. I’m hoping to be approved to be a child ministry volunteer at my church. My brother has trouble expressing emotions, thoughts, feelings. His first wife left him therefore she told me. I seek ways to connect emotionally with snippets from my life of gardening, art and animals, with his now long term significant other. My brother cares and our parents really cared, they just couldn’t connect emotionally very well with him either it seems. my brothers n sisters say we don’t use the word “feel” which I had been doing trying to connect to something in the heart. But it’s getting better. It’s happening more. Your book is a great help as is your blog hitting on issues only we CENs understand. Your words make me FEEL met, connected, understood. Thank you!

Sasha - August 29, 2021 Reply

This example also sounds like an autistic husband and a neurotypical wife. The lack of emotional reciprocity can be neurological. And that’s much more complicated to manage than CEN, though the symptoms may look the same at first. Or perhaps there’s CEN and Autism, which is extra complicated. But if trying to only treat CEN is not working, Autism needs to be evaluated.

    Jonice - August 30, 2021 Reply

    Dear Sasha, you may be surprised how many folks like Tim don’t have autism at all. They just grew up in an emotion-blind family. That’s all it takes to be like Tim and, I assure you, I have seen many “Tims” change and grow and become far more emotionally aware, connected and literate. That said, some people do have autism and would require a different type of help.

Gregg - August 29, 2021 Reply

We both came from alcoholic families. I’ve been in therapy for years and take SSRIs. My wife takes SSRIs, but refuses counseling saying that she “doesn’t want to dig up all that old stuff.”
I know I have CEN, and I’m positive she does too. The quotes at the beginning of this article could have come from both of us. I honestly don’t know what to do anymore after forty two years of marriage. With her refusal to go to therapy or counseling, and her meltdowns and denials, nothing can change. I’m at the point where I can’t even try anymore.

    Jonice - August 30, 2021 Reply

    Dear Gregg, have you read my second book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships? It has plenty of good advice for you. In general, I can suggest that you work on yourself and keep growing on your own. You owe it to yourself to not give up.

Vicky - April 23, 2017 Reply

When I first met my husband I knew that he were going to be together as friends, lovers, partners, everything! Then our child came along and for a very long period I was so happy that I could stop myself from smiling. And yet many times I held my baby-girl I cried inconsolably in silence, because I felt a love for her filling my heart that I had never felt before, something so huge and so real I couldn’t understand it by myself. And all I could say was that I love her more than myself. Then one day I found an article about the emotionally absent mother and then another one for abusive parents; an things started finally getting into place; like fitting finally all the missing pieces together. I was raised in a family with a mother in depression and in self-doubt, a mother who hated her role and her responsibilities, a mother who beat my brother and I with everything she could find in hand, that called me evil stupid non-worthy an imbecile a whore. I grew up having no friends, none to talk or share things, because she as well was alone and hurt, and yet as a high-school student I couldn’t even visit the one friend that I had made with so much difficulty and strain. Even having a coffee out with that friend was an insult to her. And the list wouldn’t end… From having no financing for my studies and having to gain all the money to support myself through college, while working at the same time, to living abroad for my Master’s degree with enough money to just pay my rent, going hungry for days with no food or heat, to my parents having holidays and dinners with money that magically appeared when they had none! When I was in college, my first ever “boyfriend” raped me, and I was so deprived of self-worth and understanding about being even basically loved and treated that I thought that it wasn’t that big a deal… It was just rough and I didn’t like it and I said “No” till I started screaming at him. He hurt me, physically and mentally abused me and I thought that maybe I was overacting… Because I was so hard-wired in believing that I was always asking too much and that even that little nothing of attention that I took was good and enough for me. And then I had PTS for 2 years with depression out of nowhere I though till I was finally talking to a psychologist who told me “Have you realised that you were sexually assaulted?”, and until that time I hadn’t… I took a while to pull myself together cutting my parents to the minimum of contact and yet they found a way of making me the bad seed in all of these, they even went as far as to tell me to have an abortion when I was pregnant and that my husband would leave me and wouldn’t love our child, just because he isn’t of their liking! I went through pregnancy without the help of a mother, like all women should have. And then I gave birth with a lot of complications only with my husband under a lot of pressure. We’re here just the two of us, trying to overcome everything! Yet since I’ve realised what my parents are and have been I think I started sinking in depression again, so much stress and pressure on everything, and on top I always worry that I will hurt my little girl irreversibly like they did, that I will become the lousy parents they have been! It’s been a year now, my husband grow more distant and less understanding because I think he cannot grasp the way I was raised. I tend to bury my feelings until they burst into anger and shouting and my familiar phrase “Why can’t you just be happy?”

Thank you for this article! It made me realise something today. I can change, I can be better, it’s not my fault I’m in denial of everything I feel, I struggle so much to speak and convey my feelings and sometimes even acknowledge them. And it is because I was never aloud, I don’t even remember myself talking about my feeling to my family as a child because I was always considered as an annoyance and an overly sentimental person! I was told time after time “not to cry” when she beat me, that I should toughen up. So I became tough as a rock inside, running on nothing, allowing myself to feel little to non, because that way nothing could touch me and I could go on another day of living with them. I though so many times about dying when I was a child; I even kept wondering “If I died would they care? Would they wept for me?” I think that I start realising only now as an adult and a mother the power of emotions and sometimes I think that my daughter teaches me how to feel again like a normal human being by her own natural process.

Thank you again for the information above. I think my journey is going to be long but at least I know I’m on a good way…

Patricia Chalmers - March 28, 2014 Reply

Hello, I thank you so much for your book about CEN. I am 63 years old and have always felt empty inside. A long dysfunctional family story about my childhood and so that is where it stems from. I tell friends about your book if they share with me that they have the same empty feelings. I am having therapy for this and it will be a journey to re inventing myself emotionally. Thank you again for bringing this very important and valuable subject out into the public arena.

Kind Regards,

Patricia Chalmers ( Melbourne Australia. )

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