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10 Signs of Emotional Neglect in a Relationship

10. You only feel positive emotions during sex.

Key points

  • The key to emotional connection in a marriage is responding to each other's emotional needs.
  • Even though it's hard to see and recognize, emotional neglect in a marriage causes real pain.
  • Emotional connection is not a thing that you either have or don't have; it's an action that you can take.
By kieferpix/Adobe Stock Images
Source: By kieferpix/Adobe Stock Images

Emotional neglect in a relationship is the absence of enough emotional awareness and response. It may be invisible to everyone, even the couple themselves, yet it's painful. Both partners are hurt by what is not there.

In a now-classic 2004 study, researcher John Gottman found that the difference between couples that thrive and those that divorce is the frequency with which couples meet each other’s requests for emotional connection.

When it comes to relationships, feelings provide the connection, the warmth, the fire, and the glue. It is vital that couples reach out and respond to each other emotionally.

So what happens if you or your partner simply isn’t capable of requesting or responding? Beyond that, what if it’s no one’s fault?

The Emotionally Neglectful Relationship

If I had to describe an emotionally neglectful marriage in one word, it would probably be lonely. It’s as if you have someone right beside you, yet they are a thousand miles away emotionally. You can see them but you can’t feel their presence. You can talk to them but you can’t talk the way you want to talk. You are with them, but you feel alone.

It’s almost as if there is a wall between you blocking you from them, and them from you. A wall you can see through, but you can’t get through. That wall is made up of emotional neglect.

How Childhood Emotional Neglect Creeps Into a Marriage

Actually, it doesn’t exactly creep in. Instead, it strides through the back door, silently and stealthily undermining communication, connection, compassion, and warmth in your relationship.

Usually, emotional neglect is brought into the marriage through the childhood of one or both of the partners. When one or both partners comes from a family that’s not aware of feelings and under-attends to them (childhood emotional neglect), that partner naturally continues that process.

Growing up with emotional neglect makes you blind to your own emotions, the essential ingredient that is absolutely necessary to connect in a real way with your spouse. The “emotion blindness” also extends to your partner. You may have difficulty noticing and responding to their feelings as well. This may result in an emotionally lonely partner.

If you and your partner both brought the emotional blind spot into your relationship, then a somewhat different problem ensues, because neither of you can see what’s missing. Neither of you may realize what should be happening and what you should be feeling. With no one able to call out the problem, you are in danger of slowly, painfully drifting apart until the growing wall of emotional neglect distorts your vision of each other, and the positive, healthy feelings that brought you together slowly drain away.

The Issue of Blame

In most families, blame has no place when it comes to emotional neglect. No child asks to be emotionally neglected, and most parents have no idea they’re emotionally neglectful. That’s how emotional neglect works: The emotional blind spot transfers silently from one generation to the next.

But, while no one is responsible for the emotional neglect they received, once we are aware of the problem, we are responsible for the emotional neglect we give. Once we see it in ourselves, we become the change agent. We become responsible for stopping the cycle.

No one says it’s an easy “fix.” But the problem of emotional neglect in a marriage can be resolved. The skills of emotional intimacy and connection are learnable.

10 Signs That Emotional Neglect Is Silently Undermining Your Relationship

  1. You and your partner misread each other’s true feelings, actions, thoughts, or intentions very often.
  2. As a couple, you avoid bringing up difficult things so as not to upset the other.
  3. You haven’t figured out how to argue productively.
  4. Your conversations are mostly focused on facts, events, or logistics.
  5. Your spouse is not the first person you want to tell when something great happens or a problem comes up.
  6. If you seek comfort from your spouse they often say the wrong thing.
  7. You don’t feel like you’re a team taking on life together.
  8. You often feel alone when you’re with your partner.
  9. It can be difficult to find something to talk about together.
  10. Positive emotions like love, warmth, or emotional bonding feel awkward or only happen during sex.
Monkey Business/Adobe Stock
Source: Monkey Business/Adobe Stock

So What Now?

First, if some of these 10 apply to your marriage, consider the possibility that emotional neglect is at work. Then, remind yourself that blame is unhelpful and unnecessary here.

Now, keeping the Gottman research in mind, think of emotional connection in a new way. Instead of thinking of it as a thing that you either do or don’t have, think of it as an action—a process of give-and-take that you and your partner actively do.

Ask your spouse for emotional support, or to share in a happy, sad, or painful moment. Watch for times when they are requesting an emotional bond with you, and provide it.

Ask – Give – Take. Ask – Give – Take. Each time you do it, you are removing the invisible pain from your marriage. You are healing the emotional neglect, one step at a time.

Finally, instead of being silently hurt by what isn't there, you will be connected and enriched by what you have created together.

© Jonice Webb, Ph.D.

Facebook image: Travelpixs/Shutterstock

References

Driver, J. L, and Gottman, J.M., (2004). Turning Toward Versus Turning Away: A Coding System of Daily Interactions. In P.K. Kerig and D.H. Baucom (Eds.), Couple Observational Coding Systems, Chapter 13, 209-225. NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates;

Bonnie M. Le, Stéphane Côté, Jennifer Stellar, Emily A. Impett. The Distinct Effects of Empathic Accuracy for a Romantic Partner’s Appeasement and Dominance Emotions. Psychological Science, 2020; 095679762090497 DOI: 10.1177/0956797620904975

Lameese Eldesouky, Tammy English, James J. Gross. Out of Sight, Out of Mind? Accuracy and Bias in Emotion Regulation Trait Judgments. Journal of Personality, 2016; DOI: 10.1111/jopy.12259

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