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8 Mistakes Made by Couples With Childhood Emotional Neglect

How do you deal with conflict when you lack some necessary emotional skills?

Key points

  • When you grow up emotionally neglected, you miss the "emotion training course" that other kids naturally get from their families.
  • Families that ignore or discourage the children's feelings may teach their children how to ignore their own feelings as adults.
  • Spouses who lack the necessary emotional skills to argue effectively can tend to shut down, avoid, and misrepresent their own feelings.
Krakenimages/Adobe Stock Photos
Source: Krakenimages/Adobe Stock Photos

The biggest test of any relationship is not how compatible you are or how much you love each other. The true test is how you work out problems together.

If you or your partner were raised with childhood emotional neglect, your ability to communicate as a couple about emotional things will be greatly undermined, especially in situations where there are negative emotions involved.

Childhood Emotional Neglect

Growing up in a family that under-discussed meaningful or emotional issues can have two effects that are bound to affect your marriage decades later. First, you essentially learn how to not talk about difficult things, conflict avoidance.

Second, you don't get to learn how to identify, understand, express, and sit through difficult emotions. You are essentially launched into your adult life with a deficit of the key emotional skills that you need for a thriving marriage.

While these two effects are challenging, they are not forever. To understand why, let’s first talk about emotions.

Emotions in Relationships

Emotions are seldom all-or-nothing, simple, or even singular. They are often complex and changeable, multi-layered, and difficult to pin down.

When emotions run high, they must be accounted for and addressed in relationships. This is especially true when the emotions are anger or hurt because both of these emotions are like alarm bells ringing in your body. And anger, when not acknowledged and managed, can be very destructive.

When you grow up with emotional neglect, it is especially hard to know what you are feeling while you are feeling it. You may be angry or hurt and not be aware of it. Or you may be aware, but have no idea what to do about it.

Being aware of what you are feeling, managing those feelings, and communicating them to a partner are all skills. Which means they can be learned by any emotionally neglected person at any point in life.

Jay

Jay grew up in an emotionally neglectful home. His parents were hard-working people who loved their kids, but they were not emotionally aware and tended to ignore and discourage their children’s feelings when they were upset, hurt, sad, or even happy.

"Just get over it," Jay's dad would often say when Jay was upset or angry. Jay's mom seemed uncomfortable when her children were having too much fun, "Pipe down, kids, cut it out!" she would yell if they were laughing or goofing around together.

Fast forward to now, at age 39, when Jay learns that his wife, Jenna, told her friend about Jay’s dad’s drinking problem. Jay feels this is a private family issue, and he feels hurt, disrespected, and violated. He now must deal with this situation.

Jay, just as any person with childhood emotional neglect, may be prone to making some mistakes.

8 Mistakes the Emotionally Neglected Make During Conflicts

  1. Avoid the problem. Jay may not even notice that he’s upset. Or, he might realize he’s very upset, but decide it’s not worth talking about. So, he makes a conscious decision to “just let it go.”
  2. Assume his feelings or experiences must be wrong or don’t matter. Growing up, Jay’s parents, by ignoring/discouraging his feelings, taught him that his emotions are useless or meaningless. He is, therefore, very quick to dismiss his own feelings. He may tell himself that it’s not a big deal or that he’s just overreacting.
  3. Argue the facts instead of talking about what matters. Jay is unlikely to say to Jenna, “I feel disrespected and hurt that you told your friend my personal business.” He’s much more likely to argue about who said what when, or about how often and how much his dad drinks. Neither is likely to be a fruitful discussion.
  4. Shut down when it gets difficult. Jay’s eyes glaze over and he mentally disappears from the room when he feels overwhelmed or when his discussion with Jenna surpasses his emotional skills.
  5. Give up far too soon. When Jay, in his discussion with Jenna, runs up against the limit of his emotional skills, he may walk out, leaving Jenna alone and unresolved. Or, with or without sarcasm, he may say, “You win. I’m out.”
  6. Use extreme words or hear extreme things. Jay might make extreme declarations using extreme words like always, never, all, or none. He might say something like, "You're always telling everyone our business," or "I can never trust you again."
  7. Accidentally misrepresent his feelings. Even though Jay feels a complex mixture of emotions—violated, disrespected, hurt, and betrayed—he may claim he's not upset or label his feelings far too simply like “annoyed.” Or, he may not use any feeling words at all.
  8. Misperceive or misinterpret what his partner feels. For example, if Jenna says, “I’m shocked that it bothers you so much that I told my friend,” he may interpret that as, “I don’t care how you feel,” or “It shouldn’t bother you,” even though Jenna did not mean that at all. if Jenna says, “I’m angry,” Jay might hear, “I despise you forever,” and react to it that way.
Nomad_Soul/Adobe Stock
Source: Nomad_Soul/Adobe Stock

What Now?

If you see yourself or your partner in the description of Jay, I have good news for you. Your relationship can be changed in a positive and permanent way.

Once you have realized the problem, that you missed learning some skills, you can begin to practice those skills and develop them.

You can focus more on feelings, your own and your partner’s, make a special effort to convey your own feelings accurately, and practice accepting that your feelings do matter and deserve expression.

The simple effort of trying to learn the skills will be felt as a loving act by your partner. The more you work on this, the better you will become, and the emotional neglect you grew up with can gradually become a thing of the past.

© Jonice Webb, Ph.D.

References

To determine whether you might be living with the effects of childhood emotional neglect, you can take the free Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. You'll find the link in my bio.

Don, B. P., Eller, J., Simpson, J. A., Fredrickson, B. L., Algoe, S. B., Rholes, W. S., & Mickelson, K. D. (2021). New parental positivity: The role of positive emotions in promoting relational adjustment during the transition to parenthood. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000371

Leo, K., Crenshaw, A. O., Hogan, J. N., Bourne, S. V., Baucom, K. J. W., & Baucom, B. R. W. (2021). A replication and extension of the interpersonal process model of demand/withdraw behavior: Incorporating subjective emotional experience. Journal of Family Psychology, 35(4), 534–545. https://doi.org/10.1037/fam0000802

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