Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

5 Ways Childhood Emotional Neglect Can Interfere With Dating

Growing up emotionally neglected puts obstacles between you and potential mates.

Key points

  • Whether you're already married, dating, or thinking about dating, it's important to understand the factors involved in your choice of partner.
  • Adults raised by parents who ignored their emotional needs automatically figure out how to hide their feelings and needs from others.
  • You may even grow up to feel deeply ashamed of having emotional needs and this gets in your way when it's time to look for a partner.
Rido/Adobe Stock Images
Source: Rido/Adobe Stock Images

Some children are literally raised to hide their emotional needs. They are taught to hide their feelings and make sure no one sees that they need natural, human essentials like emotional support, understanding, and validation from other people.

Many parents who raise their children this way are otherwise fine people with good intentions who were themselves raised to believe that emotions are irrelevant and emotional needs are a bother. Others might be unable to respond well to their child’s emotional needs because they are addicted, depressed, struggling, self-involved, or simply unaware of their children’s needs in general.

Growing up with parents who treat your natural emotional needs as if they are unappealing or a bother is the definition of childhood emotional neglect. You learn that your feelings and needs are things to squelch and hide from others. They may even become your secret shame.

All of this has a profound effect on your future dating and love relationships. It certainly can set you up to look for the wrong kind of love with the wrong kind of partner. It can even make certain elements of a healthy relationship feel simply wrong.

5 Obstacles to Dating and Relationships Caused By Emotional Neglect

1. Feeling and Accepting Love. When your parents show low interest in your feelings and emotional needs, it creates a kind of emotional desert inside of you. It’s like 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.

How it Affects Your Relationship: Even when you find someone who gives you the ingredients you need most (emotional attention, care, and responsiveness), it may make you uncomfortable. You do not know what to do with it and you may have an impulse to run away.

2. Fear of Rejection. When, as a child, you go to your parents for the natural emotional support that all children need, and do not receive it, you automatically feel rejected. In this way, children of emotional neglect may end up harboring a deep fear of rejection at their very core.

How it Affects Your Relationship: As an adult, you may unconsciously 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.

3. Lack of Full Access to Your Feelings. Children growing up in families that don’t deal with feelings learn one basic feeling “skill": how to repress and squelch their feelings. Emotionally neglected children wall off their feelings in order to cope in their childhood home.

How it Affects Your Relationship: As an adult, to find your person you need your emotions to form deep, resilient, lasting connections with others. This makes forming a meaningful emotional connection with a partner much more challenging.

4. Shame About Sex or Loving Feelings. Parents who do not discuss or demonstrate positive emotions, such as love, warmth, or affection, and parents who avoid all mention of sex or do not educate their children about it, set their children up to hide, or even feel ashamed of their own positive, loving feelings and sexual needs.

How it Affects Your Relationship: You may grow up being blocked by a wall of shame from pursuing a partner and sharing romantic and sexual feelings with another.

5. Deep Down, You Feel You Don’t Matter. Growing up in a home where your feelings and emotional needs don’t matter is like being told, “You don’t matter.” Having been treated this way as a child leads to treating yourself that way as an adult.

How it Affects Your Relationship: If you devalue your own feelings and needs, then how do you confidently ask for things or expect things from a partner? What do you do if your partner wants to make you happy? Will they have to guess what you want and need? That is a formula for struggle and pain and makes it difficult for you to get what you actually want and need in your relationship.

The Takeaway

Emotional neglect sets you up from childhood with some very real challenges in your adult life. But if you have faced some of these obstacles in your dating experiences, there are clear things you can do to remove them from your path.

Begin with treating your own feelings differently than your parents did. Accept that your feelings and your emotional needs are normal aspects of your humanity and that they deserve the same respect, care, expression, and management as your needs for food and water.

Even though you were discouraged from showing and sharing your feelings as a child, you can start showing and sharing them in your relationships today. Even though you were subtly discouraged from accepting your emotional needs, you can start accepting them. Even though you learned to hide, you can learn to show up as your full, human, vulnerable self now.

As you pay more attention to what you are feeling and what you need and put in the effort to understand and fulfill your true emotions and needs, you will automatically communicate to current or potential partners that you value yourself and expect to be happy, healthy, and fulfilled. This message gives your partners the opportunity to act accordingly.

Being open and vulnerable enough to share what you feel and need with another person is the true source of meaningful emotional connection. This healthy give-and-take is what relationships are built on.

By giving yourself what you didn’t get in childhood, you are removing the obstacles from your path to a close, caring love relationship. And you are setting yourself up to get what you want and need from your partner once you find them.

© Jonice Webb, Ph.D.


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.