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5 Threatening but Fixable Relationship Challenges

2. Trouble expressing feelings and needs.

Key points

  • Emotional intimacy in a relationship is difficult to describe in words, yet, when you encounter it, you can see and feel it.
  • Some of the prime problems that can destroy a marriage are caused by holding back or hiding feelings, and they are repairable.
  • There are key steps you can take together or individually that will improve your ability to connect and communicate emotionally.

When you think about what factors go into a happy marriage, you may think about such necessary qualities as love, shared interests, supportive family, a good sex life, financial agreement, similar parenting styles, or shared values. There’s no doubt these are all important factors in a healthy relationship.

And yet there’s one factor in a marriage that lays the foundation for all others to be possible. This factor is pivotal to the psychological health and happiness of a couple. It’s emotional intimacy.

What Exactly Is Emotional Intimacy?

Emotional intimacy is difficult to articulate, but if you have ever spent time around a couple who has emotional intimacy, you may have observed its unique qualities.

When couples have it, you may notice a kind of comfortable compatibility between them. Exuding warmth rather than distance, they can get a sense of what the other is thinking and feeling with a single glance. They laugh together and are at ease expressing differing opinions. These are the ways that couples with emotional intimacy are set apart.

In my work as a couples therapist specializing in childhood emotional neglect, I often see how it blocks couples' emotional intimacy, interfering with the necessary factors listed above, and preventing an opportunity for true, close emotional connection to take hold.

Childhood Emotional Neglect

There’s no way to not learn how to suppress your emotions when you grow up with parents who lack the ability to notice, validate, or respond to your feelings—the definition of childhood emotional neglect. You end up developing negative ideas about your feelings, having learned that they are burdensome or unnecessary, and it is natural to simply wall them off to avoid the trouble you believe they bring.

The result: you may have felt like a fish out of water as you entered adulthood with your emotions held at bay. Silently struggling and without a clear understanding of the reasons, you may feel different from everyone else and wish it was easier to feel closer to others.

This is how childhood emotional neglect interferes with emotional intimacy. It separates you from the most valuable ingredient a relationship or marriage needs to thrive: your feelings.

5 Key Relationship Flaws That Can Be Fixed

  1. There is a wall between you and your partner. Perhaps you connect over shared interests, values, or children, but if your emotions are unavailable, no matter how compatible and committed you are, these other connections may feel surface-level. Working with these couples, I hear sentiments like, “Even when you’re around I feel alone,” or “What will it take for you to let me in?” Unable to identify what's missing, you and your partner may end up feeling confused. There is disconnection when your head and heart conflict—knowing your partner loves you is very different than feeling it. And if you and your partner both experienced childhood emotional neglect, the wall may be even taller and wider.
  2. You have trouble expressing your feelings and needs. Undeniably, if you push your feelings aside, it’s extremely difficult to express them to someone else. When you know how you feel, you are better able to identify what you need. Growing up with parents who under-attended to your emotions, you learned that your feelings and desires are unimportant. Without lifelong practice, it’s hard to figure out the answers to what you feel, what you need, or what you want. If you are unaware of these, chances are your partner is, too.
  3. You hold yourself back from letting your true self show. When you deny your own feelings and needs, it’s easy to over-focus on the feelings and needs of others. It’s common for emotionally neglected people to have great awareness and compassion for others yet struggle to direct this attention inward. And, despite your interest and care toward your partner, the disconnection persists, because relationships need to be reciprocal. Just as you know your partner’s inner self, they need to know you. How is your partner to know you if your emotions, the window into who you are, are walled off?
  4. Talking through problems is exceptionally difficult for you. If you grew up without emotional awareness or emotional skills, communicating about important topics may seem like no easy feat. It takes knowledge, skill, and practice to identify your feelings, articulate these feelings, and express them to your partner in an effective way. This is how you learn about one another and work through issues together. Since you weren’t taught how to do this, you may resort to avoidance tactics like shutting down, stonewalling, making jokes, or dissociating.
  5. You tend to take a passive role and avoid conflict. Emotionally neglected adults may have grown up in conflict-avoidant homes and/or explosive, tumultuous homes, learning either way that conflict is bad. But conflict doesn’t mean your relationship is in danger. Fighting is a normal and necessary tool for communicating your feelings and needs to your partner. Working together toward a common goal allows for emotional intimacy to develop. Never having learned this, you may instead hold your complaints inside. Relationship issues are compounded when you avoid conflict.

What to Do

Do you recognize any of these flaws in your own marriage? If so, please take heart; there is plenty of hope. All five of these potentially fatal flaws can be drastically improved when you and/or your partner walk through the steps of healing your childhood emotional neglect. There is a clear path forward for you and your relationship.

  1. Take away all the blame. This is not your fault or your partner’s because childhood emotional neglect is not a choice. It is automatically passed down in families, usually invisibly.
  2. Build and deepen your understanding of childhood emotional neglect and its role in your life.
  3. Start getting in touch with your feelings, and next learn the emotion skills you didn't get to learn as a child.
  4. Start using those newfound emotions and skills to communicate and connect, just as they were meant to do all along.

You can take these steps together with your partner or on your own, as many have done before you.

Even if you and your partner grew up in emotionally neglectful homes, it is never too late to discover your feelings. You can overcome these five relationship flaws and build a deep, meaningful, and emotional connection together, the very definition of emotional intimacy.

© Jonice Webb, Ph.D.

Facebook image: Mangostar/Shutterstock


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.

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