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Child Development

What Emotional Neglect in a Relationship Looks Like

Loneliness, surface-level conversation, and conflict avoidance.

Key points

  • For many couples, emotional neglect may be invisible or seem like nothing.
  • Emotional neglect eats away at the very fabric of a marriage, leaving loose threads and frayed areas everywhere.
  • Once emotional neglect has been identified in a relationship, partners can work together to heal and change.
 JHDT Productions/Adobe Stock images
Source: JHDT Productions/Adobe Stock images

Imagine not getting a call from your best friend on your birthday, never getting that job promotion you’ve been waiting years for, or learning you won’t be able to have a child.

These are examples of things that don’t happen. They’re invisible experiences, or non-experiences, that could even be classified as “nothing.” But nothing can be everything. The impact of these non-experiences is great.

Childhood emotional neglect is also a non-experience. It’s something that fails to happen in the life of a child. It happens when your parents don’t acknowledge, notice, or respond to your feelings enough in childhood. This non-experience may seem subtle or insignificant. But, just like years of trying to have a baby without success, it’s quite a poignant life experience.

Since childhood emotional neglect is invisible, it’s common for those who have experienced it to be unaware. But long after the emotionally neglected child grows up and marries, it lurks under the surface interfering with the marriage. You might have difficulty connecting or enjoying your relationship in a way that feels genuine and you may secretly wonder why.

But there are signs. Three main patterns emerge in relationships that are weighed down by childhood emotional neglect.

3 Indicators That Childhood Emotional Neglect Lives in Your Relationship

1. Loneliness

Couples who do not have emotional neglect tend to feel comfortable and supported by one another in their relationship. There’s an ease in knowing your partner is there for you in good times and bad. Instead of going through the difficulties of life alone, they feel secure in the fact that they have someone by their side.

In contrast, those who experienced childhood emotional neglect often describe feeling distant from their spouses. It’s because their emotions, the very things that foster love, closeness, and mutual dependence were, to some degree, walled off in their childhoods. Since emotions are needed in the marriage for the connection to deepen and for laying the groundwork for intimacy, emotional neglect interferes with it all. This is why, in an emotional neglect marriage, you may very well feel alone.

The Signs:

  • You don’t feel like your partner is your teammate.
  • You feel alone even when you’re around your partner.
  • You feel like your partner doesn’t truly know you.

2. Surface Level Conversations

Couples that are emotionally connected openly discuss their feelings and needs without too much discomfort. It’s something they see as a necessary component to being in a relationship—an ability to show vulnerability and discuss their motivations, desires, emotional needs, and deeper feelings.

Couples who experienced childhood emotional neglect, on the other hand, have great difficulty conversing about topics that bring up emotions. Thus, they fill the space between them with the news and current events, scheduling kids’ activities, or planning the next vacation. Conversations are centered around facts or what’s happening, with little focus on how they’re feeling.

The Signs:

  • Talking about feelings is very difficult for one or both of you. You may have trouble articulating what it is you’re feeling to your partner.
  • If emotions do come up, you tend to ignore or discount or bury them. Or, there may be a “blowup.”
  • You don’t know what to talk about. Perhaps you go out to dinner expecting to feel romance and intimacy, only to feel awkward or tense. You may even blame yourself when your expectations aren’t met, believing something is wrong with you or your relationship.
  • Emotion words are limited in your conversations. For example, you stick with words like happy, sad, or mad when discussing feelings.

3. Conflict Avoidance

As a psychologist specializing in childhood emotional neglect, time and time again I hear couples share their belief that conflict means their relationship is in danger. Couples who experienced childhood emotional neglect go to great lengths to avoid any signs of fighting or discontentment. They don’t realize that conflict is a normal and healthy part of relationships.

No two people can be in complete harmony at all times. Being human means having emotions, opinions, needs, beliefs, and values that are unique to you. When conflict arises, it’s a chance to communicate the deeper parts of yourself to your partner. To understand the differences and inner workings of what makes each of you, you.

When you avoid conflict, you also avoid your vital feelings and needs in your relationship. These feelings and needs don’t just go away; they fester. Anger, frustration, resentment, and hurt may then interfere with joy, love, and connection.

The Signs:

  • When you do notice a feeling, you keep it to yourself for fear that it will negatively affect your relationship. (It may emerge in a blow-up later).
  • You hate conflict and arguments, so you sweep issues under the rug.
  • You or your partner utilize the silent treatment or stonewalling, when upset.
  • You have important unresolved grievances with your partner.

What to Do

If you believe childhood emotional neglect is playing a role in your relationship, please know that it is not your fault. Also, know that there are things you can do to make some positive changes.

  1. Come to terms with the fact that you, or your partner, are affected by childhood emotional neglect. Learn all you can about childhood emotional neglect to understand the impact it has on you and your relationship.
  2. Don’t resort to blaming. You, nor your partner, chose to be emotionally neglected in childhood. It’s something that’s difficult to spot. If you have been connecting on a surface level or avoiding conflict, understand that this was not a conscious choice. You were not given the tools to connect in a deep, genuine way.
  3. Childhood emotional neglect is not an incurable disease or even a disease at all. It’s simply a lack of emotional awareness. It is something that can be changed. Work together with your partner and pay attention to your emotional worlds. It can feel uncomfortable at first, but over time you’ll find that the discomfort was worth it to get to the other side of love and connection.

I have guided countless couples through the process of childhood emotional neglect recovery. I have seen the powerful force of emotions connect and revive couples that have been lost in the depths of emotional neglect.

You no longer need to walk on eggshells, feel alone, or avoid showing your partner the truest and most beautiful parts of yourself, your feelings. Once you begin working together, your relationship will come to life.

© Jonice Webb, Ph.D.

Facebook image: Prostock-studio/Shutterstock

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