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What Emotional Neglect Can Do to a Relationship

2. Failing to offer support becomes a habit.

Key points

  • A life partner can be said to be emotionally neglectful when they habitually do not provide the emotional support their partner requires.
  • A complete (or almost complete) lack of physical contact or refusal to spend time together could constitute emotional neglect of one's partner.
  • The identification of emotional neglect is always the first step in addressing it.

Emotional neglect involves failing to provide emotional support that one should provide, given one's relationship to the other. Thus it is thought that a parent emotionally neglects a child when the parent fails to show the child the level of affection or attention that, as a parent, she should (even when she may be providing for the physical needs of the child such as food, health care, clothing, and shelter).

Emotional neglect is also distinct from emotional abuse. Emotional abuse (as distinct from physical abuse) involves abusive commissions—that is, doing things to another that can be emotionally hurtful or traumatizing (for example, name-calling, manipulating, gaslighting, etc.); whereas emotional neglect involves neglectful omissions, that is, omitting to do things that tend to promote emotional well-being.

While there is helpful literature on the harmful repercussions of childhood emotional neglect in adulthood (see, for example, Jonice Webb’s guest blog in Psychology Today), less has been written about emotional neglect in adult relationships. In this post, I will investigate the conditions under which a life partner (married or unmarried) can be said to emotionally neglect the other—that is, the conditions under which one is justified in concluding that the life partner is not providing the emotional support that he or she should.

The determination of emotional neglect is open-textured; like other value judgments, the concept is inherently vague. There are, therefore, borderline cases, which are indeterminable or subject to rational disagreement. Nevertheless, there is logic to the justification of judgments about emotional neglect.

Such justification is a function of the purpose of the relationship itself. For example, the purpose of parenting is to provide the conditions of flourishing for one's child. These conditions clearly include emotional support, such as providing affection and understanding as appropriate. Similarly, the purpose of a marriage or life partnership also involves an emotional support system. The point of the latter relationships is to provide a framework for sharing one's life experiences, both positive and negative, and to receive mutual understanding, intimacy, and caring. True, there are marriages of convenience, which aim at specialized functions (for example, collecting benefits or attaining citizenship). However, these relationships are parasitic off of the primary relationship, which is one based on emotional support.

Depending on the parties to the relationship, the level of emotional support and engagement requisite to making the relationship work may vary. For example, two rather unaffectionate partners may require less emotional support than on average. Thus the value judgment about how much emotional support a partner should be providing can be, to a significant extent, contextually relative.

Still, there are clear cases of emotional neglect. A persistent habit or disposition of complete or almost complete lack of physical contact would ordinarily fall below the minimum emotional support of what the life partner should be providing. So too would a consistent pattern of refusing to spend time with one's partner, preferring instead to engage in a solitary activity (for example, playing solitaire).

So, what things should a life partner do in order to provide the emotional support he should be providing? These would be forms of emotional support most people would agree on as reasons for constituting a marriage or life partnership. They would include physical, behavioral, as well as cognitive forms of emotional support. Physical forms include intimate exchanges of affection such as hugging, kissing, touching, and sexual contact. Behavioral forms include actions that show caring or being there for the other, such as spending time with the other, or helping the other out of a difficult situation. Cognitive forms involve such things as having patience, listening, providing feedback on problems of living, and empathizing.

Typically, emotional support involves a combination of physical, behavioral, and cognitive aspects, and the package of support may be greater than the sum of its parts. For example, putting one's arms around the other, gently providing feedback, and canceling an appointment at work to do so is to provide a form of emotional support that is more than its ingredient aspects. It is also true that there are "different strokes for different folks." Thus, for example, we may have different sexual preferences; however, most couples (but not all) would agree that they desire some form of sexual contact.

Further, being emotionally neglectful, considered as a personal attribute or character trait, involves a habit of failing to provide the emotional support that one should, given the purpose of the relationship. Thus, a life partner who occasionally acts in emotionally neglectful ways (for example, refuses to have sex or acts detached and unfriendly after a marital spat) is not necessarily emotionally neglectful, even though he or she may have acted as such on certain occasions. Only when such actions rise to the level of a disposition or habit can one properly be called emotionally neglectful. Quite clearly, however, even those of us who are not emotionally neglectful can often stand to lessen the occasions on which we are emotionally neglectful.

So, is your life partner emotionally neglectful? While answering this question may require discretion, you should now have some guidelines for rationally addressing it:

  1. Is the emotional support system in your life partnership relatively one-sided (you provide, or attempt to provide, emotional support for your partner, but not conversely)?
  2. Is your partner in a habit of failing to be emotionally supportive?
  3. Can you clearly describe the particular way/s your partner is (habitually) failing to be (physically, behaviorally, or cognitively) emotionally supportive?
  4. Does your partner’s omission/s, as described, make untenable the emotional support system needed to sustain a functional life partnership (that is, a relationship conducive to sharing one’s life experiences, mutual understanding, intimacy, and caring)?
  5. Are your expectations regarding emotional support reasonable—that is, what most people would generally expect from a functional life partnership?

If your response to each of the above five questions is yes, then you have a reasonable belief that you are in an emotionally neglectful relationship. This is obviously not a calculus to compute whether your life partner is emotionally neglectful. Given the value-laden and relative nature of the concept, this is not feasible. Nevertheless, the level of emotional support in a life partnership may fall short of what one should reasonably expect in such a relationship. In such cases, it makes sense to speak of emotional neglect; in such cases, the goal of a life partnership, which is to promote mutual happiness of the partners, may be severely (if not irremediably) compromised.

This post has addressed the identification of emotional neglect, not the complex question of how to address it. For the latter, much depends on the etiology of the emotional neglect. For example, in some cases, a partner may be a workaholic and, as a result, neglect his or her relationship; some may have neural-psychological impairments, such as autistic spectrum disorder, which impedes the ability to express emotions; others may be narcissistic; while others may be preoccupied or obsessed with problems outside the relationship. In some cases, addressing the neglect may best be handled by couples counseling; in others (such as autism), conventional modes of couples counseling may be ineffective.

In any event, the identification of emotional neglect is always the first step in addressing it. This is no small feat because one can spend many years in a dysfunctional, unhappy relationship due to emotional neglect, and not know quite why he or she is so unhappy. Indeed, in abusive relationships, it may be significantly easier to identify the offending behavior because it is typically overt actions. In contrast, as stated, emotional neglect involves omissions. For example, one’s spouse does not verbally assault, does not harass, and does not engage in other forms of aggressive, emotionally harmful activities. The emotionally neglectful partner, after all, does "nothing wrong"; so it’s harder to identify what is so wrong with the relationship.

Nevertheless, like emotional abuse, emotional neglect can be quite harmful, and can destroy the quality of a relationship. So, being aware that you are in an emotionally neglectful relationship can be an important first step toward addressing this pervasive and insidious cause of profound unhappiness.

Facebook image: Dean Drobot/Shutterstock

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