“Eric, you absolutely must talk with your wife about this,” I said. “You have to tell her you’re looking for a condo to buy. You have to let her know that you’re leaving her.”
“I will. I really will. I’ll do it this week. I promise,” he insisted.
But as I sat across from Eric in my therapy office, listening to his earnest declarations while synthesizing them with his body language and history, I knew that he would not.
You may be wondering what kind of man plans to leave his wife but does not tell her. Is Eric a narcissist? A cheater? An addict? Or a sociopath?
No, not at all. Eric is none of those things. In fact, he is a devoted family man who has never cheated on his wife. He’s not hiding anything from her. He’s not secretive or deceptive or uncaring.
Eric’s only offense is that he has a severe case of alexithymia.
Alexithymia: The inability to identify and describe your own emotions.
- Do you find it easier to communicate by mutual understanding than with words?
- Do you get tongue-tied when you’re upset?
- Does it feel almost impossible to tell someone what you’re feeling?
- Do you avoid conflict?
- Is it a struggle to tell someone you love them?
- Does strong emotion make you acutely uncomfortable, even if it’s coming from someone else?
Alexithymia may seem like a pretty mild problem in comparison to many others, like depression or anxiety or personality disorder. After all, you may have been able to work around it in many ways, just as Eric had.
But truth be told, I have seen marriages lost, sibling relationships damaged, and children estranged by nothing other than this malady. It is, indeed a thoroughly devastating problem to go through life with.
What Causes Alexithymia?
Over time, scientists have worked to identify the factors that cause some people to suffer with this problem so much more than others. Childhood abuse, neurological deficits and genetics have all been researched and named.
But I have noticed in my work a remarkably high correlation between those who struggle with alexithymia, and a childhood marked by a shortage of parental attention paid to their emotions. When parents don’t respond to their children’s emotions enough (Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN), the children don’t learn emotion skills.
This is not to say that abuse, neurology and genetics are uninvolved, especially since we now know that these three factors interact with each other in far more complex ways than we ever before realized.
But it is human nature to get caught up in things that happen (child abuse, in this case) and the physical world (neurology and genetics) to explain things. Often the best answer is the simplest solution:
Sometimes, our parents just don’t teach us things.
What You Can Do About It
- Stop blaming yourself. There is, most likely, nothing wrong with your brain. And it’s very possible that your genes are just fine. Your problem is simple, and fixable, and you did not choose it or cause it. All you have to do is be willing to overcome it, and we will talk about that next.
- Stop struggling in secret. Own this problem for what it is, a skill deficit. Accept that blame and shame have no place in this picture, and tell someone about it. Your partner, a close family member and/or a trained therapist. It’s time to start learning what you missed.
- Begin to learn the emotion skills you missed. As a child, you may have walled off your emotions because of the CEN you experienced. If so, you may be living your adult life wondering where your feelings are. I assure you they are there, and you can access them. Whether your emotions are walled off or not, you can learn how to access, identify, tolerate, manage, and express your feelings.
- Accept help. As someone who grew up with your emotions under the radar, I suspect that you might be quite self-sufficient and self-contained. But learning the emotion skills you missed is difficult without someone guiding and teaching you. A licensed therapist skilled at teaching how to identify and express emotions can walk you through the learning process.
Childhood Emotional Neglect is often invisible. To find out if you have it, I encourage you to Take the Emotional Neglect Questionnaire (it’s free). There, you can also read more about the emotion skills and how you can learn them.
Sadly, it was too late to save Eric’s marriage. If only he could have realized years ago that his secret struggle was the product of CEN. If only he had known that it was not a flaw or a defect, as he had always feared. Perhaps he could have learned the skills he missed, and healed his Childhood Emotional Neglect. Perhaps he could have talked, and felt, and communicated, and kept alive the love and closeness that he and his wife once shared.