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The 3 Stages of Relationships and Childhood Emotional Neglect

First, you meet someone. You spend some time getting to know each other, and you watch to see if you are compatible. If all goes well, you fall in love.

And then what?

A surprising aspect of relationships that few know about is that relationships go through stages. Just like adolescents and butterflies, successful completion of one stage leads to another, and another. Moving through each phase, resolving it in a healthy way, sets you up to begin the next phase. This forms a resilient, healthy bond.

But unlike children or insects, relationships can easily get stuck in one stage. And when they do, it’s difficult to know that it’s happening.

Some people are more vulnerable to getting stuck than others. And few are more vulnerable than those who grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). First, lets look at the 3 Stages, and then we’ll talk about the giant monkey wrench that CEN throws into the process.

The Three Stages of Healthy Relationship Development

Stage 1 – Symbiosis: In this phase, you feel that you have finally met your soulmate. You can’t believe how much you have in common. Spending time apart may be difficult, and your heart goes pitter-patter when your person walks into the room. Your brain is pumped with endorphins at the very thought of him or her. You may be frightened or thrilled, but you are falling in love.

The symbiosis phase is healthy and necessary. Beginning here sets the stage for the next phase to start. Stage 2 is where things can get messy.

Stage 2 – Differentiation: In this stage, you begin to notice that there are some differences between you that you had not noticed before. He has some bad habits; she can be annoying sometimes; his family is distant; she’s still communicating with an ex. He may have a problem with anger.

In Stage 2, it is imperative to start fighting. As a couple, you must begin to address and work through the deal-breakers, and at least talk about the frustrations and annoyances. Are you able to do this with fairness and compassion? Can you get angry at each other or feel hurt, yet stay in the moment and talk something through? Can you change yourself to make the other person happy? Can and will he change for you?

Your ability to navigate stage 2 with your partner determines the course of your relationship. In truth, this is the stage when the huge majority of relationships break up.

Stage 3 – Exploration: If you get through the first two stages, you get to enjoy this one. Here, you have ironed out most of the wrinkles and are comfortably ensconced in a warm, loving, connected relationship. This stage is called Exploration because both partners feel secure enough to explore the world and try new things, each confident that the other has his back.

The Effect of Emotional Neglect

Growing up with your emotions ignored means that you probably missed learning two key things that are necessary for healthy relationship development. First, you missed learning emotion skills, like how to identify, tolerate, or communicate your emotions. Second, you did not get to learn how to manage and work through conflicts with others.

So although you may balk at letting yourself be vulnerable enough to go into full symbiosis with someone (deep down, you sense that you lack the tools or emotional access that’s necessary and that scares you), you probably are able to get there with the right person. But Differentiation is where the difficulties kick in.

To speak your mind and heart to another; to stay present and listen while your partner speaks his truth, even when it hurts you. To hold your ground because your gut tells you that you must, and to express your feelings even when it’s a struggle. All are far more difficult for you than they should be.

Couples under the influence of CEN flee from their conflicts. Instead of fighting them out, they may simply never bring up a problem, glossing it over instead. Or they may clash briefly, only to make up without resolving anything, sweeping the problem under the rug instead. These couples end up perpetually fleeing Differentiation, and trying to hold onto Symbiosis, which keeps their brains pumped with happy chemicals. Indeed, Symbiosis feels easier and more fun.

But, unfortunately, no couple can stay in Symbiosis for long. Differentiation always presents itself. It is unavoidable.

Back and forth the couple bounces, unable to work through the issues or forge ahead toward Exploration.

What to Do

  • Identify CEN as a problem between you. Then set this goal: we will work through the Differentiation Phase together.
  • Start learning the emotion skills you missed. Practice identifying what you are feeling, and learn some new emotion words. Begin to work on speaking up and listening to each other.
  • Reframe fighting from destructive to constructive. You must fight to keep your relationship healthy and happy, so start fighting instead of avoiding. The more you fight, the better you will get at it, and the more real your relationship will feel. Best of all, you’ll be working your way right toward Exploration.

It can be difficult to know if CEN is at work in your relationship. To find out, and to learn more about the effects of CEN, Take the CEN Questionnaire

Some aspects of these steps can be quite difficult, so do not hesitate to consult a therapist for help.

The 3 Stages of Relationships and Childhood Emotional Neglect

Jonice Webb PhD

Jonice Webb, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist who is recognized worldwide for her groundbreaking work in defining, describing, and calling attention to Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). She writes, speaks, and trains therapists on the topic, and is the bestselling author of two books, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships. She also created and runs the Fuel Up For Life Online CEN Recovery Program. Since CEN can be difficult to see and remember, Dr. Webb created the CEN Questionnaire and other free resources to help you figure out if you have it. Take the CEN Questionnaire and learn much more about CEN, how it happens, and how to heal it at her website

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APA Reference
Webb PhD, J. (2017). The 3 Stages of Relationships and Childhood Emotional Neglect. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 17, 2019, from


Last updated: 6 Aug 2017
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