In all of the interviews and talks I have done about Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), as well as the articles I have written, certain questions keep coming up over and over again. They are excellent questions that are natural for anyone to ask, especially if you have realized that you grew up in an emotionally neglectful home, but also if you are wondering if CEN applies to you.
First, let’s define what Childhood Emotional Neglect is. It’s your parents’ failure to respond enough to your emotional needs as they raise you. This failure to respond enough emotionally can be difficult to see in many families, and it can be hard to remember as an adult. Yet its effects stay with you for a lifetime.
Once you realize this is you, it can be very, very unsettling, to say the least. Finding the answer of CEN can bring you understanding and great relief. But it also raises questions.
How prevalent is Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN)?
Unfortunately, I do not have exact numbers on this, but I can answer based on my own clinical experience plus reports from my therapist colleagues. I believe it is very common among the general population. It varies in severity from mild to extreme, based on how pervasive the emotional neglect was in childhood. I think a large portion of the population has some degree of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).
What effect does CEN have on the victim’s adult relationships?
Childhood is meant to be an emotional training ground. When your parents under-respond to your emotions as they raise you, they miss the opportunity to teach you how to handle your emotions. Since emotions are the most important key to healthy relationships, CEN sets you up to be at a great disadvantage in your primary relationship, with your family, and in raising your own children.
You may find yourself feeling confused about how to identify your own feelings and the feelings of others, put them into words to share them, manage conflict, and even respond in an attuned way to your children’s emotions once you become a parent.
It’s very difficult to give what you never got: emotional attunement and awareness.
What are the traits to look for to know if your spouse or partner suffers from CEN?
The effects of CEN can be very invisible, so it is indeed hard to see in a relationship. Yet those effects can be very harmful to the warmth and connection in a relationship, especially over time. Here are some signs to look for:
• A feeling of distance that you can’t explain.
• A tendency to sweep problems under the rug.
• He/she often misrepresents what he is feeling: saying, “I’m not angry” when is quite obviously angry, for example.
• Discomfort with strong emotions in the relationship, either positive feelings, negative ones or both.
• A tendency to talk about facts and events and logistics, with little ability to focus on what really matters in a relationship: feelings, struggles, warmth.
• A sense that you are leading separate lives.
How does CEN influence a person’s choice of partner?
You may be drawn to partner with someone who also has CEN: If you were raised to be uncomfortable with emotions, your own as well as others’, as an adult you may feel most comfortable with someone who treats emotions the same way. You will experience them as non-threatening and safe. This will likely lead to the two of you drifting apart over time.
Being out of touch with your emotions can leave you with a deep feeling of emptiness inside. That emptiness may seek to be filled and may lead you to marry or commit too soon before you fully know the person you are marrying.
If your emotional needs were ignored or denied when you were a child, you may have a powerful fear of ever appearing needy as an adult (I call this counter-dependence). This can make the act of dating and forming a meaningful relationship feel like a weakness, or just plain wrong. Some folks with CEN are not able to override this fear of needing someone, and they are never able to commit at all.
Since emotions are the spice of life (most people don’t realize this), when your emotions are walled off due to CEN you may feel a sense of blandness in your life. You may be drawn to someone who has intense emotions. This may work out fine, but it can backfire if the other person’s intense emotions are unpredictable or can be directed at you unfairly at times.
Part of CEN is a tendency to ignore not only your feelings but also your emotional needs. If you appear to take up little emotional space and to have few needs, you may be attractive to people who take a lot of emotional space and have intense emotional needs, like a person with narcissism. This can play out over time in a damaging and negative way.
What needs to happen for those struggling with CEN to repair their relationships?
It is very helpful for the person with CEN to become aware that they have the CEN emotional style, and of how it is affecting the relationship.
Sometimes the person who does not have CEN can reach out to their CEN partner and ask them to read this article or my blog or the book Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect or take the CEN Questionnaire (see below), to help them understand what CEN is and become aware that they have it.
Setting a goal of paying more attention to emotions in the relationship is very helpful. In the book Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children, there are exercises and worksheets specially designed to help couples do this.
Structuring time for “meaningful talk” where surface topics are not allowed can be challenging but very helpful.
Sometimes it’s very helpful to get the support and help of a therapist to help the couple talk through old conflicts that have been ignored instead of dealt with directly. Old feelings of anger or hurt can weigh on a relationship even more than current ones.
Addressing CEN in yourself and in your relationship can have profound effects that go to every corner of your life. It changes your self-view, the quality of your connections with others, and perhaps most importantly, your parenting.
You can give yourself what you never got, and then you’ll be able to give it to the people most important to you.
If you’re not sure if you have CEN, Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free.
To heal your CEN in your self and your relationships, see Running On Empty and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.