Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN is best described as a non-experience in the life of a child. Why? Because it’s not something that happens to the child. Instead, it’s something that fails to happen for the child.
Childhood Emotional Neglect occurs when your parents fail to notice, validate and respond to your feelings enough as they raise you. This non-experience seems like nothing. But it is, actually, very much something.
It’s something that stays with you, the child, all through your adulthood, standing like a wall between you and spouse, blocking your ability to connect and enjoy all of your relationships in the way that it should be enjoyed.
Because CEN is so often invisible when it happens, the huge majority of people who have it are completely unaware. Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN lurks in untold numbers of marriages. So how do you know if CEN is at work in your marriage?
Fortunately for us, there are some special markers that point to the behind-the-scenes weight of Childhood Emotional Neglect on a relationship. These are the main ways that it often plays out over time or can be observed in a given moment. I am sharing them straight from my book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
As you read through the markers, please do think about whether each item is true of you, your partner, or both.
The Main Markers of CEN in a Relationship
- Conflict Avoidance
Conflict avoidance is essentially an unwillingness to clash or fight and is one of the most classic signs of CEN in a couple. It’s also one of the most damaging.
Believe it or not, fighting is healthy in a relationship. Consider that there is no way for two people to closely intertwine their lives for decades without facing some important differences of opinion, needs and wishes hundreds, or more likely thousands, of times.
Conflict avoidance has the power to severely undermine a relationship. Not only are you and your partner unable to solve problems by avoiding them; in addition, the anger, frustration and hurt from unsolved issues goes underground and festers and grows, eating away at the warmth and love that you should be enjoying with each other.
- You try not to bring up hurtful topics or issues that you’re angry about.
- You are so uncomfortable with clashes or arguments that you sweep problems under the rug instead of talking about them.
- Bringing up something negative feels like unnecessarily opening Pandora’s Box.
- You or your spouse uses the silent treatment when unhappy or angry.
- Feeling Lonely or Empty in the Relationship
Being in a long-term committed relationship is supposed to prevent loneliness. Indeed, when a relationship is going well, there is a comfort that comes from knowing that someone always has your back. You are not facing the world alone. You are not one, you are two.
But it’s entirely possible to feel deeply lonely, even when you are surrounded by people. And when emotional intimacy is not fully developed in your marriage, it can lead to an emptiness and a loneliness that is far more painful than you would feel if you were actually alone.
- Even when you’re with your spouse, you sometimes feel a deep sense that you are all alone.
- There’s a lack of feeling of being, or working as, a team.
- Conversation is Mostly About Surface Topics
Every couple must talk about something. Emotionally connected couples discuss their feelings and emotional needs with relative ease. Not so with the emotionally neglected. When you have CEN, you stick with “safe” topics. current events, logistics or the children. For example, you can plan together. You can talk about the kids. You can talk about what’s happening, but not about what you’re feeling. You seldom discuss anything that has depth or emotion involved. And when you do, the words are few.
A willingness to open up, to explore problems and to have an exchange about the status of your relationship, your feelings, motivations, needs, and problems is essential to the health of a relationship.
- Talking about a topic that involves emotion is a huge struggle for one or both of you. Emotional intimacy requires vulnerability on both sides. When you have no choice but to talk about something emotional, it’s a challenge of epic proportions. Trying to put feelings into words seems impossible. You typically, as a couple, end up blowing up and/or abandoning the topic altogether.
- It’s difficult to find things to talk about. You go out to dinner for your anniversary, and you expect it to feel warm and romantic. But instead, the table between you feels like a barrier that divides you. In general, your conversations may feel stilted or awkward, especially when it “should” be the opposite.
- One or both of you have a limited vocabulary of emotion words.
The Good News
There is one good thing about Childhood Emotional Neglect: It can be addressed directly. Its effects can be literally rooted out of your marriage.
Step 1 in this process of healing your marriage is for the CEN partner or partners to see and accept that Childhood Emotional Neglect is affecting you, both individually and together.
Step 2 is to realize that there is no one to blame for this. CEN is not a choice and it’s highly invisible. So if one or both of you have for years, or even for decades, been avoiding conflict, connecting only on the surface, and/or feeling lonely in the marriage, letting go of the natural assumption that this has been a choice will open you up for healthy change.
Step 3 is to accept that CEN is not a diagnosis or a disease; it’s simply a lack of connection to your own emotions, a deep discomfort with feelings, and a lack of emotion skills. If you take on this challenge together, you can help each other start to pay more attention to what you are each feeling, and begin to learn emotion words, express emotions to each other, and talk openly about problems instead of ignoring them.
You Can Do It
As a psychologist specializing in Childhood Emotional Neglect, I have walked scores of couples through this process. I have seen how very powerfully a couple can change themselves and their relationship simply by walking through the steps of CEN recovery together.
Together you can tear down the wall that is holding you apart, and reconnect yourselves with the emotion that should be joining, warming, stimulating and enriching you. Once you reclaim this vital resource and start to use it, everything will change.
To learn much more about how couples feel when one or both members has CEN, more markers of CEN in a relationship, and the detailed steps to heal CEN in your marriage, see the book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
Since CEN can be difficult to see or remember it can be hard to know if you have it. To find out, Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.