As a psychologist who specializes in both couples therapy and Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN, I work with many couples in which one or both of the partners grew up in families that did not pay attention to the feelings of its members.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): Happens when parents fail to respond enough to the child’s emotional needs.
It has never ceased to amaze me how much a childhood experience that seems like it should be insignificant can hang over a child’s adult life, gradually eroding, diminishing, and in some cases, eventually damaging, their marriage.
The truth is, when you marry someone who grew up with their emotions ignored, you are marrying someone who ignores emotions, most definitely their own, but likely yours as well.
Since, in every relationship, feelings are the glue that holds the two people together, the power that moves them forward, and the fire that keeps the passion burning, a marriage without both partners’ feelings fully in is working at a great disadvantage.
Meet Marcel and May (From the Book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships)
In my first appointment with Marcel and May to begin couples therapy, my heart sank. It was Marcel’s idea to come to marriage counseling, and May was there essentially under duress. As Marcel poured out his hurt, frustration, and helplessness, May sat with a puzzled half-smile on her face.
“May, what do you feel about all that Marcel just said?” I asked her.
May’s widening smile clashed with the pain in her eyes. “I don’t understand what’s wrong with Marcel,” she said. “I think he just needs to chill out. I think our marriage is fine.”
When One Partner Grew Up With Childhood Emotional Neglect
In Marcel and May’s marriage, only Marcel is consciously aware of the chasm between them. Although they have a good relationship in many ways, emotionally he feels a million miles away from May. Each time he tries to reach out and connect with his wife, he finds himself up against a stone wall that he can’t get through.
May, on the other hand, has a different experience. Her feelings were not acceptable in her childhood home, and so her emotions are pushed down and away. Unfortunately, the wall that stands between May and her feelings also blocks out Marcel. May might sense an emptiness in her life, but she does not miss what she has never had—emotional intimacy. She is comfortable in the marriage because it recreates the same level of closeness that she had in her childhood. With her own feelings blocked off and with everyone who is important to her at bay, she only becomes uncomfortable in the marriage when Marcel knocks on her wall and demands, “Let me in!”
Each CEN person has developed his own unique system to avoid emotion. Some laugh or crack a joke when faced with another person’s emotions; others freeze, talk excessively, fidget, change the subject or leave the room. May uses her smile, as well as the shutting-down mechanism we saw her use earlier when Marcel tried to talk with her about his needs in the relationship.
In the therapy room, May was using her smile to “protect” herself, Marcel and me from her feelings. Her smile is one of the tools she learned and used well in her childhood home. A smile communicates one emotion, “happy,” which is the only emotion that’s acceptable in many CEN households. A smiling child or adult is not of concern to anyone. A smile does not draw attention or ask for anything. A smile is a way to not only please others but also to assure the world: “Don’t worry about me. I’m okay.”
May’s smile and her denial of the problem are both effective ways to keep Marcel at bay. She is not consciously choosing either of these methods, of course. They were literally wired into her in childhood, and they are all she knows.
The remarkable thing about CEN is that it’s not dramatic. Often there are no explosions or fights, and there’s no “bad guy.” Couples can have a hard time taking action to solve an invisible, vague, indescribable problem, and it’s hard to complain about a partner who is essentially selfless and well-meaning.
One thing is a certainty for every CEN relationship that does not face and heal its CEN. An ever-widening gulf will take the partners farther and farther apart. Nobody gets their needs met. Nobody is challenged to grow. And nobody wins.
On the flip side, as long as one member of the couple is uncomfortable enough in the marriage to be motivated to challenge the other, the couple’s potential for growth is limitless. Warmth, connection, conflict-management skills, and emotion skills are all completely learnable. The prognosis for couples like Marcel and May is actually excellent.
Of course, not all CEN relationships look like Marcel and May’s. Childhood Emotional Neglect in a relationship can take many different forms. The particular personalities of the two partners have great bearing on the unique quality of their CEN bond.
Do you see yourself in Marcel or May? Do you feel shut out by your spouse, or do you get frustrated by your partner’s needs for emotional closeness? Either way, there are some clear and manageable things you can do to start the repair.
If This Is Your Marriage
- Be aware that Emotional Neglect is no one’s fault. No one chooses to grow up this way, and the emotionally neglected partner is not making a conscious choice to shut the other out. Do your best to stay away from blame, and gear yourselves instead toward taking steps to solve this problem.
- Ask your partner to read this article with you. Decide together whether Childhood Emotional Neglect is at work in your marriage. Make a decision together to avoid blame, and to begin the repair.
- Together, learn everything you can about CEN. The better you understand, together, how it happened, how it’s affected the CEN partner, and how it’s played out in your marriage, the more you will understand what the repair process looks like and how it works.
- Start Step 1 in the repair process. The overall solution to this problem is to make feelings a bigger part of your relationship. You can take a big step in that direction by doing one simple exercise which I call “The I Feel Exercise.” To do this, each partner commits to making three “I feel…” statements to the other each and every day.
Examples of “I Feel” Statements
- I feel frustrated that we’re running late.
- I feel glad that we’re doing this together.
- I feel disappointed that our plans fell through.
- I feel warmly toward you right now.
- I feel excited about the vacation we have planned.
- I feel hurt by what you just said.
- I feel unloved when you don’t kiss me goodnight.
To learn much more about Marcel and May, the pernicious effects of CEN in a marriage, and other exercises for healing see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
To take the CEN Questionnaire and access more free resources to heal your Childhood Emotional Neglect, see my Biography underneath this article.