What is the primary ingredient that makes long-term, committed relationships either work well or struggle? Here is a list of possibilities:
Similar parenting styles
Good sex life
It is definitely true that all of these factors are important in a marriage. But, in reality, the one factor that not only underlies them all but also is the key to psychological health and happiness both individually and together. It is this:
Emotional connection. It is also often called emotional intimacy.
What Emotional Intimacy Looks Like
Emotional intimacy is difficult to describe. Even therapists who specialize in couple counseling often struggle to explain it to their clients. But if you have you ever spent time around a couple who has visible emotional intimacy you might have actually seen it.
Couples with a well-developed emotional connection seem comfortable when they are together. It’s a warm kind of comfort, not a distant one. These couples can glance at each other from across a roomful of people and get a sense of what the other is thinking and feeling. They share humor and warmth but are also at ease with differences of opinion or communicating effectively about conflicts.
In short, couples with emotional intimacy are different. And it’s a difference you can see and feel when you are around them for long enough.
As a therapist who specializes in both couples therapy and Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), I have seen how CEN is the very thing that often stands between couples, keeping them apart and preventing the emotional connection from happening.
Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN
When you grow up with your parents under-noticing, under-validating, and under-responding to your feelings (the definition of Childhood Emotional Neglect) you learn exactly how to squelch your own emotions. Your child brain effectively walls off your feelings so they will not trouble or burden your parents.
Launching into adulthood with your emotions walled off is no small thing. In fact, it sets you up to quietly struggle throughout your adult life. It leaves you feeling different on the inside than everyone else sees on the outside.
Childhood Emotional Neglect blocks off the most powerful, valuable, and vital ingredient in every marriage and the key to successful intimacy: your feelings.
5 Unhealthy Relationship Patterns Set Up By Childhood Emotional Neglect
- You are walled off from your partner. You may be connected and committed to your partner in every way, but what matters is that you are virtually unavailable to them emotionally. I have heard many husbands and wives of CEN folks say they sense that something vital is missing in the relationship. “I feel alone,” “You don’t talk to me,” or “Why won’t you let me in?” are all common refrains. Many spouses say that they know their CEN partner loves them, but they can’t feel that love. When two CEN people marry each other the wall can be doubly thick between you. So, no matter how compatible you are in every other way, you remain emotionally apart.
- You do not express your preferences and wishes to your partner. A natural result of being out of touch with your feelings is that it can make you unaware of what you want, feel and need. As a child, you were not asked those questions enough. So, as a child, you absorbed the message that your feelings, wants and needs did not matter and you continue to live by this message still today. In fact, you may ask yourself these questions so seldom that you are now unable to find the answers. Unable to say what you want, feel, and need, your partner is left to guess.
- You over-attend to the other person’s wants and needs. Being so unaware of your own wants, feelings and needs can make you over-focused on those of the people around you. Many CEN people have very little awareness and compassion for themselves — but an excess of both for others. You may end up wrapping yourself up in providing your spouse with everything they want and need while inadvertently missing the one thing they need the most: you. The real you, the inner you. They need your emotions.
- You lack the skills to express your feelings. Growing up in a family that, “doesn’t do feelings” leaves you with some important gaps in knowledge that you need for your adult life, and especially in your marriage. Knowing how to identify what you are feeling, put your feelings into words, and express your feelings to your partner in a way that they can take it in; these are the skills to deal with problems, work through issues, and learn about each other. What do you do when you lack them? You may shut down, stonewall, stammer, crack a joke, or leave the room when your partner needs you to communicate. When the chips are down you struggle to overcome your awkwardness and respond.
- You avoid conflict. A couple who fights together stays together. But lacking emotional communication skills means that conflict is much harder for you than it needs to be. Fearful of placing yourself in a situation you can’t handle, you hold your complaints inside instead of voicing them to your partner. And if your partner is angry, as mentioned above, you run. Since working through conflict together is the primary source of emotional intimacy in a marriage, you and your spouse may be sadly missing out.
What To Do
If you see these relationship patterns in your marriage, please do not despair. There are answers! Because Childhood Emotional Neglect is not a disease or a life sentence. It can be healed.
- If you are unsure whether CEN is the problem, (when CEN happens it is usually invisible and unmemorable) visit EmotionalNeglect.com and take the free Emotional Neglect Test (link below)
- The first step is to understand that no one is to blame for this problem. No one chooses CEN. It is a legacy that’s passed down from one generation to another in a family. Try to let go of any anger or blame you may feel toward your partner, and get yourself into the mindset to heal.
- Next, learn about Childhood Emotional Neglect together. The best way to do this is to read through the Running On Empty books together (links to both are below in my Bio). Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect will help you both understand the problem itself. Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships will explain how CEN affects your marriage using examples of other couples, and also offers exercises for you to do together to overcome the CEN block and heal.
Whether you have been together for one year or twenty, it is never too early or too late to do this. You can find your feelings. You can learn how to use them to connect with your partner. As long as there is love left, your emotional connection can be built. You can overcome the 5 CEN relationship patterns and heal.