In a previous blog post, you met Oscar and Olive, a lovely couple who both have Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) who were featured in my book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children. Today, I am sharing another excerpt from the bestselling book: a continuation of the story of Olive & Oscar’s marriage.
In last week’s post, you learned how Oscar and Olive interact on an everyday basis, each under the influence of CEN and living it out in their marriage.
If you missed that previous article, A Day in the Life of a Couple With Childhood Emotional Neglect: Olive & Oscar Part 1 I recommend you go back and read it first. Then come right back to this one.
The reality is, if you are in a double-CEN marriage, then you have two problems to deal with: First, you have a wide chasm blocking you from each other emotionally. And second, you have your own CEN to contend with.
I know that talking with your spouse about the impact of CEN in your relationship may feel monumentally difficult and somewhat terrifying, but I assure you that it will be worth it.
Oscar and Olive
After years of marriage, something unexpected happened. Oscar was told by his doctor that he had kidney cancer. As he went through the frightening steps of testing and diagnosis, he felt Olive’s presence at his side every step of the way. Strangely, though, he also felt that Olive wasn’t there for him in some way that was difficult for him to put into words.
Oscar found himself urgently needing to call his sister Britt after each medical appointment to report what happened, what the doctor said, and the next steps. Somehow, talking with Britt helped him feel better in a way that talking with Olive did not.
Oscar had no idea why talking with Britt helped him so much more. To him, it seemed that Olive was doing all the right things. She gave him constant reassurance that he would be fine, and that everything would be okay. Britt, on the other hand, cried when he told her his diagnosis. During their conversations she shared her feelings with him, and went through the doctor’s comments in a realistic way, thinking through the possibilities with him, both positive and negative. She noticed Oscar’s tone of voice and asked him how he felt about various developments. When, after his surgery, Oscar received the news that he was cancer-free and would not need chemo, Britt, not his wife, was the first person he wanted to tell.
Months past the cancer episode, Oscar remained confused by his feelings (because they made no sense to him). Somehow he felt that Olive had let him down when he needed her the most. He felt guilty for feeling this way since she had been by his side through the entire ordeal.
“What is going on here? What has gone wrong? How can I feel this way about Olive, who I know loves me?” he often wondered. Held back by his guilt and confusion, it would take Oscar some time to finally ask Olive to go to couples counseling with him.
And Now Back to You
There’s nothing quite like finding yourself married to someone with CEN. It’s hard to believe your own perception that something is wrong in the relationship. You know that something is missing, but you’re not sure what it is. You may like and love your spouse, but you feel distant from him. You want, more than anything, to feel something that you can’t quite name. You may appear to be happily married, and in many ways, you are. And yet you feel lost at sea.
There are many possible ways to find yourself needing to talk with your partner about CEN. It may be that you have realized that you have emotionally neglected your spouse. It may be that you suspect that your spouse has CEN, and you’d like to approach him about it. It may be that you have realized that you both likely have CEN, and you want to explore this question with your partner.
Oscar & Olive
After Oscar’s surgery, when he realized that he felt a depth of support from his sister that he didn’t feel from Olive, Oscar Googled various questions about relationships, and found the term “emotional intimacy.” The more he read, the more he realized that he and Olive lacked emotional connection and emotion skills. He began to develop a plan to address it.
Oscar took a step that was highly uncharacteristic of him. He invited Olive to go away for a four-day weekend trip to celebrate their twentieth anniversary. At first, Olive seemed surprised, and a little bit negative about the idea. But Oscar described the beautiful sunny beaches and tennis courts to Olive, and she agreed to go.
During the weekend, away from the stress of day-to-day life, Oscar and Olive relaxed together. The chasm remained, but they both enjoyed the sense of companionship that had always been their greatest bond.
After two days of relaxation, Oscar worked up his courage with considerable effort. While sitting on the beach digging their toes into the sand Oscar said, “Olive, can I ask you a question? I’ve noticed that we don’t spend as much time together as we used to. On weekends we used to do things together, but for the last year or so you’ve been making plans with your friends. Which is fine, of course, but I worry sometimes that we’re getting too distant from each other.”
Notice that Oscar has chosen an ideal moment, and has said nothing that would make Olive feel defensive. He said “we” a lot, and was careful to make no accusations and to lay no blame. He has already anticipated that Olive will give the answer you are about to read, and he is ready for it.
“Don’t be silly,” Olive answered. “I spend time with my friends because you’re usually in the basement working on a project. I’m fine with that. It’s all good. Where do you want to go for lunch?”
Here, Olive has given a classic CEN response. She focused on action instead of feeling, she didn’t address Oscar’s concern but simply nixed it, and then she tried to change the subject.
“Yes, I guess it works out okay. I just miss you, that’s all. Do you miss spending time with me?”
“Well, sure I do, but it seems like you’re stressed out about work a lot and you need some time alone, so I try to give it to you,” Olive answered with a slight edge to her tone of which she was completely unaware.
“Oh, it’s interesting that you think that. I’m actually not stressed about work much at all anymore. But I can see how you might think that. I read something recently that explains how couples can grow apart and misunderstand each other over time. I know that I misunderstand you a lot, too. Will you take a look at the book, as a favor for me?”
“Okay, but only if you promise that we can stop talking about this right now,” Olive replied. “And you still haven’t answered my question of what we’re doing for lunch.”
You can see from this conversation that no mountains were moved, and no great epiphanies occurred. Yet it was a resounding success. In this brief exchange, Oscar has introduced to Olive the idea that something might be wrong and that he might have some answers. And Olive has agreed to do a little reading (Oscar could just as well have used an article about CEN, and for some, this might work better since it’s considerably shorter and a smaller ask than a book).
In this talk, Oscar did not use the phrase “Childhood Emotional Neglect” or CEN. This is because he didn’t feel that Olive would identify with the words “Emotional Neglect.” If your spouse has ever shared any stories from childhood that conveyed CEN to you, he or she may indeed resonate with the CEN term. In that case, it may be a good idea to use the phrase in the first conversation. For some, the term piques interest; for others who are less aware of what they didn’t get in childhood, it may be off-putting.
Even without using the term, simply by having this conversation, Oscar has planted a healthy seed in his relationship with Olive that over time might grow into a true mutual understanding between them. In fact, by building on this first conversation, Oscar was able to eventually get Olive to the door of my therapy office.
Watch for the next post, Olive & Oscar Part 3, which will describe how couples therapy went with Olive & Oscar. You can read the entire story of Olive & Oscar, their childhoods, their parents, their marriage, and their children in the book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children (link below in author’s bio).
To learn much more about Childhood Emotional Neglect and find resources to heal it see the author’s bio below.