Emotional neglect as parents and partners:
Emotional Neglect refers to a person’s failure to respond adequately to another’s emotional needs. Emotional neglect is a parent’s failure to act. It’s a failure to notice, attend to, or respond appropriately to a child’s feelings. Emotional neglect is not something that happens, but something that fails to happen. This makes it a difficult concept to understand and discuss because emotional neglect is intangible. It is easy to identify the harmful actions of a parent who yells, smacks or criticises, but much harder to pinpoint the wrong actions of a parent who fails to provide for certain needs.
Emotional neglect also occurs in adult relationships between intimate partners. Emotional neglect is the opposite of emotional attunement. When a couple is emotionally attuned to each other, they experience emotional connection and emotional intimacy. In a relationship or marriage emotional neglect is when a partner consistently fails to notice, attend to, and respond in a timely manner to a partner or spouse’s feelings. In both instances, it has far-reaching negative consequences for the relationship.
As humans, we are relational beings. We cannot exactly point to the behaviours of our parents or partner that makes us feel unloved and affect our self-esteem; not being noticed, attended to, or responded to appropriately and in a timely manner and it deeply affects both children and adults. Inadvertently, the lack of attentiveness and responsiveness send out the message that feelings and emotional needs don’t matter. In children, this translates into ‘you don’t matter’ and in adults ‘your needs/you don’t matter.
Emotional neglect is common. It happens in the majority of families in today’s busy lifestyle and society. Most parents love their children. Most adults love their partners. This is not about love or the lack of love. It is about bringing into awareness something that we may not be aware of, and about acting it.
Emotional neglect can have a surprising physiological effect on our developing brains in childhood. When children are regularly neglected or exposed to other hardships they are prone to a ‘toxic stress response’ that impairs normal development in the brain and other organs. Specifically, important executive brain functions such as self-control, memory, and the ability to shift attention appropriately are learned skills that must be supported by a child’s growing environment. ‘Toxic stress’ is disruptive to the development of these skills and also makes it difficult for children to acquire the ability to self-manage in challenging circumstances. This lack of development will continue to impair a child well into adulthood. Emotional neglect in childhood is frequently the cause of many undiagnosed learning disorders in adults. In children when they live in an unsupported environment they often keep suppressing emotions and as adults disconnect when the situation involves emotions. This affects their relationships.
Some of the signs of emotional neglect in adults are:
-Difficulty identifying or expressing feelings
– Lack ability to empathise
– Difficulty in trusting others
– Highly judgemental/critical or blaming of self and others
– Frequent feelings of worry, excessive fears and dissatisfaction
– Feel the need to people please
– Difficulty in asking for help or support
– Self-directed anger and anger at others
– Feeling like a fraud, hiding behind a mask; or feeling disconnected from self
– Perfectionism with acute sensitivity to feelings of failure
– Sensitivity to feelings of rejection
– Viewed by others as being distant, aloof or arrogant
– Pervasive feelings of emptiness, unhappiness or lack of joy
Suppressing emotions or being disconnected from emotions has physical consequences that many do not know about. It increases stress on our bodies and increases chances of heart disease and diabetes. It affects our immune system exposing us more to illness, stiff joints and bone weakness. Recent research also shows a strong connection between avoiding emotions and poor memory. People who regularly suppress their emotions may find it challenging when communicating with others.
In intimate adult relationships people who have suffered emotional neglect fail to pick up emotional cues of the partner and respond to them, often become silent and react in passive aggression, and perceive every emotional hold back as some kind of rejection often destroying the bridges of communication that can make a relationship work.
Some signs of emotional neglect in adult relationships :
Your ‘go to’ person is a friend or other rather than your partner
Lack of clarity about what your partner wants from you
Feelings of being ‘alone’ in your relationship
Lack of desire to engage in social activities as a couple
Preferring periods of solitude over time with partner
Difficulty in self soothing when facing stress or conflict
Your partner shuts down or withdraws when you raise issues
Prone to ‘numbing out’, or ignoring and suppressing your feelings
Easily overwhelmed; sense of helplessness/powerlessness
Excessive feelings of need to control your partner, finances etc
Experiencing consistent feelings of not belonging when with family and friends
Tending to procrastinate with plans, i.e., having children, travel, setting long term goals
Feeling you cannot be yourself with your partner
Just as it is a function of parents to provide emotional attunement and emotional responsiveness, it is necessary for our partner to provide emotional connection for a healthy relationship.
Awareness of our patterns as parents and as partners is the first step. Repetitive patterns need work therapeutic work. Developing emotional intelligence through the EQ competencies (those who have attended my workshops will be familiar with these) and consistent work on self love and self compassion help undo patterns and relearn healthier ways for emotional regulation.