My husband says he loves me, but I don’t feel love from him.

My wife gets confused, overwhelmed or frustrated every time I try to talk to her about a problem.

My marriage feels flat. Some vital ingredient is missing.

These are complaints which I have heard many times. Almost always from folks who are in a relationship with someone who grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN).

CEN happens when your parents communicate this subtle but powerful message:

Your feelings don’t matter. 

Children who live in such households naturally adapt by walling off their emotions so that they won’t bother their parents or themselves.  Since these children’s emotions are squelched, they miss out on the opportunity to learn some vital life skills: how to identify, understand, tolerate, and express emotions.

If your spouse grew up with CEN, he may have difficulty tolerating conflict, expressing his needs, and emotionally connecting with you. No matter how much you love each other, you may feel a great chasm lies between you. No matter how long you’ve been together, you may feel inexplicably alone.

Seven Signs That Your Spouse May Have CEN

He or she:

  1. Seems to misread his or her own emotions – for example says, “I’m not mad,” when clearly angry; or says, “I’m happy,” when clearly not.
  2. Often misreads your emotions or the feelings of your children or others.
  3. Has a limited vocabulary to express or describe feelings.
  4. Has a very difficult time tolerating a conversation that involves conflict or discomfort.
  5. Is often irritable for no apparent reason.
  6. Claims to be happy in the marriage despite your own complaints and expressions of unhappiness.
  7. Doesn’t seem to realize that some vital ingredient is missing in your relationship (emotional connection).

Now for the good news. CEN folks can change! And marriages with CEN can heal and become rich and rewarding.

Nine Steps for Enriching a CEN Marriage

  1. Learn as much as you can about CEN. See below for links to more information.
  2. Once you feel that you have a better understanding of how CEN works, tell your husband or wife that you may have an answer to why you are not happy enough in the marriage. Explain, as best you can, what CEN is, how it can happen in even loving families, and how it is often no one’s fault.
  3. Explain to your partner that this is very important to you, and ask him/her to look into it for you.
  4. Ask him/her to take the Emotional Neglect Questionnaire and to read and learn about CEN.
  5. Since many CEN people have very good empathy for others’ true feelings, don’t hold back yours in this request. Let your spouse see the pain that this is causing you, but not in a blaming, accusing or challenging sort of way. Be honest and open with your feelings, but have compassion for how hard this may be for him.
  6. Tell your spouse that you love her, and that you are asking her to pay attention to this problem out of her love for you.
  7. If your partner starts to read and learn about CEN, be sure to express your appreciation for his efforts. Be open and available to communicate about his reactions as he goes along.
  8. Learn the Horizontal and Vertical Questioning Technique from Chapter 6 of the book Running on Empty, and use it with your spouse. It will help deepen the relationship, and will teach you both new ways to communicate and connect.
  9. If you run into problems or need help along the way, it will be helpful to consult a professional. If you would like your couple’s therapist to understand CEN you can take Running on Empty to your first session, and ask him or her to look at it. Virtually any skilled, competent therapist who understands CEN can help you with it.

Keep in mind that your spouse has probably been just as baffled about what’s wrong as you have been. By following these 9 steps, you are inviting his emotions into your marriage and reversing that painful message he received as a child. You are replacing it with one of your own, a message that’s loving, healing and connecting:

Your feelings matter to me.

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it happens, how it affects relationships and how to heal, visit EmotionalNeglect.com and see the book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

In this classic article from The Gottman Institute, you can learn how to watch out for The 4 Horsemen in your marriage.