Emotional neglect pertains to what “doesn’t” happen emotionally in relationships. Because “nothing” happens, neglect can initially appear benign or can be easily glanced over. However, upon deeper reflection, neglect is much more insidious than its more easily identified cousin – abuse. With neglect, “you don’t know what you don’t know”. As an example, if you asked someone what their 3rd grade experience was like and they had a 3rd grade teacher that gave them all satisfactory remarks, they would more than likely say it was “fine”. However, that’s a far different experience than one in which the teacher took extra time, made additional accommodations for the student’s learning disability, and met with the student’s parents throughout the school year. The challenge is that both experiences would more than likely be reported as “fine”.
As we look more deeply into how emotional neglect appears in relationships, we’ll look from a detective’s perspective, trying to search for clues and experiences that are indicative of experiences that remain unknown.
Lack of Prioritization
Emotional neglect thrives when relationships aren’t prioritized. This can take many forms and include prioritizing work, sports, friends, other family members, and addictions over the relationship. When this occurs, it can erode intimacy and can be indicative of further emotional neglect. Sincerely attempting to understand your partner’s emotional life can be complex at times and requires presence, intention, and a sincere effort. Prioritizing your partner allows you to enhance this emotional skill set, can provide safety in the relationship, and can increase overall intimacy and connection.
Let’s face it– sometimes, it’s easier to just not try to address areas of concern or to simply look the other way. This type of avoidance, when it continues over a long period of time or becomes a habituated relationship pattern, is emotional neglect. Simply put, “Sticking your head in the sand” is a neglectful relationship strategy. Of course, sometimes it’s difficult or intimidating to address relationship issues head on but the only way out is truly through. “Showing up” in this way can provide resolution of difficulties, promote growth, and increase feelings of partnership.
Lack of Acknowledgement of Your Partner’s Emotional Life or Experiences
Our emotional lives are a significant part of our experiences, memories, and fantasy lives. Those couples that acknowledge this and embrace the benefits found in this emotional realm find fertile ground for understanding one another more deeply and create more profound connections, in addition to building added support and love. However, emotions can be complicated and messy, and it can be easier to simply suppress or repress this aspect of relationships. Over time suppression can become self-destructive, and a heavier numbness can overtake the relationship. This type of neglect can be dismissive and ignorant to the emotional benefit of looking at and participating in some of this challenging yet invaluable emotional work.
Judgement is a flavor of defensiveness and can allow the judging partner to feel temporarily safe by creating empathy barriers. However, judgement is a sword that can cut to the quick of relationship growth while neglecting everyone in its proximity. Judgement can initially feel easier than experiencing vulnerable feelings, but the lasting impact can leave couples feeling distant, depressed, and isolated. Work at suspending judgement and cultivate greater curiosity and understanding.
Minimal Effort to Understand Your Partner’s Emotional Life
Relationships need emotional deposits to thrive. These type of “deposits” can take effort, time, and attention. For some, this demand and consideration may seem overwhelming and therefore may choose an “easier” way of contributing to neglect in their relationship. For some, due to personality disorders, addictions, or other emotional barriers, this type of connection can be more of a challenge and can require some additional resources, such as counseling or deeper personal work.
Advocation is the Counter to Neglect
The opposite of neglect is not care; it’s advocacy. Look for areas to understand your partner more deeply and really work to “lean into” these areas together. Challenge yourself to do what’s uncomfortable but affords emotional expansion like nothing else. When emotions are heard, understood, and cared for, relationships naturally and effortlessly evolve into intimate experiences and reparative narratives with greater selflessness and connected love.
Couples can spend years in an unfulfilling marriage without ever being able to determine why they are unhappy in their relationship. Often, their relationship may be suffering from emotional neglect by one or both partners. Without a clear understanding of what to look out for, this emotional neglect may go unnoticed until the relationship may no longer be salvable. If you believe emotional neglect may be present in your relationship, contact our Austin marriage counselors to learn more about how we may be able to help your relationship.