We’re all familiar with the idea of happily ever after, but the truth is that happily ever after rarely comes without a few bumps in the road. Life is filled with plenty of ups and downs, and there are days when everyone wants to tune out and wait for the storm to pass—this is normal. However, when that type of coping mechanism turns into weeks and months, this could be a signal that something much bigger is going on, like emotional neglect in a marriage.
What Is Emotional Neglect?
Emotional neglect occurs when a spouse fails on a regular basis to attend to or respond to their partner's emotional needs. This is marked by a distinct lack of action by one person toward the feelings of the other, including an absence of awareness, consideration, or response to a spouse's emotions. This leaves the spouse feeling useless and unwanted by their partner. Hallmarks of emotional neglect in marriage include a lack of emotional support and failure to meet a partner’s needs.
According to associate marriage and family therapist Sarah O’Leary, "Emotional neglect is when someone’s attachment and/or emotional needs are disregarded." She adds, "Emotional neglect, unsurprisingly, pushes couples apart; you can’t feel emotionally safe or secure in a relationship with emotional neglect. It can also really negatively affect your own personal well-being—both mentally and physically."
Meet the Expert
Sarah O’Leary is an associate marriage and family therapist who currently practices with Estes Therapy in San Diego. Her areas of expertise include premarital counseling, relationship issues, and life transitions.
The interesting aspect of emotional neglect is that the victim may only have a vague sense that something is amiss. Without tangible evidence or written proof, they’ll likely find it hard to quantify or express what the issue is. In the end, many people tend to stay in relationships that aren’t working because there is no smoking gun, even as the relationship is crumbling around them.
Ahead, we take a deep dive into the topic of emotional neglect. We discuss common signs to be on the lookout for and share a few tips for coping with emotional neglect in marriage.
Signs of Emotional Neglect
While it may be difficult to identify emotional neglect, there are some telltale signs that could help you recognize it in your marriage. O’Leary notes the many ways this behavior can play out in a marriage, including invalidating your partner, ignoring your partner or their bids for connection, or disregarding the vulnerabilities they share or boundaries they assert. Some common signs of emotional neglect are:
- You feel like you’re alone in your relationship.
- You prefer to spend time alone vs. time with your partner.
- Your partner shuts down when you want to talk.
- You’re not sure what your partner wants from you.
- You don’t engage in social activities as a couple.
- Your go-to person is a friend, not your partner.
- You consistently ignore or suppress your feelings.
- You don’t feel comfortable around your family and friends.
- You procrastinate on long-term decisions and are hesitant to move forward with things like having kids or buying a home.
- There’s a lack of physical intimacy.
- You don’t feel like you can be yourself with your partner.
- You don’t trust your partner.
Causes of Emotional Neglect
The specific causes of emotional neglect may vary from one relationship to the next, but the overarching theme is a shift or transfer in the support one partner gives to the other. This could look like one partner throwing themselves into a new job or a new mom shifting her focus to her baby. And, of course, in some cases, emotional neglect in a marriage might be the result of an extramarital affair.
O’Leary also notes that the cause of emotional neglect could run deeper. "Emotional neglect often stems from an individual’s own attachment injuries. If someone never learned how to have a supportive, healthy relationship in childhood or adolescence, they will struggle to make that change in adulthood."
O’Leary goes on to share, "Struggle does not mean unable; however, it will take work, but the way you interact with others and within your relationships is malleable."
How to Cope With Emotional Neglect
Like most issues, complaining about the problem or staying silent won’t fix anything; for committed couples, the key to getting past this situation is working together. Ahead we discuss some tips on how to handle emotional neglect in a marriage.
Don’t Be a Victim
While your partner’s behavior may be hurtful, it’s important that you don’t play the victim card. Doing so can be counterproductive; you’ll likely be more accusatory and fall back on the blame game to no avail. The fact is, if you spend most of your time and energy telling your partner what they did wrong or how they hurt you, that could put them on the defensive and cause them to distance themselves further.
While it’s important to talk to your partner and let them know how you feel, it’s equally important that you don’t rehash the same things over and over again. Perhaps the initial conversation should focus on your hurt feelings, but once you get it out, subsequent discussions should be focused on how to fix the problem and move on to a healthier dynamic in your relationship.
Examine Any Underlying Causes for the Behavior
Just like any problem you tackle in life, it’s important to spend some time thinking about what sparked the issue, or in this case, the behavior, in the first place. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Was your relationship always like this or did it deteriorate over time?
- Does it feel like your partner’s attitude changed from one day to the next?
- Is there a situation or event that precipitated their change in behavior?
If your partner’s emotionally neglectful behavior has always been a part of your relationship, this might be a far bigger issue than you realize. However, if you can trace this change in behavior back to a specific event, or you can say with some certainty that your partner is just going through a rough patch, that could make all the difference in how this all plays out. If being emotionally unavailable is just how they operate, changing their behavior will be substantially more difficult, if it’s possible at all. However, if this behavior is situational, your chances of mending the relationship are likely far greater.
With any relationship, it takes two to tango, and while the source of neglect might be coming from your partner, it’s probably not a good idea to just sit back and wait it out. Remember that sometimes people don’t recognize their own behavior. So, if your partner doesn’t realize that they are being neglectful or hurting you, you’ll likely never see a change because they don’t even know that something is wrong.
While it’s tempting to think that the onus is solely on the responsible party to right the wrong, remember that relationships are not one-sided. If you want to be with this person, then it’s time to start thinking about how you can work together to fix it.
Talk About It Constructively
As difficult as it might be, it’s important that you and your partner invest the time to sit down and talk about your relationship. Be sure to pick a time where upcoming commitments don’t put your eyes on the clock, and perhaps most importantly, try to do it when you have the bandwidth to deal with it. Trying to have a productive conversation when you’re tired, hungry, or stressed will never be fruitful.
Additionally, it’s important that you make the conversation constructive. Angry words, hurling accusations, and pointing fingers are never helpful. If saving your relationship is the ultimate goal, you must approach the conversation from a place of love, understanding, and forgiveness.
Make Arrangements to Spend Quality Time Together
While spending more time with an emotionally neglectful partner may seem counterintuitive, sometimes that could be precisely what the relationship needs. Getting some distance from the stress of everyday life, work, and other demands can give everyone a little room to breathe. In the absence of "the noise," you can spend much-needed time focusing on each other. Who knows, it might be just the thing you need to rekindle the spark.
Remember that issues that take months or years to play out cannot be resolved overnight. Correcting a pattern of emotional neglect is most certainly a labor of love if there ever was one.
Getting your relationship back on track takes hard work, patience, and time. If you seek professional help, remember to put your best foot forward and trust the process.
How Therapy Can Help Emotional Neglect
Emotional neglect in marriage is an issue that can be incredibly difficult to fix on your own, but a good therapist can be infinitely helpful. A trained professional can facilitate constructive conversations, help you get some perspective, and give you both the space to express your feelings. Moreover, a therapist is an unbiased third party who can identify emotional neglect. Coming from a neutral entity, your partner might be more likely to "hear" it and make amends.
Your therapist can talk with your spouse to begin to understand what is causing the neglect. Discussions can evaluate things that have changed in the relationship and with your spouse. Perhaps conflicts at work are part of the cause, or previous relationships are triggering flashbacks with your spouse. Therapy will explore these possible causes and examine how to move forward. Your therapist also will talk with you about how the neglect has hurt you and impacted your life.
How to Find a Good Therapist
Finding a therapist to talk with can be stressful. You are in a vulnerable state and are sharing personal details with someone you don't know. If you have a friend or family member who has worked with a therapist, you can gain some insight if they will be a good fit. Otherwise, you should try to research possible therapists online, looking at their credentials and areas of expertise. When you find one you think would be compatible, give them a call and schedule an initial visit.
How to Know The Relationship Can't Be Saved
If you have gone through therapy together and talked through all the underlying issues, and you are still feeling neglected emotionally, you may be at a point where the relationship can't be saved. While no one envisions their lifelong relationship ending, if you and your spouse are unhappy and unfulfilled together, you may both be better off separating. Your therapist or counselor can help you talk through this further and help you understand the next best steps.
Psychology Today. "10 Red Flags of Emotional Neglect in a Relationship." Jan. 9, 2022