A recent article in UpJourney discussed emotional neglect in marriage, including signs and how to deal with it. I was privileged to have my thoughts included along with other specialists. The following was my contribution to the article:
Clients sometimes seek out marriage counseling because one or both partners feel unappreciated, ignored, or disconnected. Sometimes they can feel lonely even when their partner is in the same room. Often these emotions can signal when emotional neglect is happening in a relationship.
Contempt may not be as obvious as you think…
Sometimes the emotional disconnection in a relationship can get to the point where one partner speaks to and thinks about their partner with contempt. Contempt may not be as obvious as you think, it can take the form of small continuous digs and comments made about a partner’s intelligence or value, an inability to ever catch the partner doing something right, or comments to those outside of the relationship where a partner is demeaned or whose value is minimized.
Contempt is the number one predictor of a relationship ending. Contempt can also do real damage to the person on the receiving end because it tells them that they have no value to the other partner. This eats into their self-esteem and their sense of security in the relationship and the person who they expected to be their team member.
…using “I” statements…is a helpful reframe on talking about frustrations
One of the ways you can safeguard yourself from speaking to your partner in a way that signifies lack of respect and care is to speak about situations using the word “I” versus “You”. This is a basic tenet of therapy, and the reason it is so widely recommended is that it much easier to hear the word “I” than to be on the receiving end of what could end in a statement that holds criticism.
Especially if a couple has gotten into a pattern of talking about their partner’s deficiencies, using “I” statements to talk about the situation is a helpful reframe on talking about frustrations. When a partner is able to say for instance, “I feel frustrated that the dishwasher is loaded with the cheese knife in the top rack because it gets rusty” is much easier to hear than, “I keep telling you that you are loading the dishwasher wrong, don’t you get it?” This technique allows your partner to avoid feeling they need to defend their intelligence and character and leaves much more space for a couple to hold a loving perspective about each other.
Listening deeply for understanding, showing care, and giving mutual support are the biggest gifts you can give your partner
Another way to keep emotionally connected is to make time for each other where you put away cell phones, turn off televisions, and actually sit down and have a short face-to-face conversation for about 20 minutes a day.
Don’t focus on the behaviors of the day (e.g. how they did at work or what issues they had with the kids) without also checking in as to how those activities impacted them emotionally. When a partner, family member, or friend talks about how something went during the day and you hear an emotion lingering in their words, point it out or ask about it.
If they are telling you about the way a meeting went at work or the difficulties they experienced on their video conference call, ask them about how they feel without giving advice or telling them what they should do differently. Listening deeply for understanding, showing care, and giving mutual support are the biggest gifts you can give your partner.
You know your partner but there is always something more to learn from them, and we all want to feel heard and understood, especially from our partners. Your loved one has lots of emotions happening for them, and being a safe space for them to talk about, process, and receive support without “fixing” their feelings will increase your emotional connection.
Emotional disconnect happens when you are pulling away, ignoring, or trying not to deal with difficult topics…
Consider whether you may be avoiding engaging with your partner emotionally because there is an important talk you need to have or you are feeling some resentment and don’t know how to bring it up. Emotional disconnect happens when you are pulling away, ignoring, or trying not to deal with difficult topics, and avoidance may be creating emotional distance that your partner is picking up on.
If this is the case, look at why you may not be willing to have a difficult conversation and consider that you may be sending mixed messages to your partner about your level of commitment to engage only when things are feeling easy and going well. Accepting the fact that you are not always going to see eye to eye on everything and being willing to have conversations where you both disagree is healthy. Approaching your partner holding them in a positive perspective, showing mutual respect, and being willing to acknowledge your partner’s view even if you don’t agree says everything about the ability for your relationship to stay emotionally connected and satisfying.
Couples need new shared experiences and novelty with each other to keep the emotional connection front and center…
Sometimes couples become emotionally neglectful over a period of slow decline where partners fall into the business of being in a relationship rather than connecting vulnerably and emotionally about their worries, fears, and struggles. Many couples start to go on auto pilot around all of the duties of parenting, chores, bill paying, and errands to the point where they don’t even really see each other anymore.
Couples need new shared experiences and novelty with each other to keep the emotional connection front and center in their relationship. These events or situations don’t have to be intricate, detailed, or expensive, but they do need to be non-negotiable units of time that are carved out for a couple. Taking a walk in a new neighborhood, cooking dinner together, or listening to your favorite songs from high school are all examples of time spent as a couple being present with each other and open to re-experiencing your emotional connection.
Sometimes you need to seek out other tools or support through couples therapy. For many couples, things may have gotten so disconnected or emotionally strained that getting professional help allows for a reset or gives them the ability to learn new ways of asking for their needs from their partner. Couples therapy also allows a scheduled time to work on your relationship with your partner in an environment of support, care, and input from an unbiased clinician who has no vested interest in the outcome of therapy but truly wants you to have the best relationship possible.
You can read the full article here.