As a psychologist who has been working with couples for over 15 years, I can tell you that virtually all long-term committed relationships are challenging.
Filled with ups and downs, barriers and conflicts, every couple must figure out a way to remain fully committed to each other as they navigate it all.
Managing the challenges is difficult enough under the best of circumstances. But when one or both members of a couple are struggling with a mental health issue like depression, anxiety or a personality disorder, it becomes even harder.
In these marriages, the threats to the relationship that come from the outside, like lay-offs, financial problems, or major life transitions, reverberate more deeply within the marriage, as one partner may react, for example, by having panic attacks, an episode of depression, or experiencing unpredictable moods or emotions.
What is a couple to do when faced with these external and internal challenges? Is there some secret shortcut to make this all easier? In fact, there is.
There is an unseen influence that underlies most mental health diagnoses. It’s an invisible childhood experience of which most people are completely unaware. Yet it quietly lays the foundation for many emotional and psychological problems in adulthood.
It makes you susceptible to developing depression, anxiety or personality issues. It also causes emotional disconnection, which makes it more difficult to be close with a partner.
At the same time, this hidden factor also has a surprising upside. Just as it causes the problem, it also offers a solution to all who are struggling with mental health issues in their relationship.
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The Hidden Factor: Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN)
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) happens when your parents fail to notice your emotional needs enough as they raise you.
All children have intense feelings. Parents who, for whatever reason, fail to see, validate and answer their children’s feelings send an unspoken message to the child that her feelings are invisible, unnecessary or unimportant.
Parents who feel burdened by their child’s emotions may communicate to the child that his feelings are excessive, abnormal, or a problem and should be hidden.
These parents, often inadvertently, send their child the Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) message, “Your feelings don’t matter.”
Children who receive the CEN message do a remarkable thing to cope. They push their own feelings away. Their adaptive child brain builds a “wall” to block them off, so that they will not bother anyone, especially your parents.
The child may start to view his own emotions (which are built into him as a human being, and not his choice) as a weakness or a bother. He may even become ashamed of them.
Then he is forced to live his adult life deprived of his most valuable inner resource: his own feelings. The feelings that should be enlivening, motivating, connecting and directing him are walled off.
This lack of healthy access to one’s emotions continues to affect her adult life in myriad ways. When you grow up emotionally neglected, your natural response when you encounter a problem in your life is to immediately banish your feelings. You push them away, to other side of that wall that you built in childhood.
Over time, that collection of unacknowledged emotions can start making your world feel heavy, which makes you prone to depression; or can start sending you unnecessary alarm signals, making you anxious; or can erupt unexpectedly and intensely, as in a personality disorder.
How CEN Causes Relationship Problems?
As a child being raised by your parents, you received the CEN message loudly and clearly. You learned that you must not ask for too much, or need too much, because others will usually not be there for you. You learned that asking for support or help is a sign of weakness, and that you are alone in the world.
Without your feelings to properly connect you to your partner, you may find it hard to feel truly loved and loving. Reaching out to your partner for support may feel risky, or just plain wrong. So when you encounter a life problem, you are prone to distance from the one who cares the most: your partner.
On top of all that, by not responding to your feelings or validating your emotions as they raised you, your parents missed the opportunity to teach you emotion skills, like how to express and manage your feelings.
You are left, as an adult, without some vital skills you need to manage conflict, and talk through difficult things with your partner.
If you or your partner (or both) were raised with Childhood Emotional Neglect and are now struggling with a mental health problem, now that you are aware of the influence of CEN on your lives, you have a great advantage.
First, you can both understand better what you are up against. And second, you are offered some powerful keys to addressing the problem as a team.
Three Ways To Face The Problem
1. Name The Mental Health Issue, And Own It. Talking openly about problems is the opposite of emotional neglect, and battles against the “don’t ask, don’t tell” philosophy. If one of you has a mood disorder, anxiety, or a personality issue, make sure to talk about the problem together freely and openly. Supplements like Lumiday is for people suffering from mood problems like slight depression.
2. Keep Your Boundaries Healthy. In order to truly battle a personal mental health challenge, it must be fully owned by the person who has it. Be careful about tryng to help your partner too much when she is struggling, as that may not only drain you, but could also prevent her from learning how to fight for herself.
It’s important to strike a delicate balance, however, between making sure she knows that you are there for her when she needs you, yet not taking too much responsibility for her struggle.
3. Pay Attention To Each Other’s Feelings. This is the most important thing you can do for your relationship. Paying attention to feelings reverses Childhood Emotional Neglect more directly and powerfully than anything else.
It is also a vital key to improving, strengthening and deepening your relationship. It addresses every mental health issue, and also goes straight to the heart.
To practice this, ask yourself at least 3 times a day: what is my partner feeling? When possible, ask your partner if your answer is correct.
Becoming aware of the subtle but powerful effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) offers you a remarkable method to cope with problems. As you pay attention, take responsibility and talk, you will at the same time be able to counter damaging childhood messages.
You will each continue to feel more and more seen, understood, accepted and known by each other. You will face your mental health issues together. And that is the very definition of a team.
Childhood Emotional Neglect is often invisible when it happens. To find out if you grew up with CEN, Take the Emotional Neglect Questionnaire.. It’s free.
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