Everyone goes into a relationship hoping that their primary emotional needs for affection, respect, attention, support, and security will be met by their significant other. However, these needs are ignored, disregarded, or minimized when there is emotional neglect in a relationship. This can lead to continued discontentment, which, in turn, hurts a person’s self-esteem, mental health, and ability to form and sustain healthy relationships.
Even though the effects of emotional neglect in a relationship can be deep and far-reaching, it can be a lot harder to spot and recognize than other unhealthy characteristics such as emotional abuse, romantic manipulation, or gaslighting. Simply because emotional neglect isn’t always perpetrated through deliberate action to control or hurt the other person but by a lack of desirable action.
Given how hard it can be to identify the signs of emotional neglect in a relationship, it can cause considerable damage before a couple begins to realize what they’re grappling with – if at all. To make sure that doesn’t happen to you and your significant other, we bring you an in-depth analysis of emotional neglect in a relationship in consultation with psychologist Nandita Rambhia (MSc, Psychology), who specializes in CBT, REBT, and couples counseling.
What Does Emotional Neglect Really Mean?
One of the reasons why many people fail to recognize if they are dealing with emotional neglect in a romantic relationship or even what it means to be in an emotionally neglectful relationship is that it can be a rather broad and abstract term. Since emotional needs vary from person to person, so can their answer to “what does emotional neglect look like in a relationship”.
Addressing the question of what does emotional neglect look like in a relationship, Nandita says, “Simply put, emotional neglect in a relationship is when a partner is unable to understand the emotions of the other. This typically happens when a person lacks certain feelings for their partner. Being able to feel and empathize with a partner is extremely important for a relationship to thrive. When that erodes, it leads to neglect. Compassion, warmth, and connection are essentially lacking in an emotionally neglectful relationship.
For the sake of a better perspective, let’s draw an analogy. Food, shelter, and clothing are considered to be basic physical needs. If these needs are not met, it can lead to a lot of repercussions such as malnutrition, hypothermia or heat stroke, or dehydration, to name a few. Likewise, affection, love, and support are basic emotional needs, which when unmet can lead to a host of psychological issues and mental health problems.
Research indicates that when an intimate partner or a loved one refuses to meet these needs by being cold, dismissive, or detached, it can lead to issues such as anxiety, low self-esteem, trust issues, and negative self-talk. In fact, research also suggests that not just neglect in a current relationship but also childhood emotional neglect can have far-reaching consequences on the way a person navigates their adult relationships.
Some studies have proven that childhood emotional neglect can be specifically associated with mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, and substance misuse disorders. You can see that the effects of emotional neglect in a relationship can not only be profound but also long-lasting. That’s why it becomes even more imperative to acquire the ability to identify an emotionally neglectful relationship so that you can spot the red flags should you ever find yourself in one.
13 Signs of Emotional Neglect In A Relationship
Emotional neglect in a relationship can manifest in the form of that niggling feeling that something is off except you can’t put a finger on it. On the surface of it, the relationship appears to be functional, and to an outsider, it’d probably baffling that the two people in it can be anything but happy and grateful for one another. However, for those two people, the relationship becomes an increasingly lonesome space.
There is an evident disconnect and the chasm between them continues to widen. That’s how Reese Wyatt, a California-based Pilates instructor, describes what emotional neglect in a romantic relationship feels like. Reese has been married to Caleb for five years and the couple has been together for over a decade.
“I can’t remember a time when Caleb was not in my life and over time, we just got so used to each other’s presence that we stopped making an effort to stay in sync. The comfort zone gave way to complacency in the relationship, which eventually led to a complete lack of interest. My husband, who could once tell my mood just by the look on my face or the way I typed a text, now can’t understand my feelings even if I lay my heart bare to him,” says Reese.
Given that a study by researcher John Gottman found that an emotional connection could be the difference between couples who thrive and those who drift apart, it’s vital to understand what emotional neglect in a relationship looks like. Here are 13 key signs of emotional neglect in a relationship that can help you safeguard your relationship against emotional neglect or take proactive measures to deal with it:
1. You and your partner are out of sync emotionally
Emotional neglect is characterized by partners having trouble making sense of each other’s state of mind. Nandita says, “When a partner is unable to understand the emotions or feelings of the other or what their significant other is going through, it is one of the most vital signs of emotional neglect.”
So, take a moment to assess if your partner continues to be baffled by your emotional needs and expressions. For instance, do they shoot down any overtures you make for improving intimacy in the relationship? Does your desire to spend more time together or communicate more lead to a fight? Does your partner has no interest in being romantic in the relationship. If so, there is a possibility that you’re already dealing with the effects of emotional neglect in a relationship.
2. Your partner is no longer your go-to person
Since signs of emotional neglect in a relationship typically manifest in the form of one partner disregarding the other’s emotional needs, this can cause the person at the receiving end to become alienated from their significant other. As a result, you may no longer feel comfortable confiding in your partner about the things that are important to you.
Be it important achievements or distressing experiences, you turn to other close people in your life to share your trials and triumphs. Your partner may have no real idea about what’s going on in your life on how you’re feeling. This can, naturally, drive you further apart.
Related Reading: 10 Things To Do When You Are Drifting Apart In Your Relationship
3. Avoiding difficult conversations is among signs of neglect in a relationship
Emotional neglect in a relationship can result in active avoidance of topics that can evoke strong reactions. You may find yourself tiptoeing around certain sensitive issues, leaving you feeling like you’re walking on eggshells in your relationship.
Nandita says, “Avoiding intimacy and difficult conversations that revolve around certain challenging situations or negative feelings and being unable to deal with them are all signs of emotional neglect in a relationship. In such a relationship, partners actively avoid discussing their emotions and feelings.”
4. You don’t know what your partner wants from you
Since you and your partner cannot bring yourselves to have honest conversations with one another or lay all your cards on the table, you may soon find yourself confused about what your partner wants from you or what mutual expectations in the relationship should look like.
Besides, given that your significant other doesn’t seem to care about your emotional needs, you may be left questioning the very basis of your relationship. “Why is s/he with me?” “Do s/he love me?” “Where is this relationship going?” Such questions can become a regular feature in an emotionally neglectful relationship.
5. No fighting is one of the signs of emotional neglect in a relationship
A relationship where partners don’t fight, bicker or argue over things big and small – be it making time for each other or reaching a consensus over who’s turn it is to take out the trash – can seem ideal in theory. However, fighting in a relationship can have its benefits.
It shows that you care about your connection enough to fight for it. It helps you air out your issues. And it prevents resentment to take hold. When emotional neglect in a relationship, fights become a thing of the past. It’s a reflection of the fact that your partner may not be as invested in the relationship as they used to be. They no longer care to argue because their relationship issues don’t matter to them.
Related Reading: 12 Reasons Arguments In A Relationship Can Be Healthy
6. They shut you out and you clam up
Shutting a significant other out when during difficult times – also known as stonewalling – is a classic example of a dysfunctional, unhealthy relationship. If you try to extend an olive branch or want to reach out to your partner and end up feeling like you’ve run into a wall you cannot penetrate, you’re dealing with emotional neglect.
One of the most common effects of emotional neglect in a relationship is that you too slowly begin to clam up. When your overtures are shot down over and over again, you will give and stop trying at some point. Even though you’re romantic partners, you end up becoming more distant than two strangers on a subway.
7. Your communication is purely functional
Emotional neglect in a relationship is also characterized by signs of bad communication between two partners. Nandita explains, “In an emotionally neglectful relationship, the communication between the partners is on a functional level. You talk about logistics, day-to-day affairs, and everything other than what is currently going on in the relationship and trying to understand your partner.”
It all boils down to avoidance, probably because one partner has checked out emotionally and doesn’t care while the other is too scared of having their feelings shot down yet again.
8. Misunderstandings are a common feature in your relationship
When two people do not understand each other’s feelings and emotional state, it is only natural for misunderstanding to crop up. “I didn’t mean it like that.” “You taking my words out of context.” “You just don’t get me.” “I don’t even know who you are.”
Do these statements sound familiar? Do you feel that your partner always gets you wrong and vice versa? These are clear repercussions of lack of affection and intimacy in a relationship and point to clear emotional neglect.
9. You’re uncomfortable sharing feelings with your partner
The baggage of all the misunderstandings, invalidation, and disregard can interfere with your ability to express your feelings and emotions to your partner. Nandita says, “If a person feels uncomfortable in sharing their feeling or finds it difficult to articulate their thoughts to a significant other, it suggests that there is a wall created between them owing to prolonged emotional neglect in a relationship.”
This, in turn, translates into the neglected partner bottling up their emotions for a long time. These pent-up emotions can trigger resentment in the relationship, making the emotionally neglected partner also pull back. This can cause the chasm between both partners to widen further, threatening their future together.
10. Feeling alone while in a relationship
One of the most telling signs of neglect in a relationship is an unshakable feeling that you’re alone despite having a partner to share your life with. “Often either one or both partners feeling lonely in a relationship over a prolonged period is also a negative sign that shows emotional neglect in a relationship,” says Nandita.
An accumulation of unmet needs and discarded feelings can leave you feeling like you’re single in a relationship. Even though you have a partner to call your own, you live your life as a single person for all intents and purposes.
11. Your relationship feels like a façade
As we said before, an emotionally neglectful relationship can seem perfectly functional to an outsider and the people in it “perfectly happy together”. Even though you may play along for the sake of keeping in appearances, you know that your relationship is a façade.
No matter how many happy stories you post on social media and what a perfect couple you come across as in your social circles, in your personal space, you and your partner feel covered by a thick blanket of uneasiness. It is almost as if you’re in a fake relationship.
12. Lack of physical intimacy is also among the signs of neglect in a relationship
The effects of emotional neglect in a relationship begin to spill over to different aspects of your connection with your partner over time. The first casualty often is physical intimacy. When the emotional connection begins to dwindle, partners can struggle to be sexually intimate.
In addition to emotional neglect, you are also dealing with the effects of a sexless relationship, which only drives you further apart. This is one of the most devastating signs of neglect in a relationship.
13. You don’t trust your partner
Trust issues are another one of the classic signs of emotional neglect in a relationship. Since experience tells you that your partner does not have your back and you cannot count on them to be there for you when you need them the most, it’s only natural that you begin to be wary of them.
To protect yourself from getting hurt over and over again, you may begin to suspect your partner at every step of the way. This could translate into actions like having a backup plus-one for an important event even though your partner has said they’d be there for you or more deep-seated insecurities like always checking your partner’s phone for proof of cheating because their emotional unavailability has convinced you that there is someone else in their life.
Related Reading: 15 Signs Of Emotional Neglect In A Marriage
3 Steps To Deal With Emotional Neglect In A Relationship
Emotional neglect in a romantic relationship can be the beginning of its end. If these signs of emotional neglect in a relationship are anything to go by, such a connection can be immensely isolating and scarring for the person at the receiving end. The partner from whom the emotional neglect perpetuates too finds themselves stuck in an unfulfilling relationship.
Emotional neglect, even if it is unintentional or unconscious, can turn a healthy bond into a textbook toxic relationship that harms both partners equally. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that such a relationship is beyond redemption. If you know how to deal with emotional neglect in a relationship, you can begin to reverse the damage and heal together. We bring you 3 ways to manage this situation skillfully:
1. Get to the root of emotional neglect in the relationship
Now that you know the answer to “what does emotional neglect look like in a relationship”, it’s important to address another vital question: where is this emotional neglect stemming from? Clarity on this can go a long way in helping you figure out the right course of action.
Nandita says, “If you’re wondering how to deal with emotional neglect in a relationship, begin by trying to find out if there is an underlying reason for your partner to ignore you or be disconnected from you. There could be pressures of work or other factors that could be driving your partner away from you. It’s important to uncover these to figure out whether it’s a temporary phase or if there are any deeper underlying issues at play.”
2. Don’t suffer in silence
If you have been feeling the effects of emotional neglect in a relationship acutely for a long time and now recognize them for what they’re, it’s time to speak up for yourself. Do not continue to suffer in silence, Nandita advises. “Once you’ve correctly identified that you feel emotionally neglected in a relationship, it is important not to continue being a victim of this neglect.
“You must take proactive measures to try to get your partner to understand your point of view by improving communication in the relationship at a basic level. Start small, and slowly and steadily build it up so that both you and your partner feel comfortable discussing your feelings and emotions with each other.”
3. Seek therapy for emotional neglect in a relationship
Nandita says, “In a newly seen situation of neglect, partners need to be patient and make efforts to overcome it. If your own efforts don’t yield results, I’d strongly recommend seeking professional help or guidance from experienced people to overcome this problem.”
It can be hard to make sense of our emotions, especially when we are in the thick of them. That’s when an outside perspective can be immensely helpful, especially if that perspective is of a skilled mental health professional who has the right training and know-how to help you get to the bottom of your issues and work through them. If you’ve been struggling with emotional neglect in a relationship and are looking for help, experienced and licensed counselors on Bonobology’s panel are here for you.
Emotional neglect in a relationship can feel like a string of disappointments that can tangle you up in a constant state of distress. This distress not only takes a toll on the bond you share with your partner but also on your mental health and your ability to form healthy relationships in the future. If you recognize the signs of emotional neglect in a relationship, do not turn a blind eye to them. Take proactive measures to get to the root of your issues and fix them. If that doesn’t work, don’t hesitate to put yourself ahead of your relationship, pull the plug and move on.
Emotional neglect isn’t necessarily a form of abuse because unlike abuse, it is not perpetuated with an intent to control or manipulate the other person. Emotional neglect essentially stems from a lack of emotional investment in a relationship. The neglectful partner lacks certain feelings for their significant other and is unable to empathize with them because of which they fail to understand and meet their emotional needs.
Telling your partner that you’re sad about a falling out with your best friend and them responding, “Grow up, you’re not in high school anymore”, is one of the examples of emotional neglect in a relationship. Likewise, if you tell your partner you have been missing them and they say, “Get over your ideas of fairytale romance and get real”, you’re dealing with emotional neglect. Both these examples deal with a person’s feelings being dismissed by their partner, which is the textbook definition of emotional neglect.