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What Does Emotional Neglect in a Marriage Look Like?

How to spot — and overcome — emotional neglect in a marriage

When we think of neglect, we tend to picture physical neglect, such as the idea of ignoring or not caring for a child. Neglect in relationships has a more emotional connotation, wherein a partner feels they no longer have a connection with their spouse.

Emotional neglect is particularly heartbreaking in a marriage. A union that was once so fulfilling in emotional intimacy should not be left to burn out – but it takes hard work from both partners. Here are the signs of emotional neglect to look out for, and how you can fix your marriage.

What is emotional abandonment in marriage?

The terms “emotional neglect” and “emotional abandonment” in marriage are often used interchangeably. Both can be harmful to your relationship and mental health. 

The key difference between the two comes down to whether your partner’s behavior is intentional or accidental.

What is the difference between emotional neglect and emotional abandonment?

Specifically, neglect refers to something a loved one does deliberately — for example, ignoring you or not considering your feelings. Emotional abandonment is when a loved one neglects you without intentionally doing so. They may have been through a traumatic event that has impacted their ability to be present with people, space, and time, including you.

A healthy relationship needs support from both partners. This also means that a lack of emotional support from your partner may have different causes. For example, it’s neglect if they’re having an affair and deliberately ignoring you, but it could be abandonment if they’re dealing with bereavement.

What are signs of emotional neglect in a marriage?

If you’re sensing emotional distance between you and your partner, it could be that your needs aren’t being met. 

“When couples come into therapy and one partner is reporting feeling ignored, abandoned, or lonely, I support the couple in getting curious about when these moments of disconnection started and what happens when they try to reconnect,” says Moraya Seeger DeGeare, a licensed marriage and family therapist and In-House Relationship Expert for Paired.

“We learn quickly that one or both partners struggle to recognize when their partner is feeling particularly lonely. So that is where we start, looking for the triggers and tracking the cycle of disconnection”  

Signs of a neglectful partner could manifest in many ways, including:

Little or no physical intimacy

Physical intimacy goes beyond the bedroom. Not only will your sex life suffer if your partner is emotionally distant; but you may also notice they no longer do the little things, like holding your hand in public or kissing you goodnight.

Not acknowledging you when you come home

This may seem trivial, but it’s a sign of a general lack of interest. A loving, responsive partner will want to know about your day and tell you about theirs. If there’s no reaction when you walk in, their mind could be elsewhere.

More interest in friends or family members

Feel like your needs are coming second-best to friends or family members? It’s one thing to prioritize children; it’s another to put siblings and parents or even friends first. Perhaps date nights have turned into evenings out with friends. Whatever it is, you may feel rejected.

Not listening to you or taking your side

One of the key signs of emotional neglect is a lack of empathy. You may be going through a hard time and feel that your significant other is not listening to you. Worse still, if they’re not on your side, you may feel helpless.

Leaving out key details of their life

Look out for other red flags such as others knowing your partner’s plans before you. A good rule to go by is who they call first when they have good news. If it’s not you, they might be drifting away from you.

No longer arguing with you

This might sound a little counterintuitive but arguments can be good in a relationship — as long as they lead to conflict resolution. If your partner simply doesn’t have the energy or care to argue with you, they may have checked out.

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What are the consequences of emotional neglect in marriage?

“Failure to notice, attend to, and respond in a timely manner has far-reaching negative consequences for the relationship,” says Mairead Molloy, a psychologist and relationship consultant. The effects of emotional neglect include:

  1. Lack of trust. 

  2. Damage to your self-esteem. 

  3. Becoming socially withdrawn. 

  4. Feeling like you’re facing the world alone. 

  5. Awkward feelings when you’re physically intimate. 

  6. Not feeling comfortable expressing your feelings to your partner. 

  7. Uncomfortable silences or an inability to have meaningful conversations. 

  8. Feeling like a burden to friends or family because you can’t talk to your partner.

Emotional neglect may stem from other relationship issues, for example, if your partner didn’t have a good relationship with their parents. But just because it’s not physical abuse, it’s no less damaging to you and your partnership.

Can a marriage survive emotional neglect?

A marriage can survive emotional neglect if a partner is willing to change their behavior and if the other makes their feelings known. Often, this may need professional help such as a marriage counselor to intervene.

This “back to basics” approach may help you cope with emotional neglect — but there are a few steps you need to take first.

How to deal with emotional neglect in marriage

First and foremost, it’s essential not to play the victim card. Even though you may be feeling victimized, constantly bringing up past failures will create a dynamic that will only push you further apart.

Instead, take time to process your feelings. Tell yourself your feelings are valid and don’t berate yourself. If your lover isn’t invested in the relationship, it’s not unusual to feel abandoned.

Open up a dialog

Once you have accepted that your feelings are normal, you can broach the conversation with your partner and offer them the chance to open up. 

An emotionally neglectful partner may be more interested in their own needs, but they may also be keeping something from you. Show them that you’re ready to listen and even take their side. This may break down communication barriers and allow them to drop their guard.

At this point, you’ll be on more of a level playing field with your partner. Tell them how you feel without being accusative or aggressive. Remember, there could be any number of reasons for their emotional withdrawal. After they’ve had the chance to empathize with your feelings, things can start to change.

Give it time

Finally, accept that change won’t happen overnight — particularly if there are external influences. In a worst-case scenario, there may be somebody else, or your partner could be getting over losing a job or a loved one.

If it’s the latter, work to build each other’s self-esteem together. If it’s the former, you’ll both need to decide if the relationship is worth saving, and what you can do to move past it.

Is emotional neglect reason for divorce?

There’s no right or wrong answer for what to do to overcome emotional neglect in a marriage. If it’s coupled with signs of emotional abuse or even physical abuse, then moving on may be the safest option for you.

Likewise, if you feel that your partner doesn’t want to change their behavior, or the relationship has run its course, you may both benefit from going your separate ways.

Of course, emotional distance in no way means the end of your marriage. Every relationship will have “bumps in the road” or even life-changing crises, but it’s about how you react as a pair. Choosing to save your relationship will help you rediscover one another and rebalance your priorities.

Remember, relationships are a team sport — and you both deserve emotional support from one another.

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