Emotional Neglect In A Relationship – Meaning, Signs And Steps To Cope

Relationship Advice | | , Editor-in-Chief
Updated On: February 7, 2024
emotional neglect in a relationship

Everyone goes into a relationship hoping their significant other will meet their primary emotional needs for affection, respect, attention, support, and security. However, these needs are ignored, disregarded, or invalidated 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 this lack of emotional support from a partner in an intimate 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, silent treatment, 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 such emotional blindness 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 and talk about how you can deal with your needs not being met in a relationship.

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?

So, what does emotional neglect in a relationship look like really? Simply put, emotional neglect in a relationship is when a partner is unable to understand the emotions of the other, and there is a lack of emotional support from the partner. This typically happens when a person lacks certain feelings for their partner, as a result of which the neglected partner feels alone and deprived.

Related Reading: In Love With An Emotionally Unavailable Man? 10 Tips To Connect With Him

For romantic relationships to thrive, being able to feel and empathize with a partner is extremely important. When that erodes, it leads to a partner being emotionally starved. Affection, love, and support are basic emotional needs in romantic relationships, which can lead to psychological and mental health problems when unmet.

Research indicates that when an intimate partner or a loved one refuses to meet emotional needs in a relationship and is 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 is one of the underlying causes of low self-esteem and mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, and substance misuse disorders. It can further lead to neglect in a marriage, and such individuals may check out emotionally sooner than others.

You can see that feeling neglected 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.

15 Signs of Emotional Neglect In A Relationship

It can be hard to put a finger on feeling neglected in a relationship. On the surface of it, everything seems fine but underlying unmet emotional needs in a relationship can make it an increasingly lonesome space. Emotional neglect in a marriage can happen even after decades of living happily together. It is not uncommon for a once-happy wife to confess, “My husband doesn’t fulfill my emotional needs.” Likewise, a husband may gradually feel that his emotional needs are not being met, and he may feel dissatisfied and distant.

A study by researcher John Gottman found that an emotional connection could be the difference between couples who thrive and those who drift apart. So, it’s vital to understand what unmet emotional needs in a relationship look like. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not just women who feel lonely when they are being neglected in a relationship, there can be instances when a man feels emotional neglect in a relationship, but he may respond differently.

When a woman feels neglected in a relationship, she might be more forthcoming about it. She might let her partner know in clear words or actions that something feels off, or that she isn’t happy. Meanwhile, when a man feels a lack of emotional support from the partner, he may not be as expressive about it but his agony will reflect in his behavior. He may become quieter, or brood a lot more than usual.

Here are 15 key signs of emotional neglect in a relationship that can help you safeguard your relationship against this turmoil or take proactive measures to deal with it:

1. You and your partner are out of sync emotionally

Emotionally unavailable partners have trouble making sense of each other’s state of mind and this is one of the most vital signs that the emotional connection between two people is dented. So, take a moment to assess if your partner continues to be baffled by your emotional needs and expressions. What are your answers to these questions:

  • Do they shoot down any overtures you make for improving intimacy in the relationship?
  • Does your desire to spend quality time together or communicate more lead to a fight?
  • Does your partner have no interest in being romantic in the relationship?
  • Are you the only one making an effort to sustain the relationship?
  • Does spending quality time look like a lot of hard work for them?

Well, if the answers to these answers are a solid (or even a meek) “yes”, we suggest you look for these other signs too. You are, in all likelihood, emotionally starved in your relationship.

signs of emotional neglect in a relationship
You are baffled by each other’s emotional needs

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 lead to a sense of alienation. If your emotional needs are being shot down, 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 choose to share your trials and triumphs with other people you’re close to and have better emotional intimacy with them. Your partner may have no real idea about what’s going on in your life or 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 the signs of neglect in a relationship

It is one thing to try and keep difficult topics on hold because you feel that it’s not the right time to broach them, but if you are constantly tiptoeing around certain sensitive issues, leaving you feeling like you’re walking on eggshells in your relationship, it needs to be looked at more closely.

In a relationship where emotional awareness is at its lowest, partners often avoid topics that can evoke strong reactions. Avoiding intimacy and difficult conversations, and being unable to deal with them are all signs of emotional numbness 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?” “Does s/he love me?” “Where is this relationship going?” Such questions can become a regular feature in an emotionally neglectful relationship.

5. Not fighting is also 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 whose turn it is to take out the trash – can seem ideal in theory. However, fighting in a relationship has its benefits.

  • It shows that you care about your connection enough to fight for it
  • It helps you air out your issues, and sometimes, even helps in addressing unresolved issues
  • Fighting means the partner is as invested in the relationship as you are
  • Fighting means you still have a partner who reacts

When there is neglect in a relationship or spouse neglect in a marriage, fights become a thing of the past. Couples 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 but end up feeling like you’ve run into a wall you cannot penetrate, you’re dealing with silent treatment and neglect from your partner.

One of the most common effects of emotional deprivation in a relationship is that you too slowly begin to clam up. When your overtures are shot down over and over again, your emotional well-being takes a hit and you may 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

If one were to make a list of emotional needs in a relationship, communication would definitely feature among the top three. Emotional neglect in a relationship is also characterized by signs of bad communication between two romantic partners. In an emotionally neglectful relationship, the communication between the partners is on a functional level. Functional communication is when:

  • Partners only talk about logistics, day-to-day affairs
  • Partners avoid any topics that involve discussing emotions and feelings
  • Neither partner knows about the other’s life beyond the necessary
  • There is no effort to understand the other partner or enquire about each other’s well-being·        The communication involves facts, blames, and is humorless

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 misunderstandings to crop up. Resulting in one of you saying to the other:

  • “I didn’t mean it like that”
  • “You are 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 consequences of a lack of affection and intimacy in a relationship and point to 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. If a person feels uncomfortable in sharing their feelings or finds it difficult to articulate their thoughts to a significant other, it suggests that prolonged neglect in a relationship has caused a wall to come up between them.

This wall leads to a lot of damage to the relationship, which can, in turn, threaten your future together. When a partner is not comfortable sharing feelings with the significant other, it:

  • Translates into the neglected partner bottling up their emotions for a long time
  • Leads to pent-up emotions, which can trigger resentment in the relationship
  • Makes the emotionally neglected partner pull back
  • Causes the chasm between both partners to widen further

10. Feeling alone while in a relationship

One of the most telling signs that you have taken a backseat in your relationship is that unshakable feeling that you’re alone despite having a partner to share your life with. Those in relationships that suffer from neglect often go through these thoughts and emotions:

effects of emotional neglect in a relationship
You cannot count on your partner to have your back
  • Often either one or both partners feel lonely in a relationship 
  • A host of unmet needs and discarded feelings make you feel like you’re single
  • Even when you’re with your partner, the loneliness doesn’t leave you
  • In social gatherings too, it is never you and them in conversation

11. Your relationship feels like a façade

An emotionally neglectful relationship can seem perfectly functional to an outsider and the people in it “perfectly happy together”. 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. While the world may see you having a great time, the reality is that you’re both struggling to find a way to be with each other. 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.When a woman feels neglected in a relationship, she may find it hard to connect with her partner physically too. She finds it hard to feel aroused or achieve any heightened pleasure. Her hurt feelings often get in the way of both physical and emotional intimacy. Meanwhile, when a man feels neglected in a relationship, he may either cut off the physical intimacy completely or may end up having sex on a very superficial level with no traces of intimacy.

In addition to emotional deprivation, you also find yourselves 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
  • You may start having a backup plus-one for an important event even though your partner has said they’d be there for you
  • You may start checking your partner’s phone for proof of cheating because their emotional unavailability has convinced you that there is someone else in their life

14. Neither your absence nor presence matters anymore

One of the tell-tale signs of a relationship going wrong is how two people respond to each other’s absence. They say, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Well, it isn’t entirely wrong. But if you are in a relationship where the partner has checked out emotionally, the absence may not even be noticed. You might be gone for hours, sometimes every day, and yet there is no one asking you about your whereabouts.

Similarly, how two people in a relationship react in each other’s presence often says a lot about their chemistry. Do they change because you are there? Does the space feel more positive, more welcoming when the two of you are together? Does your partner make changes to accommodate, sometimes even celebrate, when you are around, or is it just plain, simple business for them? Well, the answers say a lot about emotional absence in a relationship.

15. Clear line between your people and theirs

Two people in an intimate relationship are not alone in that bond. Quite naturally, you start taking care of and valuing the other people who are important to your partner. So, your respective friends become part of the union and your families come under almost the same umbrella. But not always! In the case of emotional unkindness in a relationship, the line between their people and yours remains firm, clear, and consistent.

“Your parents” or “your friends” remain so despite the relationship, and “their gang” or “their family” is part of that other world you are not invited in. Even if it looks like one big circle from the outside, if you feel like you don’t belong in that group, or that there are too many inside jokes and anecdotes you are not part of, it says a lot about your relationship with your partner as well.

Similarly, if your partner refers to the people in your inner circles as “your mother” or “your friend”, it means they aren’t theirs yet. When needs are not being met in a relationship, the idea of an extended family or friends is far from reality.

Related Reading: 15 Signs Of Emotional Neglect In A Marriage

3 Steps To Deal With Emotional Neglect In A Relationship

Now you know what you are dealing with, the next question is: how to deal with emotional neglect in a relationship? Emotional neglect in a romantic relationship can be the beginning of the end. Such a connection can be immensely isolating and scarring for the person at the receiving end. The partner from whom the neglect perpetuates too finds themselves stuck in an unfulfilling relationship, and recovering from it can feel like a long, uphill task.

The absence of an emotionally present partner 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. 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? Getting to the root of this behavioral pattern can help you figure out the right course of action and recover from 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 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.

complicated relationships

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. It may seem like a lot of hard work in the beginning, but trust the process. 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, slowly and steadily build it up so that you and your partner feel comfortable discussing your feelings and emotions with each other.

Related Reading: 8 Conflict Resolution Strategies In Relationships That Almost Always Work

3. Seek therapy for emotional neglect in a relationship

Recovering from your partner’s lack of emotional involvement in a relationship may be hard, but is not impossible. If your efforts don’t yield results, seek 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 a partner’s lack of emotional connect in a relationship and are looking for help, experienced and licensed counselors on Bonobology’s panel are here for you.

Seeking for therapy

Key Pointers

  • Emotional neglect in relationships can be hard to identify since emotional needs can vary from person to person
  • The most telling indicator of emotional neglect is that you feel a void within even if your relationship checks all the boxes of being functional
  • Lack of emotional fulfillment can trigger the feeling of being single despite being in a relationship
  • Unmet emotional needs can lead to resentment, bottling up for feelings, and breakdown in communication and physical intimacy, which can drive a couple further apart
  • You can work through this issue by understanding where it’s stemming from, trying to communicate with your partner, and seeking professional help if necessary

Such neglect in a relationship can feel like a string of disappointments that can tangle you up in a constant state of distress. This distress takes a toll on the bond you share with your partner, your mental health, and your ability to form healthy relationships in the future. If you recognize these signs 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.

FAQs

1. Is emotional neglect a form of abuse?

Emotional neglect isn’t necessarily a type of abusive relationship. Unlike other forms of abuse, for example, physical abuse, it is not perpetuated with an intent to control or manipulate the other person.  Emotional unkindness essentially stems from a lack of emotional investment in a relationship. However, a relationship with emotional neglect can end up being toxic in nature, with far-reaching consequences for the neglected partner.

2. What are some examples of emotional neglect in a relationship?

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.

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