Have you ever wondered about the connection between childhood emotional neglect and romantic relationships? Childhood emotional neglect happens when parents are not able to hold space for their child’s emotions and that leads the child to develop certain coping skills in order to survive.
Everyone learns to cope in different ways depending on their unique experiences. Siblings in the same household have different coping skills because even though their parents are the same, they have had different parenting experiences.
When we grow up with emotional neglect a lot of the time we don’t even know what an emotionally secure relationship looks and feels like. So, before we get into the connection between childhood emotional neglect and romantic relationships, let’s first talk about people in emotionally secure relationships.
Emotionally secure relationships
You will know that you are in an emotionally secure relationship when you feel safe and comfortable around your partner, when you can put your guard down and just be yourself. You don’t feel the pressure to live up to any expectations.
The person you are in a relationship with is communicative and informs you about simple things. For example, if they are coming home late because something came up last minute at work then they inform you about that.
An emotionally secure couple expresses their needs to each other and feels safe doing that. For example, they will let you know if they want you to be more vulnerable or they want you to be more attuned. They will know how they want to feel in a relationship.
In an emotionally secure relationship the couple works like a team. They don’t feel like they are trying to survive alone. They will want to be a part of each other’s life and support each other through their struggles.
During times of conflict there is no fear of abandonment. There is a strong trust in their relationship and love for each other.
Not all conflicts can be resolved and they know that. They can agree to disagree and the lack of resolution does not mean that their relationship is under threat.
They respect each other as individuals. Love and acceptance is not conditional. There is space in the relationship for both good and bad days. There is disappointment, hurt, sadness and tears. But, there is also honesty, calmness, patience, trust and they are each other’s biggest champions.
Childhood emotional neglect and romantic relationships
A child feels secure in a parent child relationship when parents make sure to show up for them consistently and unconditionally. They feel safe and are able to be themselves because they know they will be accepted no matter what. In the same way a secure relationship with a partner is formed when there is predictability, consistency and reciprocity in the relationship.
A child who grows up with emotional neglect has consistency and unconditionality missing. These children learn very subconsciously that it’s not safe to be themselves and express their needs. They learn that their emotional needs can lead to people withholding nurture.
They are used to not being seen, but if someone notices them they either feel very overwhelmed by it and feel the need to hold them at an arm’s length or they have the fear of losing the person that makes them overwhelmed and anxious.
Our attachment and relationship with our parents or caregivers influences our understanding of the world around us. Once you have formed certain coping skills to navigate relationships with your parents. That is the same way you will approach every relationship in your life until you find someone securely attached and work on your own childhood trauma as that will give you the opportunity to heal your attachment wounds.
The coping mechanisms that we develop to survive and avoid getting hurt any further can be worked through by healing the young wounded part of you. Working on yourself and healing will make it easier for you to allow people into your life who value you for who you are.
Adults who have experienced childhood emotional neglect have a difficult time forming a secure relationship because of the following reasons.
Lack of self awareness- They learn to survive by disconnecting from their emotional needs. Vulnerability and curiosity are a few important virtues needed when trying to connect with others. In order to be vulnerable and curious we have to connect with ourselves first.
In order to allow the right person in our life we first have to know how we want to feel in a relationship. What are our boundaries, what makes us feel safe.
Most of the time they are unaware of what they want or need and even if they somehow figure it out they learn not to express it as based on their past experience their emotional needs could threaten abandonment.
Lack of self expression– Many of them are very self reliant as they learnt very early in life that no one is going to show up. They have a very difficult time asking for help. They are used to giving more than receiving.
Even if they know that they have a need and are struggling they will not know that asking for help from their partner is an option or the fear of how their partner will react might hold them back. They will try to carry the burden alone.
For example- Women who become new moms might have a difficult time asking their partners for help. Men who might be struggling emotionally or financially will not be able to ask for support from their partner. Carrying the burden and not wanting to inconvenience their partner will make them drift away from their partner.
Not good enough– They don’t feel like they are good enough or loveable. They have a difficult time letting go of people even if they know those people are not good for them because they don’t feel like they will find anyone who will want to be with them.
They feel like they have to change and mold themselves in order to be liked. As they don’t feel like they are good enough they will not listen to their intuition. If they feel like their partner is not as invested as they would like them to be they don’t express it. They rationalize it by saying maybe there is something wrong with them. They have to try harder.
For example- if you have started dating someone recently when you are with them it looks like they are interested but they are not very communicative in between dates. They also take forever to respond to your texts. This behavior makes you anxious. But you never bring it up. You tell yourself that you don’t want to nag them. But, maybe the real reason is that you are worried if you bring it up they might leave.
Prioritize other people’s needs– They have learnt to put others needs before their own. They don’t want to inconvenience anyone. They are uncomfortable occupying space.
They rather stay in the background and not be seen than prioritize their needs and set boundaries. They look at setting boundaries as confrontation and they want to avoid that at any cost.
For example- You are out on a first date with someone. You spend hours talking to them not because you were having a good time, but because you did not want to end the date as you did not want to hurt the other person’s feelings or you did not want to be impolite.
Fear of being alone forever– People with childhood emotional neglect have a very deep sense of loneliness. They fear that they will be lonely forever if they let the person go even if the person is not good for them.
Sometimes early childhood trauma makes us create a fantasy world in our mind to help escape reality. The same part that created the fantasy world in our mind to make things around us feel better than what they really were back then, starts creating a fantasy when we meet someone we like.
They might be nothing like that in reality but we constantly try to make them fit the image in our fantasy by rationalizing their behavior. The job of this fantasy part is to make sure that we are not overtaken by loneliness.
Our nervous system responds by regulating and feeling safe if we are around people we have a secure relationship with. Therefore, being able to form a secure relationship is important for our mental health. A secure relationship means to have someone in your life who you feel safe around and trust to show up for you. It does not have to be too many people. Even if you have a couple such people in your life that’s good enough.
Childhood emotional neglect and romantic relationships are connected because our early experiences in our childhood impact what we understand about relationships and affect the choices we make later in life. You can read more about what effect childhood emotional neglect has on us as adults.