How to Prevent Emotional Neglect in a Relationship

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How To Prevent Emotional Neglect in a Relationship

Our emotions are a significant factor in how we process the world. Being able to identify our emotional experience helps ground us, like anchoring a ship out to sea. Without the label, we flounder. But not only is it important to identify our internal world, it’s also important to share it with our loved ones. This sharing is what helps to build a deep and close bond. If we don’t understand how someone is feeling, it is hard to truly know them. Loneliness is often the result of sitting in your emotions without validation, comfort, or support. 

A key experience that breaks down a relationship is emotional neglect. Emotional neglect occurs in relationships when a significant other disregards, ignores, or invalidates one’s emotional experience and needs. It can happen in any relationship, As Jonice Webb describes, emotional neglect is silent and is communicated through behavior. When there is emotional neglect, it can feel like being isolated in each person’s internal bubble.

Connected partners are aware of the other’s internal emotional experience, giving them the opportunity to bond and move through life as a team. They don’t take on the weight of their partner’s emotions personally, rather they create space for the other to process in the company of someone safe.

While it’s easy to turn inwards, thinking of our own emotional needs while reading about the subject of emotional neglect, we cannot force our partner to level up through complaints or demands. Instead, modeling compassionate behavior often results in a reflection back in our direction. With that in mind, here are some tips to avoid emotional neglect in your relationship:

  • Make time together without distractions
    • Put down your phones
    • Try going for a walk, when there’s nothing to do but talk or take in the other’s presence
    • Connect with touch– showing your attention is on them
    • No TV and no kids (even if you only have 5-10 minutes to make this happen) 
  • Share your feelings with your partner - including the tough ones
    • Avoid justifications– avoid turning any of your feelings back around on them or over-explaining what they mean,
    • Harness vulnerability by expressing internal emotions like fear, shame, confusion, insecurity or guilt rather than external emotions like anger, annoyance, disgust, or impatience
    • Feeling lonely? Tell your partner. Make a plan to spend time together to fill up your connection bucket.
  • Ask yourself the following questions every day
    • Do I know the struggles and victories my partner is facing today?
    • Do I know how my partner is feeling in this moment? 
    • Have I created space for my partner to feel their emotions without judgment?

If your partner tends to shut down their emotional experience:

You may be thinking, sure, these tips would be great if I could only get my partner to talk to me. It’s something I hear from many of the women I work with. 

“My partner is avoidant. I don’t know how to reach them” is a common complaint.

Here’s what I want you to remember: Your partner does experience all of the same emotions you do; however, they learned from early childhood experiences or other significant relationships that it wasn’t safe to share their emotions and needs.

  • Give your partner time to process information. They may be an internal processor and need more time to get their thoughts together before sharing them. When starting a conversation, don’t expect to get an immediate in-depth response. Be okay with that ahead of time.
  • Find a soothing activity that you can do together while talking about things that may be difficult. Go for a walk, cook a meal together, take a car ride, or wash dishes beside each other. Some people–particularly men– are more likely to open up when they’re not staring face-to-face.
  • Instead of asking “How do you feel?”, which is a very broad and intimidating question for someone who doesn’t have emotional language to describe their inner workings, try labeling it for them tentatively. Remain curious. I like to say, “If it were me, I would feel confused. Is this what it’s like for you?” 

The opposite of emotional neglect is emotional connection. I call my program Be Connected, because connecting with your partner on every level, be it emotional, mental, spiritual, or physical, is how your primal desire for companionship can truly enhance your life. We all want a relationship that strengthens rather than depletes us, and to get there, we can’t neglect the emotions living within our partner or ourselves.


Dr. Tracy