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Breaking Free from Willful Emotional Neglect in a Relationship

Emotional neglect is one of the most tormenting experiences you can go through in a relationship. Many people who have experienced both, say it is worse than overt physical abuse. It is very important to know how to break free from emotional neglect. So, today I’m going to expose the actual pattern taking place with emotional neglect as well as how to break free from it.  

Emotional neglect is about what isn’t there, rather than about what is there. It is a profound “I’m not there for you and I’m not there with you… even when we happen to be in the same physical vicinity.” It is a lack of all of the things that a person needs to feel emotionally good in a relationship and therefore, a lack of a great deal of what a person needs in life to feel emotionally good (because your quality of life is down to the quality of your relationships). It is the affection that isn’t shown. The presence that isn’t granted. The absence of emotional support. The withdrawal of attention. The protection that isn’t being given. The ignoring of needs. The expectation that you meet your needs yourself. The deficiency of nurturing. The total refusal to seek or grant understanding. The disengagement. The indifference that is being demonstrated. The apathy towards the other person and towards the relationship. The emotional dismissal. The unavailability. The disconnection etc.

The natural reaction to emotional neglect, is to try to get the other person (be it a parent or a sibling or a friend or a partner) to not neglect you. And there are all kinds of strategies that you might employ to try to get them to stop neglecting you. From calm, rational conversations about how you feel to becoming whatever you think they want to violent outbursts to seduction techniques to eliciting jealousy to threats to creating emergency scenarios to feigned withdrawal and the list goes on and on. 

Sometimes, emotional neglect is something that a person isn’t choosing to do, not even on a subconscious level. Rather, it is a byproduct of circumstances. For example, a person might be emotionally neglecting you because due to their own emotionally neglectful childhood, they truly have no template for what to even do to be there for and with someone emotionally. Or a person may have chosen a career or be in a life situation that quite literally prevents them from being present in a sufficient way, such as being incarcerated or working for the military or some other career that implies absence. Or if someone has an illness. You get the picture. When this is the case, the emotional neglect is not willful. It still does the damage that emotional neglect does. But there can be inherent workability in the relationship because the neglect is not willful. 

Emotional neglect becomes willful when on a conscious or even more commonly, subconscious level, a person does not want to be there for you and be there with you. When the person does not want the pressure of caring for and tending to your emotional needs and emotional wellbeing. They don’t want to have the responsibility of doing the things that you need to feel emotionally good in a relationship. And this willful neglect, is inherently unworkable because the neglect is serving them in some way. The question is, how is it serving them, what is it giving to them? And what pain are they trying to avoid by being emotionally neglectful?

Just because someone is in a relationship, doesn’t mean they want to put energy into making that relationship a feel-good relationship if doing so would require something from them that they don’t want to do. A great many people have needs that can only be met in the context of a relationship. So, they enter into one. But they do not want the pressure of being responsible for how the other person feels in that relationship. They just want the other person to magically feel good (and most especially, good about them) no matter what they do or don’t do. 

People who willfully emotionally neglect in their relationships, will set up a lose-lose scenario for you, unlike any other. And this lose-lose scenario is likely to leave you in a pattern that can ruin your life. Here it is:

People who willfully emotionally neglect, do not want the pressure of being there for you. They only want you when THEY want and need you. They are in essence, anti-depend on me. So, when they see you happy, they perceive you to not need them and so, they make the most of the opportunity by disconnecting and withdrawing to do their own thing. Focus only on themselves and their needs. So, they train you that being ok, especially being happy, means abandonment. 

However, if you act unhappy and they see that you need them, they hate the pressure of that feeling. So, they make you the problem for the neediness. You get turned into the scapegoat and the pressure goes on you to figure out how to not need them like you do. 

When this happens, you will most likely get confused about reality, because it is a gaslight. And you are likely to internalize that gaslight and start feeling and telling that you are too needy or too difficult.   

When someone willfully emotionally neglects you, they are pushing you away and they are going away from you. They are creating the opposite of security in the relationship. And this creates incredible relationship insecurity. And this, quite ironically, increases your need for them as well as your need to chase and pull them and cling to them. 

The people who willfully emotionally neglect, want you to be ok, no matter what they do and don’t do because they don’t want the pressure of another person’s wellbeing. So, the old adage “when someone does you wrong, the best form of revenge is to be happy and successful” does not apply. In fact, pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps and doing what is necessary to be happy and successful, will be them getting away with everything Scott free. The damage they are doing by emotionally neglecting you, will never be seen, acknowledged or directly addressed. And, doing so will serve as an affirmation that you are in this life alone.     

On top of this, when you are in this pattern, the only “needs scraps” you get, happen when they are focused at you being the problem. So, you assume the role of being the problem. You are unhappy. But you also don’t put energy into tending to yourself or getting your needs met elsewhere. Afterall, to do this, you’d have to see and accept that you are neglected (thus step into loneliness). And you’d have to give up on trying to get them to not neglect you (which causes you to step deeper into both lack and starvation). Basically, this feels like the exact opposite direction of your needs. So, you are stuck. You stay unhappy hoping desperately that your distress will be responded to. The needs do not go away just because someone is telling you that you shouldn’t have them. The cruelty of the deprivation and the reality that your very real needs are not being met, start to corrode your wellbeing. This pattern creates such desperation that you are likely to start to feel mentally ill. Many of the children and teens that are carted into therapy every day, are enduring this very pattern with the very parents that are carting them into therapy.

So, what’s the solution? Unfortunately, the solution is not a feel-good one. It isn’t a feel good one because a relationship takes two. If it were a dance, it would be the tango. And you cannot dance for the two of you. The solution is to see that you cannot force someone to stop emotionally neglecting you, especially if it serves them somehow to do so. You can try to get them to see what they are doing and give them information that might change their mind so they step up and into the relationship. Chances are, you’ve already done that 8 million times over. But ultimately, you can’t force someone to take part in a dance against their will. 

Willful neglectors are very, very gaslighting. They will not see that they are doing this. It will be very hard, if not impossible to get them to see it. After all, it is a direct assault to their self-concept. And seeing it, means to either consciously choose to be what they see as a bad guy. Or, to do what they really, really, do not want to do. They will be full of excuses as to why they are not providing what you need. And they love to hide their unwillingness to take any responsibility for you feeling good in the relationship under anything else they do for you. Things that have nothing to do with what is actually needed from them. Many willful neglectors are very good talkers. Their words do not line up with their actions. For this reason, and to un-gaslight yourself, you need to put them on mute. This is a practice where you watch what they do during the day, but as if they were on mute so you could not hear them. As if you were watching a silent movie and had to figure out what was happening and understand what is going on in the relationships, without any discourse. When you do this, you think to yourself, what is the reality? What is actually happening and even better, what is not happening?

I’ll give you a tip which will help you to know if someone is willfully emotionally neglecting you. You will start to feel ever increasing desperation and emotionally ill as if you are malnourished emotionally. This can also come with a feeling of emptiness, weakness and weariness. You are likely to be full of anxiety as well, as relationship insecurity causes you to feel chronically anxious and chronically in distress. Because of this distress, you will try to get the other person to change their behavior. You will try to get them to meet your emotional needs, rather than emotionally neglect you. This is likely to start as basic conversations, but escalate and escalate and escalate to full blown fights and other “don’t neglect me” behaviors as the desperation rises. But nothing changes. The conversations are likely to be circular. Your experience does not change. The other person will put no effort into changing your experience. They may also promise you to change something and then break their word. You will ask them to change something and they will neither set a solid boundary (so you can decide what to do given the fact that they will not provide a need you have in the relationship). Nor will they actually do what it takes and put any energy into changing what isn’t working into something that does work. I’m going to tell you something. If a person wants to show up and step up in a relationship to make it a good relationship, they do not want the other person to feel emotionally abandoned. They have intrinsic motive for them to feel good. So, they are responsive to the other person’s distress. And they come towards the other person and towards the relationship when the other person is in distress. If they don’t know what to do, they put genuine initiative and effort into gaining information, learning what to do and involving help. 

If you are with an emotional neglector, they will not be responsive to your distress. They will not come towards the relationship in response to your distress. Nor will they take responsive action to change what isn’t working into something that does. They exhibit a real apathetic laziness towards the relationship and towards you. And even when they use the “I don’t know what to do” excuse, they are especially apathetic towards finding out what to do and learning how to make things better in their relationship. The reason being that they are actually getting something out of emotionally neglecting you. And attention all of you who were scapegoated in childhood… All of the energy they are using to “help and fix you”, they could be putting towards making the relationship better. Remember, how you are feeling and acting is the symptom, not the cause. They don’t want to solve the cause because that would mean having to be dependable, responsible, authentic, intimate or whatever else they want to avoid.                                  

So that you can understand this better, here is one example of emotional neglect: Britt is in a romantic relationship with Jason. And things are not going well at all. Jason is focusing less and less on Britt and is instead, obsessing over his business. Britt feels like she is becoming just an accessory to his other, more important priorities in life. He is very rarely affectionate anymore. He does not take her on dates. He doesn’t like to engage in deep conversation about what she thinks or feels. He is “gone” when he is in the room. And when Britt has a meltdown, which she has been doing often, he sits apathetically on the couch, staring at her in silence. Sometimes, just to placate her, Jason validates her feelings and reassures her that he will do something differently, only to break his word later. So now, his reassuring promises only escalate her further. Jason is also in a pattern of dropping his responsibilities around the house, leaving them to Britt to either nag him to do them, or to do them herself. At Britt’s insistence, they have been to a relationship therapist. There, Jason said that he feels Britt demands too much of any man. And defended that he does put energy towards the relationship because he pays for most of the bills in their joint life together. But Jason never followed up on the therapist after their first visit. He passive aggressively dropped his commitment to going to therapy with her. Britt said she didn’t want to sleep with him anymore if he was going to be so checked out of the relationship. She did this thinking it would kick Jason into action, making their relationship better. But this did not happen. He acted upset. But simply set up camp on the couch and acted like a child in timeout every day. Now, Britt is starting to lose hair she is so anxious all the time. She feels close to a nervous breakdown. 

What is really going on is this: Jason’s father left the family when he was just two years old. Jason’s mother turned him into her support figure. Rather than his parents supporting him, he had to support his mother. When Jason’s mother tried to commit suicide, Jason took the full weight of being responsible for how his mother felt and also for failing at it. Her wellbeing was his responsibility. Whether that meant cooking or shoveling the snow or lying with her in bed while she was crying or rubbing her feet. It was a huge problem for her when he wanted to go meet up with friends or play soccer or pursue any goal he might have. And because of this experience, Jason has a serious aversion to taking responsibility for anyone else, especially for how they feel. He has always dreamed of being supported to go chase his own desires. And he now has a trauma reaction to being depended on. When Jason gets into a relationship, he subconsciously tries to avoid this feeling of being depended on as well as to bring about his dream, that he is supported to go do his own thing without consequences. He loves the self-help gurus that teach that everyone is responsible for themselves and that everyone needs to take responsibility for their own emotions. Jason is emotionally neglecting Britt because doing so allows him to avoid being depended on as well as to focus on his own dreams and desires, rather than someone else’s wellbeing. 

Britt and Jason are stuck because nothing Britt is doing to try to get Jason to stop emotionally neglecting her is working. Jason has no interest in actually doing what it would take to make the relationship better. Because doing so, would take him in the opposite direction of what he is wanting. Britt has not yet accepted that Jason wants what he gets out of a relationship. A sense of security rather than being alone. A place to belong. Sex. But all he is willing to put into a relationship, is money. After all, that takes no real effort for Jason. He loves money and is obsessed with making more and more of it. And having a man simply throw money at her in place of actually being in life with her, is making the feeling of deprivation worse, rather than better.          

I am now going to tell you what to do to break free from willful emotional neglect. But I need you to know that I know how painful it is when experts simply lay out what needs to be done, as if it is simple and easy, when it really, really isn’t. I am fully, fully aware that the actual doing of breaking free from willful emotional neglect is not only not easy, it implies ineffable emotional pain that no one should have to endure in their lifetime. And it is a special kind of hell for anyone who does not have abundant social resources, like family and friends.      

If you are being willfully neglected, you need to first, swallow the practically unswallowable, which is that they will never stop emotionally neglecting you. They want zero responsibility for doing what it would take to ensure your emotional wellbeing. From there, you need to do two things. The first, is to commit to tending to your needs, so that you can thrive. This also means going to other people for the needs that you need to have come from others. This means you must stop desperately pulling them to not neglect you and focus yourself towards those who actually are there for you and with you. Those who do actually offer emotional ownership. Keep in mind that tending to your needs is very different than disciplining yourself into doing what it takes to feel better. Tending to your needs both nourishes you and takes pressure off of you. Disciplining yourself into feeling better is to add pressure to yourself. And this is a problem when you have been emotionally neglected because you will be adding pressure to a being that is emotionally malnourished and therefore fragile. 

The second thing you need to do is to flip the dynamic around by refusing to be the scapegoat in the situation. Cut off that option for them. Do not let them simply get away with it. Keep the pressure on the real issue…  Their apathy towards doing what it takes for you to feel good in the relationship. And keep the pressure on them needing to put forth the effort to repair the rupture and to step up and step into the relationship if they would like the relationship with you to improve. They don’t get to have a relationship if they don’t want to take any responsibility for the wellbeing of others. The likelihood that this will happen, is very, very low. So, make sure you don’t do these three steps as yet another strategy to try to get them to stop neglecting you.

It’s not possible to be in a good relationship and take zero responsibility for doing what it would take to ensure the other person’s emotional wellbeing. Entering into a relationship implies that everything you do and fail to do, impacts them either positively or negatively and vice versa. Everyone wants a relationship because of what they can get out of a relationship. But not everyone wants to give or do what it takes to actually create a working relationship that feels good to both people in it. Unless you get into a conscious relationship with someone where you both agree upon them not meeting specific emotional needs of yours (and therefore you don’t expect it because you agree to getting those needs met elsewhere), a good relationship requires emotional ownership… the opposite of emotional neglect.


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