Everyone has certain emotional needs that are partially met in close relationships, including the need for attention, support, affection, respect, and security. Emotional neglect occurs when there is a repeated pattern of ignoring, minimizing, or disregarding someone’s emotional needs.1,2,3 Over time, emotional neglect causes negative impacts on someone’s mental health, self-esteem, and ability to form close, healthy relationships.2,4,5
What Is Emotional Neglect?
Physical neglect involves withholding food, shelter, clothing, or other basic needs, whereas emotional neglect involves withholding love, support, or affection.2,5,6 Emotionally neglected people are directly or indirectly told their feelings and needs don’t matter. The person who is doing the neglecting may be cold, detached, dismissive, intentionally stressful, or act otherwise unfairly.1,3,5
Emotional neglect isn’t always a type of emotional abuse. Abuse is an intentional act of harm, usually directed towards a vulnerable person (like a child).2,5 It’s extremely difficult to detect emotional neglect in adult relationships, and even harder to determine whether it’s an act of abuse.6 That said, even when it’s unintentional, emotional neglect can still be traumatic.
Both children and adults can suffer lasting emotional, social, and psychological effects as a result of trauma related to emotional neglect.1,4,5
Signs of Emotional Neglect In Adults
Most research has focused on emotional neglect in childhood, with only a few studies looking into the ways it shows up in adulthood. Emotional neglect is one of the most overlooked forms of child maltreatment, but may be even more likely to go unrecognized in adult relationships.3,6
While more research on emotional neglect in adult relationships is needed, it’s likely that the signs of emotional neglect in relationships are similar for both adults and children.
Signs of emotional neglect in relationships include:2,3,4
- Having one’s feelings repeatedly minimized, dismissed, or ignored
- Being mocked, teased, or criticized for opening up or being vulnerable
- Being held to unrelenting standards, even during hardships
- Having hardships or painful experiences discounted or downplayed
- Being refused affection, validation, or warmth from a loved one (often a reason why many feel lonely)
- Being ridiculed for asking for help or support from other people
- Being expected to tolerate unfair treatment or disrespect without complaint
- Having emotional needs described or treated as unimportant or childish
- Getting cold, detached, or apathetic responses from a loved one
- Repeatedly having important requests ignored or disregarded
- A lack of positive interactions, intimacy, or closeness in a romantic relationship
Effects of Emotional Neglect In Adult Relationships
More research needs to be done to fully understand the effects of emotional neglect, especially on adults. The research that exists suggests that many of the impacts and symptoms of emotional neglect are similar in both adults and children.5 These include increased risk for psychiatric disorders, addictions, and lowered self-esteem, as well as difficulty forming close, healthy relationships with others.2,3,4,5
Some effects of emotional neglect are:1,2,3,5
- Higher rates of anxiety, depression, and other psychiatric disorders
- More frequent negative emotions like anger, guilt, shame, and fear
- Higher risk for substance use disorders and addictions
- Low self-esteem, high self-doubt, or a lack of confidence
- Trust issues and difficulty forming close and healthy relationships
- Internalizing or suppressing emotions and difficulty opening up to people
- More trouble regulating emotions, having uncontrolled outbursts
- Poor boundaries, social skills, and difficulty asking for or accepting help
- A negative self-image or high levels of self-criticism or negative self-talk
- Increased likelihood of becoming socially isolated or withdrawn
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Emotional Neglect Examples
Emotional neglect in relationships can take different forms, and some are subtle and hard to detect.3,4 This is why many people don’t realize they’ve experienced emotional neglect until it has already negatively impacted them, their life, and their relationship. Knowing common signs and symptoms of emotional neglect can help with early detection.
Here are three emotional neglect examples:
1. Emotional Neglect In a Romantic Relationship
Kylie has been in a long-term committed relationship with her partner Lauren for several years. In the beginning, Lauren was highly supportive and affectionate, but after they moved in, she became cold, distant, and detached. Now, she rarely makes time for Kylie, and instead plans to spend time alone with her friends most nights and weekends.
When Kylie complains, Lauren calls her “needy” and tells her that she wants a “strong, independent girlfriend” who has her own life. In some of these fights, Lauren talks about another female friend who she feels possesses the strengths Kylie lacks. Kylie begins to question whether she is being too needy or dependent or whether Lauren is being unfair to her.
2. Emotional Neglect In a Family Relationship
James has an older brother who was always competitive growing up, but he has tried to form a better relationship with him as an adult. He often invites his brother to spend time together, offers to help him with projects around the house, and makes a point to check in and call regularly.
The problem is that these efforts aren’t reciprocated. His brother never initiates, calls, texts, or tries to make plans. When his brother does answer, he only talks about himself and gets annoyed when James tries to talk about his life. When James tries to get advice or support, his brother usually tells him to “Get over it,” “Stop crying about it,” or to “Just man up.”
3. Emotional Neglect In the Workplace
Emma has worked for a company for a year and works closely with senior leadership. The culture is high-pressure and most leaders and staff work long hours into the nights and weekends. Recently, Emma couldn’t stay late because of personal problems in her home life. She let the leaders at the company know, but they refused to grant her any time off or lighten her workload.
They’ve also criticized her for being “less engaged lately,” ignoring the fact that she has regularly worked unpaid overtime for several years up until now. Emma worries she will lose her job unless she continues to work late and take on more projects despite her personal problems.
10 Ways to Cope With Emotional Neglect As an Adult
While it’s normal and healthy to turn to close friends, partners, or family members for emotional support, it’s unfair to expect others to meet all your emotional needs. Knowing how to cope with your feelings and meet some of your own emotional needs is important. Learning to love yourself is also an important part of this process, especially for those who struggle with shame, self-esteem issues, or self-criticism.
Still, when those closest to you repeatedly disregard your feelings and refuse to provide any emotional support, it may be a sign of emotional neglect. In these instances, it might be necessary to initiate conversations and ask for what you want and need from them, and even take further action if they don’t follow through.
Here are ten ways to identify and cope with emotional neglect as an adult:
1. Re-Examine Your Expectations & Emotional Needs
It’s unhealthy to expect someone else to be responsible for meeting all your emotional needs, which is why the first step involves re-evaluating your expectations of others. Start by identifying what your emotional needs are, who you’re expecting to meet them, and how you want them to respond to these needs.
Next, review the list and make sure you’re not setting unfair or unrealistic expectations for others to solve your problems, regulate your emotions, or improve your self-esteem.5,7
2. Identify When the Problem Started & Possible Reasons Why
The next step is to reflect on a relationship in which you feel emotionally neglected to consider the history and identify when the problems began. This can help you figure out if these problems are part of a long-standing pattern of neglect, or whether they’re more recent. Next, consider non-personal reasons or explanations as to why this person isn’t responding the way you want them to.
For instance, consider their communication style, comfort with their own emotions, and stressful circumstances in their lives. It could also be the case that the emotional neglect only began after a conflict or fight, or there are some unresolved issues to address.
3. Determine Ways to Meet (Some of) Your Own Emotional Needs
Depending on other people to meet all of your emotional needs isn’t healthy, so it’s also important to identify ways to meet some on your own. For example, knowing ways to boost your confidence or mood after a bad day or overcome jealousy or insecurities can make you feel more emotionally stable.
While you can’t meet all of your emotional needs alone, being able to meet some of them can help you feel more stable, independent, and less reliant on others.3
4. Talk Openly With the Person About Your Feelings & Needs
When emotional neglect has become a long-standing problem or pattern, it usually needs to be openly addressed in a conversation. While this can be uncomfortable, you can’t expect someone to know how you feel unless you tell them.7,8 Being kind but direct about how you feel is the best way to approach this conversation.
5. Be Specific When Asking the Other Person to Change
When having a conversation about your feelings, it’s important to give specific ideas about what the other person can do differently to make you feel supported. For example, telling a friend that you’d appreciate it if they’d call or text you more or make time at least once a month to hang out provides clear and actionable things they can do to improve your friendship.
6. Look For Signs of Effort & Track Improvements Over Time
After having an open conversation about your feelings and emotional needs, look for changes over time. Work to identify signs that they’re making more of an effort to be supportive. This way, you’ll get a better sense of whether they’re emotionally invested in the relationship and if they’re trying to change, even if it’s not exactly what you asked for.7,8
Keep in mind that you might need to have a follow-up conversation to clarify what you feel, want, or need vs. just having a one-and-done talk.
7. Re-Evaluate Relationships When There Aren’t Improvements
When there are no improvements or changes, it’s time to re-evaluate the relationship. You might need time, distance, or boundaries. For example, start reaching out less often or investing less of your time and energy into a one-sided friendship, especially if you’ve made an effort to speak up about your needs and have been ignored.7
8. Seek Out Support From Other People In Your Circle
Relying on one person for emotional support can strain the relationship and leave you unfulfilled, especially when this person is emotionally neglectful. It’s important to expand your support system and call on other friends, family members, and people you trust when you need support. Research consistently shows that a strong support system provides protection against stress and hardships.9
9. Improve Your Self-care by Using Healthy Emotional Outlets
Emotional neglect can cause a build up of negative emotions like anger, stress, sadness, and shame.2,3 Finding healthy outlets for your emotions can be therapeutic, and can help you feel better when you’re not getting the love and support you need from others. These skills are also linked to better responses to stress and more resilience against the negative impacts of emotional neglect and abuse.9
10. Invest In Healthy Relationships With People Who Reciprocate
If your needs aren’t met by the people closest to you, it might be necessary to expand your circle and build a stronger support system. Consider looking for meetups, social clubs, activities, or even support groups. As you form new friendships, be aware of which friends reciprocate and seem willing to give you their time, energy, and attention. They are most likely to become strong, close friends.7
How Therapy Can Help
Therapy is often helpful to people who feel emotionally neglected in a relationship.9 Couples therapy and family therapy focus on helping people communicate better and develop a closer, stronger bond. If a loved one is not open to therapy, it could still be beneficial to consider individual therapy, especially if you’re noticing changes in your mental health.
Many people begin their search for a therapist online by using a free online therapist directory. These directories can save time by narrowing your search to find therapists with specific specialties or those who work with couples or offer online therapy. You can also use the filters to find a therapist who is close to your home or work, or someone who accepts your insurance.
Over time, emotional neglect can undermine your self-esteem and negatively impact your mental health. Sometimes, it can be corrected through open conversations or with the help of a trained therapist. If things aren’t improving in the relationship, it may be important to set boundaries, find other supports, or even cut ties with someone who can’t or won’t meet your emotional needs.
For Further Reading
For more information about emotional neglect, forms of abuse, and healthy vs. unhealthy relationship patterns here are additional resources: