How to Repair a Relationship When Partners Are Healing from Childhood Emotional Neglect

If you were to take a poll of everyone you know by asking them this question: “What’s the most important ingredient for a successful long-term, committed relationship?” my guess is that the overwhelming majority of answers would involve love, companionship, or chemistry.

Sure, all of those factors are important. But as I have seen in my many years as a couples therapist, one other factor is seldom acknowledged but even more important than those three.

It’s skills!

Yes, skills! Why the exclamation points? Because I’m excited to tell you about skills. I have seen skills stoke love, build companionship and promote and maintain chemistry. I have seen relationships deepened and marriages saved by skills. And now the one very best and most amazing thing about skills. Drum roll, please…

SKILLS CAN BE LEARNED! It’s true. Unlike love, companionship, or chemistry, you can learn them. “Why haven’t I learned them already?” may be your CEN way of blaming yourself right now, and I would like to offer you the very real answer. You didn’t grow up in a household that had enough of these skills, so you missed the Emotional Training Course that you were supposed to receive in childhood. It’s important to stop questioning and blaming yourself, and turn your attention forward. It is not too late for you. And we are going to learn them.

But before we talk about the specific skills and how to build them, let me remind you of the requirements for a healthy relationship.

  • Self-knowledge is how well you know yourself in every area and on every level.
  • Emotional awareness involves your willingness and ability to notice your own feelings and those of your partner.
  • Emotion skills involve being able to correctly read, understand, and respond to your own feelings and your partner’s feelings.
  • Communication skills are your ability to convey your own emotions and emotional needs in a way that your partner can take in, as well as listen to and understand your partner’s messages to you.

Now let’s move forward to the exercises themselves. These skills are mix-and-match because you are probably already better at some of these than others, depending on the particular blind spots you and your partner have. Consider it a buffet of possibilities, and choose the ones that feel the most helpful. Keep in mind, though, that I’ve put them in order so that they build on each other, so generally it’s best to begin with the earlier ones and move toward the later ones.

Connection-Building Exercises

Increase Your Self-Knowledge

The single best way to increase your self-knowledge is to learn how to practice mindfulness. Mindfulness involves keeping your mind present in the moment, and being aware of what’s going on in your body. What are you doing right this moment? What are you feeling right now? Why are you doing this in this moment? Why are you feeling this right now?

Mindfulness does not come naturally to most of us, especially when we grew up with Emotional Neglect. Part of CEN is an excessive focus on the external world. What are other people doing right now? What are other people thinking? And why? This external awareness takes up most of your mental energy, and it takes you away from what really matters: you. The best way to learn how to be more mindful is to take a class on meditation. Taking a class together as a couple is a great way to learn and bond together. It can be done online or in-person. Listening to a DVD or mp3 of guided meditation offers the possibility of meditating on a theme that is particularly tailored to your own needs.

The “What My Partner Is Feeling” Exercise

Make a special effort to pay attention to what your partner is feeling throughout the day. This exercise pairs emotional awareness with partner-awareness. In the beginning, do not feel that you have to be right, as no one is ever guaranteed to be right about what someone else is feeling.

Warning: Take care with this exercise, as it can easily be misused, crossing the line to become mind reading. Mind reading is a dangerous and slippery slope that many couples fall into. Paying attention to what your partner is feeling is intended to be a way to make you more attentive to each other’s emotions. It is not intended to be used as a substitute for communication. Keep in mind that you are each responsible for putting your own feelings into words for the other.

Trying to imagine what your partner is feeling will increase your emotional attunement as a couple. The goal is to get better at reading your spouse’s body language and expressions so that you can respond better. And to get better, it helps to check your perceptions with your partner.

Respond to Your Partner’s Feelings

When you’re beginning to see progress in your self-awareness and noticing your partner’s feelings, it may be time to start trying to respond to his feelings in the moment that you’re observing them. This might involve responses like:

You look irritated.
Are you upset about what I just said?
Did that hurt your feelings?
You seem to be relaxed right now.
You didn’t seem to like that. I can see how stressed you are.
I know, that was sad, wasn’t it.
You look like you need a big bear hug right now. Can I give you one?

Pay attention to your partner’s responses. When you get it right you will achieve emotional attunement, which means that you’ll feel a moment of connection with your partner. When you get it wrong, you’ll get helpful feedback and corrected information that will help you hone your emotion skills. Responding more to your partner’s feelings will also get you and your partner more comfortable communicating on a more emotional level. This is an important building block for emotional intimacy.

Scheduled Communication

This exercise seems very simple, but it can be a challenge for CEN couples. Schedule a specific time slot each day to talk together. Use your own judgment, together with your partner, to decide the length of each slot. You may want to start small, and try to increase the length of the talk as you go forward.

I often give CEN couples this exercise as “homework” in couples therapy. It’s great for couples who have drifted apart, or who simply don’t talk enough. There are several great ways to build on this exercise to accomplish even more.

One way to build on Scheduled Communication is to practice the Vertical Questioning Technique. In brief, that exercise involves asking your partner questions during a conversation that require her to turn inward and think about her own feelings and motivations. For example, “What are you feeling right now?” “What did you think when that happened?” “Why did you say it that way?” These are questions that require your partner to focus inward, rather than deliver facts.

Conflict Management Exercises


The single most useful thing you can do to become better at handling conflict in your relationship (and in general) is to learn assertiveness skills. Assertiveness is far more complex than most people think. It’s actually using three major skill groups, all at the same time. It’s managing your anger, forming words to express your feelings, and expressing them in a way that the other person can take in. There are some excellent books on assertiveness. Assertiveness classes can also be found at some community education centers, and many therapists can teach them.

Truth with Compassion—Four Steps

Truth with compassion is exactly what it sounds like: speaking your truth to your partner, but with compassion for how he will feel when he hears it. When you have CEN it’s easy to believe that you should not share anything that could hurt your partner. But believing this is a recipe for disaster. It’s not only your job to challenge your partner to grow; it’s also your job to be honest in a way that increases your emotional understanding of each other. The only way to do this is to be willing to say things that might hurt. Here are the Four Steps to speak your truth with compassion.

  1. Pause and prepare. Take time to consider. Your truth must be expressed thoughtfully and carefully, and that takes time.
  2. Identify your feelings. It’s important to know what feelings you have about your truth so that you can tell your partner and also take responsibility for them. Are you angry? Anxious? Stressed?
  3. Put your message into words. Take your partner’s expected feelings and reactions into account. Make sure your words are thoughtful and considerate, but also clear enough to express your message.
  4. Choose your time and place. Where and when is your partner most likely to be open to what you have to say?

The “Repeat Before Talking” Exercise

This exercise is great for improving a couple’s listening and understanding in general, and especially when there is some element of anger or conflict involved in the conversation. It works by ensuring that you each hear each other and understand (which is not the same as agreeing) before responding.

  1. One person talks at a time while the other listens quietly. When the first person finishes talking he says, “I’m done.”
  2. The other person then expresses what she heard and understood him saying, and repeats it until she gets it right.
  3. Only when she gets it right can she speak her own response, finishing with “I’m done.”
  4. The other partner then expresses what he heard her saying until it’s correct.
  5. Lather, rinse, repeat, until you have each expressed yourself thoroughly. If you are both still upset, take a break. Let it percolate for a while, and come back to this exercise again later.

Find out about upcoming programs with Jonice Webb at Kripalu.

Excerpted with permission from Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships with Your Partner, Your Parents and Your Children, © 2018, by Jonice Webb, PhD, with Christine Musello, PsyD.

Jonice Webb, PhD, a psychologist, blogger, and best-selling author, is recognized worldwide as the pioneer of Childhood Emotional Neglect and trains licensed mental health professionals in her concepts and methods.

Full Bio and Programs