'Neglect' is a word we often hear in relation to children. It usually refers to a situation where a parent is not looking after the needs of their child or perhaps leaves them on their own for periods of time.
But in adult romantic relationships it can also be a problem, though it doesn’t necessarily show up in the same way and is not often easy to identify or pin down. Even for those in the middle of it.
Let’s start by thinking about a healthy relationship. In a positive relationship we should feel as though our partner cares about us, includes us, supports us and is interested in us. It doesn’t need to be 100% of the time, but it should be there.
If this is missing, we might begin to feel neglected. In the sense of an adult long-term relationship, it might look less like physical neglect and more like emotional neglect. Perhaps our partner feels distant and like they simply don’t think about us.
In fact, we might feel that our partner is completely emotionally unavailable.
Try to answer these questions with yes or no:
If you answered yes to the majority of these questions, it could be that your partner is not giving you the time and attention you are hoping for from them.
Notice how this makes you feel. If you believe your relationship with your partner could be impacting your self-esteem or confidence, or you’re suppressing your feelings to avoid an argument and don’t feel you can be yourself, it might be time to address things. True neglect over a long period of time can have a very real impact on mental health, so it’s important to act before this becomes the case.
The Perceived Threat Neglect model(1) was proposed by Keith Sanford Ph.D. (Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience) at Baylor University. It’s the idea that much of the conflict we experience comes from a perception of threat/lack of control or one of neglect. This can be the same whether we’re talking about conflict in romantic relationships.
A perceived threat/lack of control is the feeling that your partner is hostile towards you, they might be controlling or overly critical, or quick to blame you when something goes wrong. Perceived neglect, on the other hand, is the feeling that your partner may not be fully committed to your relationship. Perhaps you believe they’re not contributing to or investing in it, either emotionally or physically.
This perceived neglect can, over time, lead to a buildup of resentment and irritation resulting in overt conflict (or increasingly hostile/conflictual interactions). But the key word here is 'perceived'. Our perception is not always accurate, particularly when it comes to reading the behavior or motivations of others.
It’s worth digging deeper into where those feelings come from and our past experiences to see if we can better understand what’s going on.
Have a think about whether you’ve always felt neglected. Has this feeling only occurred during this relationship, or have you felt this way in other romantic relationships?
If you often feel this way, could it be that there is a deeper level to our insecurity. It may be that we need to address other issues - perhaps with the support of a trained therapist - so that we can separate out what we can deal with ourselves and what we need to take to our partner.
If it’s only in this current relationship, it may be worth talking to your partner and exploring how they feel. Is it simply that you’re feeling insecure for some reason? Or perhaps the way your partner is not speaking your love language - in other words, the way they are trying to show their love and appreciation is not the same as the way in which you receive love.
We explore this more in our discussion about love languages, and offering and ‘hearing’ appreciation, here in the article: Simple things that say “I appreciate you”. This might help you to understand more about the communication styles of you and your partner, and what they might be doing that you’re not noticing.
Check your expectations
Before you speak to your partner, take some time to think through your own expectations. Are they realistic? For example, perhaps you expect to be able to call your partner several times a day. If they have a busy job that doesn’t allow them to do this, then they simply won’t be able to meet that expectation, regardless of anything else.
So think about what your expectations are and then assess whether you’re making valid requests. Then, if you decide that some requests might not be entirely valid, you’ll need to take steps to manage your anxieties. This might include talking to your partner, a close friend or even a therapist.
Also, remember not to put all your eggs in one basket. The more positive elements, people, and activities you have in your life, the less you’ll need to rely on your partner to help you feel looked after.
It’s also worth having a think about exactly what you meant when you describe yourself as feeling neglected. Do you mean your partner goes out and leaves you often? Or do you feel you have too much housework to do and it’s all on you?
Once you’ve figured it out, try to talk to your partner calmly and concisely. If you can work out what would make things better for you, share that too. And then listen to your partner’s response.
Spend some time doing a little experiment. Keep an open mind and start looking carefully for examples of non-neglect. Be mindful about noticing the thoughtful things your partner has done. You should find that once you spot a few, they’ll get much easier to notice and you’ll start a cycle of positivity.