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Four Keys to Surviving Your Spouse’s Emotional Vacancy

I was puzzled early on. We were newlyweds, and he had professed his undying love to me in front of all our friends and family, yet something was strangely missing. When my birthday came around, only a month and a half after our wedding day, I had sort of expected something special to happen.

Instead, he bought me shoes. From Payless.

Okay, so shoes are good, I like shoes, but the whole thing was a bit odd.

I would ask him what his favorite food was, or his favorite song. I wanted to store up this information for later use on birthdays or anniversaries. Eager to get to know my new hubby better, I asked him lots of these questions.

But his answer was always, “I don’t know.”

I was perplexed. As a woman who has lots of favorite things, knows what she wants, and isn’t afraid to tell people what that is, this was new, foreign territory. I didn’t like it.

I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he just needed to think about it for a while. I’d ask again, days or weeks later, and he’d give me the same answer.

It was disheartening.

But as the days gave way to months, then years, and I felt an increasing distance from him - like he really wasn’t interested in me, in growing our relationship, or even having conversations past “how was your day.” I began to pull away.

My view of marriage and relationships was that you figure out what makes the other person happy, and then do those things. It seemed simple enough.

And I was good at it! I wanted to make his favorite meals, buy the shower soap he liked, and write him cards with sweet words. So I did, and when time passed, and nothing was offered in return, not even an indication of thankfulness that I’d offered him these forms of love, I withdrew.

I needed some context that I didn’t possess at that time. I knew my husband had grown up the middle child in a hard working farm family in North Dakota. What I didn’t know was that it was a family who didn’t talk about or acknowledge emotions, model appropriate emotions, or meet his childhood emotional needs at all.

He didn’t know it, either.

But we were both dying of starvation - love starvation - in this marriage.

Fast forward a few years. We had a couple kids, and life was busy. I had pulled my heart away from him by that point. He met my heart with nothing, and I couldn’t stand it. He was a youth pastor, and had great rapport with the kids. He’s a people-person: friendly, warm, and goofy. And it seemed like he’d rather be with the youth group kids than with me.

Then a devastating job loss, diagnosis of sleep apnea and depression, and a non-functioning funk that seemed to last forever.

He was stuck. Frozen.

He had no internal resources from which to draw. His tank had never been filled as a child, so when I pulled away early on in our marriage, his source of refueling was cut off. His faith had stagnated. He was angry all the time. I hated every minute of it.

Then, I discovered an intriguing resource as I was preparing for a morning talk show. The woman’s name is Jonice Webb, and her book is titled, “Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.” I was hooked as each page I read allowed me to see my husband in a new and sobering light.

But it took a long, long time for him to be able to really see for himself what the collateral damage was and how this emotional deficit was killing me and our two children.

So many times I asked him for small favors: please take your snowy/muddy shoes off when you come in the door so I don’t have to mop all over again…. please don’t throw my things in a pile in the other room just because you don’t know what to do with them…. please help me get the children ready in the morning without being asked….. They’re small things. But they’re the stuff of daily life.

I boil it down to one phrase:

Anticipate my needs.

And after so many years of not having these small, common courtesies, I had decided he was simply a jerk.

I had married a complete jerk. And I told him so. I could not understand how someone who gave lip service to being in love with me and dedicated to his children could ignore us so fully. It hurt. Every. Single. Day.

But there’s good news. He didn’t have to stay this way. And neither does your spouse.

Here’s what I know, now, after it all nearly fell apart.

Four Vital Keys to Surviving Your Spouse’s Childhood Emotional Neglect

  1. Stop asking for what he can’t give….for now. It’s like squeezing blood from a turnip. It’s just not there. And the more you ask for it, the more frustrated both of you will be. Ask Jesus to be your husband, to hold your soul together, as you face new, uncertain terrain. He is your constant. He is sufficient for the task ahead of you.
  2. Pray for the Lord to soften his heart. Pray. Before you say another word to him. Pray that God would give him humility enough to hear your words, when it’s time to speak. This is something only the Holy Spirit can accomplish.
  3. For a time, stop collecting evidence against him - all the things he’s not doing, or doing wrong, and start collecting evidence of the pain in his life and the pain he’s causing you and your family. This is a way to love him very well. In his first letter, Peter writes words that we would do well to heed, “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8 NIV). Your job right now is to cover over his omissions of love, and gather together the evidence you need to present a new message to him.
  4. When you’ve seen the pattern clearly, and can speak without anger or frustration, look for an opportunity to speak truth to his heart. When I sat down with my husband, it sounded something like this, “Honey, I’ve noticed something over the years, something that I thought was purposeful on your part, that I’m now realizing probably wasn’t. In my mind, part of loving another person is anticipating their needs. Handing someone a Kleenex when they’re about to sneeze. Offering to make supper when the other person is too tired. Lighting my favorite candle when I’ve already sat down and forgotten to light it. Taking out the garbage when it’s overflowing because you know I hate that the most. Small, simple, ordinary things. And for years, I’ve noticed that you simply don’t do these things, even though I’ve asked for them, and I’m beginning to think it’s got something to do with your childhood, of no one meeting your needs in the simple, small acts of love and kindness.”

He was somber, and agreed with my assessment. He felt terrible. He now saw how there was neglect on his part. He also admitted that he doesn’t know what he likes or prefers, a fact that broke both our hearts. He hated it all.

But here’s the bottom line: we are never beyond help or hope.

What you must cling to is the knowledge that as long as the Spirit of the Living God resides inside your spouse, there is ALWAYS hope. That was a truth that I would give lip service to, but only believed with about 2% of my heart for a very long time. But I can say to you with certainty, that if He can change my situation, He can change any situation.

Finally, don’t embark on this journey alone. If you’re in a struggling marriage, find a friend who will support you and your goal of keeping the marriage together when the going gets tough.  You'll find other articles here about this issue and others surrounding it.  I invite you to poke around here and see what you can find.  I'd love to walk with you as you fight for your spouse, your marriage, and your sanity.


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