The Circle Line

Recognising neglect

Neglect is a silent killer.
It is also very common and misunderstood.


We hear a lot about abuse in relationships. We usually associate this strong word with action – abusive words, controlling tactics and violent use of the body.

But what about neglect? Absence. An absence of words or actions.

Neglect is one of the silent killers. It will kill a relationship or diminish a person slowly but surely. It is also very common.

Ways we neglect

Human beings are social beings.

We need to know we exist: we need to be seen and heard and touched.

Decades of research has shown how neglect affects our growth and development, as children and therefore as adults.

The way we experience “attachment” to our parents, particularly our mother, forms a powerful blueprint for our relationships.

Our attachment experience with our parents becomes deeply ingrained in us and affects us way into adult life. Attachment is necessary as it ensures the infant’s survival. It also becomes the way we raise our own children, relate to others and the way we feel comfortable being treated ourselves.

Decades of research has shown that the development of babies will be stunted if they are neglected – that is, if the parent fails to respond sensitively and appropriately to the child’s emotional and practical needs

Great Ormond Street hospital have a team of volunteer cuddlers to hold babies born prematurely so they are not left alone in their cots. Harlow’s famous experiment with monkeys showed how psychologically disturbed primates become when deprived not of food but of their mother’s body – they rock in the corner and pull out their hair.

We need to be seen, heard and touched. We need this to such an extent that as an infant this is how we know we exist. It’s called mirroring. A mother naturally “mirrors” her child – she reflects or copies their sounds, gestures and their facial expressions. This mirroring recognises and validates the infants emotions and experiences – it tells them they exist. This is how we develop our sense of self.

Signs of neglect in a relationship

If our childhood needs for nurture and stimulation weren’t met, if we were ignored, minimised or left to cry, these patterns are likely to continue in our adult life.

A degree of neglect may have become so normal to us that we don’t notice neglect in a relationship.

Are you being mirrored in your life? Who sees, hears and touches you? Who pays you attention?

1. Lack of looking

One sign of a neglectful relationship is where those in it don’t look at each other much. They stare at the TV, or their phone, or the paper.  They may even do this when talking. They may rarely notice details about each other – that they’re wearing something new perhaps, or when one looks sad.

We need to be seen. This is not self-indulgent. It is a basic human need and a sign of connection.

2. Lack of listening

When you talk they may literally fail to hear you – you may get zero response or have to repeat yourself. Or they appear to be listening but your words or meaning don’t seem to sink in. Perhaps you sense that if you asked them to summarise what you just said, they couldn’t. Or perhaps you talk and they interrupt or talk over you.

We need to be heard. Humans are unique in their ability to use complex language – we have a right to use our voices and for our view to be heard.

3. Lack of touching

As we grow up we learn to substitute the literal holding and stroking we need to survive as babies with other forms of recognition such as with words, facial expressions and more superficially status and material rewards.

However, touch remains one of the most powerful connections we can experience. In a relationship, therefore, sex is obviously a key way we express love and affection. Stroking, kissing and hugging are equally important. Sex without affection can feel extremely empty. In a friendship, do you hug? Do you ever reach out a hand of support, touch a friend’s shoulder or arm in reassurance?

4. It’s not 50/50

Both people in a relationship need to be both proactive and reactive. We need to pay attention to each other.

How much are you doing for them? How much effort are they making? If you stop calling, how long is it before they call you? If your relationships seem distant and unsatisfying – what part are you playing in keeping them this way…?


Spotting neglect – both past and present – can be tricky. It often seems invisible.

Working with a professional to identify and work through your relationship patterns is extremely useful. If you are impacted by this article speak with one of our therapists today.

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