Neglect: The Form Of Relational Abuse That Isn't Discussed Enough

If heart disease is the silent killer of our physical heart, neglect is the silent killer of our emotional one.

Love & Relationships

While, in many ways, I'm passionate about everything that I write (that's the joy that comes with knowing that you are high-level functioning in your purpose; if you are, it's also a good reason to read "How To Handle 'Purpose Fatigue'"), if I could get every single Black woman on the entire planet to make the time to check out just one piece that I've written, this would be it. As someone who writes a ton on relationships, I must say that if there is one thing that I don't think is discussed, even one-eighteenth as much as it should be, it's the fact that the source of a lot of unhappiness, dysfunction and relational abuse is neglect. Since we don't talk about it, it's hard to fully see it transpiring. And when something is able to go down without being detected and called out for what it is, that makes it easier for it to continue.

Personally, I know that I've been the victim of neglect in many, if not most, of my romantic relationships. I've done enough self-work to also know that it stems from my childhood. My parents divorcing. The childhood abuse that I experienced. Having a mother who professionally thrived and also traveled a lot during my formative years. And also something that I think affected—and infected—me more than I thought it did back when I was around nine or so—my mother constantly asking her second husband (I'm not keen on the word "step-parent"; maybe I'll share why at another time) and my brother's father for compliments.

I grew up going to church on Saturdays and while we all would get ready, it was practically a ritual for my mom (who is physically stunning, by the way) to stand in the mirror and ask her husband how she looked. Although he wasn't unattractive by any stretch, looking back, I do think that he felt very threatened by mom. More specifically, threatened by how men tended to view her. In response, I think he thought that if he downplayed his admiration, it would "dim her light" (at least in her mind) so that she wouldn't notice the attention of others. Hmph. While he was out here being super insecure, what it modeled to me is marriage naturally comes with levels of neglect; that that's just the way it is.

Y'all, no it's not. Thankfully, as I got older and I was able to choose the people I wanted to be around, I saw couples who affirmed one another. Husbands who absolutely adored their wife and wives who couldn't get enough of bragging on their husbands. Spouses who nurtured, supported and esteemed their partners; not just on special occasions, but as often as possible. It was the compare and contrast that brought me to the conclusion that relational neglect is just as damning and detrimental as any other form of abuse. It's also tolerated entirely too much. I want to do my part to try and stop that—right here and right now.

The Definitions of Abuse. Revisited.

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Whenever people ask me to explain what my childhood (and adolescence) was like, I've come to the conclusion that the easiest—and most merciful to all parties involved—way to describe it is, "My family either got an 'A' or an 'F' when it came to how I was raised." It's the truth. There are certain things that I was taught that should go into best-selling parenting books—that's the "A". At the same time, while it wasn't every day or even every week, there was also quite a bit of abuse that I experienced—physical, sexual, verbal, definitely emotional as well as spiritual (one day, we should delve into what spiritual abuse is really like; you can read some about it here)—that's where "F" comes in. A big part of the reason is because my parents and my mother's second husband were also victims of abuse. So, let me interject something right here—parents, one of the best things that you can ever do for your children is heal from your own childhood wounds; preferably before even having us. A part of the reason why generational curses exist is because un-dealt-with pain is passed on from one generation to another. It's not good enough to survive and tell yourself, "I'll never do that when I have children."

If you don't deal with your trauma, you very well could repeat what is familiar to you, simply because it's a part of the fabric of what you know—whether you want to/intended to or not.

On this side of my own continual quest for clarity and healing, if there is a silver lining that comes from my own trauma, it's that I can spot abuse in others rather quickly. And, if there's one thing that I hear, far more than I ever should, especially from women, it's "Well, at least he doesn't…" Listen, a man who calls you names isn't any better than a man who hits you. A man who constantly pressures you to have sex isn't any better than a man who sexually harasses you. And a man who neglects you isn't any better than a man who tries to control you. The fact that a lot of us believe otherwise is how we end up remaining in abusive situations. So, why is it that I see no "levels" or differences in abuse (the consequences might be different but not the abuse itself)? It's because I know what abuse means.

Abuse: (verb) use (something) to bad effect or for a bad purpose; misuse; treat (a person or an animal) with cruelty or violence, especially regularly or repeatedly; (noun) the improper use of something

Please let that sink in, just as low into your spirit as it can go. If you are misused in any way, that is abuse. If you are treated with cruelty in any form, that is abuse. If you are treated improperly, period, that is abuse.

A great definition of proper is "adapted or appropriate to the purpose or circumstances; fit; suitable". Another reason why a lot of us tolerate abuse is because we don't "get" the purpose of the relationship that we are in. A marriage is supposed to be a cherished partnership; when two spouses don't honor their union as such, there is bound to be some abuse. If you're currently dating someone, they should want to help you get to a higher level as you do the same for them; if that isn't happening, there is bound to be some abuse.

In both dynamics, oftentimes, that abuse is neglect. Because just think about it—if you don't understand why you are doing what you are doing or you don't value who you are doing that something with, it's very easy to neglect both the relationship as well as them. And how do you know, for sure, that this is the type of abuse that you are experiencing?

“Neglect” Is More than Just One Thing


The fascinating thing about neglect is it's not as easy to discern as say, a bruise on your arm or face or date rape (if even your boyfriend forces you to have sex against your will, that is rape). That's because, while a lot of us hold a general definition of the word in our mind, we fail to go beneath the surface of it. Let's do that now.

Neglect: to pay no attention or too little attention to; disregard or slight; to be remiss in the care or treatment of; to omit, through indifference or carelessness; to fail to carry out or perform (orders, duties, etc.)

Now, before going deeper, it's important that I put on record that unrealistic—or worse, unvoiced— expectations is not a form of neglect. Neither is being super needy (a person is to be your partner, not your savior or superhero). The "ouch" truth that some of us need to hear is, we're the victim of self-neglect because, rather than making it a priority to cultivate our own beings, we're looking for another person to do what we won't do for ourselves. No, what I'm speaking of is when you and someone else, mutually decide what the purpose of your relationship is, when you choose to be a part of one another's intimate lives, and yet—little attention is paid, no f—ks are given, there is a constant attitude of total indifference and/or the expectations that were agreed upon don't happen. If one, some, or all of these things are happening to you (or you are doing this to someone else), that is what it means to be neglectful. And since that results in "improperly using" the relationship, that is a form of abuse.

Why Do We Tolerate Neglect in Relationships So Much?


Right on January 1, a song popped up in my YouTube suggestions, that is basically the theme song for all of this. The artist's name is Savannah Cristina (whew, her voice is totally dope) and the song's title is "SELFISH: 2020". Here are some of the lyrics:

I know you ain't right for me, 'cause you would never ride for me
F—k n—ga got pride you see, 'cause you ain't even on my line, baby
I've moved on to something that is so much better, so much better
Now I'm SELFISH 'bout my money
And I'm SELFISH 'bout my hustle
I'm SELFISH 'bout my grind
'Cause you was SELFISH 'bout my struggle
Boy, I'm SELFISH and I don't give a f—k 'cause I don't owe you s—t

Her voice is so sweet, you don't even realize how hard of a cuss-out she's actually giving, whoever ole' boy is (although, when you think about, this could apply to just about any type of relationship). But I'm sure you can see just how and why the song resonates. Savannah didn't say that her ex hit her. She didn't say that he called her out of her name either. But what she did say was he neglected her. And the reason why I recommend that you listen to all of her words, at least three times in a row, is so you can pay attention to all of the ways neglect can happen.

So, why do so many of us allow ourselves to be abused in this fashion? Aside from childhood trauma and a lack of self-love and self-care that I already touched on, there are probably a billion reasons. But I want to conclude this with one more for you to strongly consider and ponder. Caring for someone is a powerful thing and we, as women, are natural nurturers. I honestly think that a lot of us believe that the more we support and encourage the object of our affection, no matter how little we get in return, it will eventually develop them into who we want them to be—or even who they claim they want to become. But the reality is people do what they want to do, including when it comes to neglecting someone in a relationship. And so, when we experience indifference, disregard and carelessness, what we need to accept is that no, the relationship is not valued and no, neither are we.

It's like if you've got a plant in your house. No matter how much you tell it that you love and appreciate it, if you don't give it some water and let it get some light, it's going to die; if not immediately, eventually. Your words mean very little; it's your actions that matter. And, if you valued your plant, you'd give it what it needs, simply because it needs it. To deprive it is to neglect it, to neglect it is to abuse it, and to abuse it long enough is to destroy it. Anything or one who plays a direct role in destroying something or someone it claims to care about, they are being abusive. ABUSIVE.

If you listen to Savannah's song all the way through, she ends it by saying, on loop, "I'm gonna hold me down." In other words, she's going to give herself what she wasn't getting from dude (or whoever). Listen y'all—when someone agrees to be in a relationship with you, they are agreeing to hold you down as you hold them down. When that isn't happening, it ceases to be relational—at least in a healthy and beneficial way. And when you keep tolerating that reality, not only are they abusing you, but another "ouch" truth is you are abusing yourself as well. You are saying it's OK to misuse you and be cruel to you—to treat you outside of your value and purpose. And that is absolutely NOT the case.

Have mercy, I could go on and on when it comes to this. But, for now, my hope and prayer are that a seed is planted and that you will not neglect to water it. You are far too precious and worthy of love for someone to be intentional about not giving it to you. All forms of abuse are bad and again, neglect is abuse. Don't let anyone mistreat you in this fashion. If they won't hold you down, hold your own self down and bounce. Then watch who comes into your path who will match what you are doing for yourself. Promise me that, OK? OK? OK.

Want more stories like this? Sign up for our newsletter here and check out the related reads below:

Recognizing The Signs: Emotional Abuse Is Still Abuse

How I Reinvented Myself After An Abusive Relationship

This Is How Emotionally Abusive Friends Act

'Red Table Talk' Reminds Us That Self-Love Is The Cure To Domestic Abuse

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ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.


We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
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