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How To Handle "Emotional Stinginess" in Human Relationships
by Rachel G. Baldino, MSW, LCSW for

What Exactly is "Emotional Stinginess" and How Does it Manifest In Various Relationships?

One useful way to conceptualize emotional stinginess is to think of it in relation to its direct opposite: emotional generosity, which may also be thought of as "generosity of spirit." Bear in mind that you may run into emotionally stingy people in any area of your life.

For example, in the workplace, a boss or colleague who is emotionally stingy makes a habit of withholding praise, positive feedback and proverbial "pats on the back" for a job well done.

Similarly, an emotionally stingy friend holds back in the verbal expression of praise, kind words, compliments and affection.

As an example of emotional stinginess in the context of a parent-child relationship, a teenage son may only feel truly loved by his father when he brings home perfect report cards or performs incredible feats on the athletic field. Somehow, perhaps subtly or perhaps not so subtly, this father has sent his son the destructive message that love is both finite and conditional, and that if the son gets B-pluses instead of A-pluses, then he is not quite as worthy of his father's love.

And finally, an emotionally stingy romantic partner or spouse withholds kind words, loving gestures, kisses, hugs, cuddles, massages, back rubs, foot rubs, even sex, and other emotional and physical signs of affection, only doling out them whenever he or she feels like it. In addition, many emotionally stingy spouses or partners are particularly miserly about "doling out" loving and/or complimentary phrases like "I love you," or "You mean everything to me," or "You're the greatest," or "You look so incredibly beautiful or handsome."

What the Great Depression Can Teach Us about Emotionally Stingy People

Emotionally stingy partners typically withhold praise, love, affection and tenderness, or only dole it out very sparingly.

For a useful metaphor, think of the United States during the 1930s, that volatile, economically unstable decade famously known as The Great Depression.

During that time, soup kitchens and other charitable organizations had to ration out limited amounts of food to feed each hungry client, or else the food would quite literally run out. Simply put, there was only a finite amount of food and other goods to go around, so these items had to be doled out very carefully and parsimoniously.

Well, just as there was a only finite amount of resources to go around during The Great Depression, there are certain people who believe (falsely) there is only a finite amount of love to go around in their relationships. And because of this misguided belief, they behave as though love is something that ought to be hoarded-and even lorded over others-rather than something that ought to be spent lavishly and abundantly, as if there is no end in sight.

But the fact of the matter is there is not now, there never has been, and there never will be a "finite amount" of love in the world.

Actually, love is one of the few infinite and self-sustaining "resources" that we have available to us. Indeed, the more love you give, the more love you find in your heart to keep on giving. And not only that, but the more love you give, the more love you end up receiving as well.

A quick story that illustrates this point: I can vividly remember talking to a young mother who had just given birth to her second child. She confided that during some of her more anxious moments of her second pregnancy, she had worried that maybe she wouldn't have enough love to give to a second baby; that maybe she only had a "set amount" of maternal love to give, and that perhaps all of that love had already gone to her first child.

But she was thrilled to report that when her second baby finally arrived, she discovered the exact opposite to be true. In fact, the instant she gave birth the second time around, all of her worries about "the possibly finite nature of love" slipped away, and her heart became flooded with more love than she had ever thought possible.

What would make someone emotionally stingy in their relationships?

Well, there may be a small number of people who just happen to be cold, distant and emotionally stingy "by nature." In other words, for whatever reason, emotional stinginess is a character trait that has been "hard-wired" into the very core of their being.

But many emotionally stingy people learned this behavior somewhere along the way. Maybe their own parents, and/or one (or two, or five) of their ex-romantic partners were emotionally stingy with them, and they simply learned to emulate this behavior in all of their relationships.

One huge factor in emotional stinginess, as you may have already guessed, is control.

If one person in a relationship only doles out love, kindness and affection very, very sparingly and unpredictably, and if the other partner in the relationship constantly feels desperate for whatever little scraps of affection may or may not be coming her way, then the emotionally stingy partner is clearly the one with all of the control. And of course it is never healthy or desirable to have such a massive power imbalance in any relationship.

Because emotionally stingy individuals view love as finite and conditional-rather than viewing it as infinite and unconditional-and because they are so miserly about how much affection they are willing to "dole out" to just about everyone in their lives, they often end up creating an atmosphere of emotional deprivation, or even full blown emotional starvation, in their households.

In her book, Are You The One For Me?, relationship expert Barbara De Angelis, PhD writes: "What's the purpose of being with someone who is emotionally shut down? Staying in a relationship with a person who cannot share feelings is a form of self-punishment....You deserve to have someone in your life who shows you his love and appreciation on a consistent basis. The opposite of emotional generosity is emotional stinginess-hoarding love and emotions as if they were in a limited quantity and offering you tiny pieces of one's heart...Unless you want a full-time job as a teacher, avoid relationships with emotionally stingy partners!"

Emotional stinginess can do extensive damage to relationships, but you don't have to tolerate it any longer.

How to Cope With the Emotionally Stingy People in YOUR Life

So, how can you cope with an emotionally stingy person in your own life? Well, it's not easy, by any stretch of the imagination, but below are some possible steps to consider:

  1. Depending on the nature of your relationship, you may want to confront the person directly and let them know their emotionally stingy, affection-withholding behavior is both cruel and unacceptable.

  2. At this point the person may get angry and defensive, or he may acknowledge that you have a legitimate gripe. If the person acknowledges to one degree or another that you do have a valid concern, then you have a genuine opening to start a conversation that will not be easy, but will definitely be worthwhile.

  3. Give the person specific examples of his or her emotional stinginess.

  4. Let the person know exactly how these specific instances of emotional stinginess have made you feel (hurt, angry, betrayed, sad, desperate, unloved).

  5. Explain how you make every effort to be emotionally generous with your love and affection, and how you deserve the same generosity in return.

  6. If the person seems open and receptive to hearing you out, give him or her some time, first to digest the information, and then to implement some behavioral changes.

  7. If the person does not seem at all open to listening to what you have to say, and does not seem receptive to the idea of making the necessary behavioral changes, you may need to re-evaluate the entire relationship and ask yourself very honestly and directly what you are getting out of it, if anything.

Recommended Reading

Why The Little Things Mean Everything in Relationships

How To Make All Your Relationships Work

The Top Five Things Couples Argue About


Barbara De Angelis

The Great Depression

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