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How Childhood Abuse Affects Adult Relationships


A women's history of childhood abuse affects her relationships as an adult

Childhood abuse changes your brain, and without treatment, it can affect your relationships throughout adulthood.


Key takeaways:

  • Your childhood gives you a template for future relationships.

  • When you are abused, you don't develop healthy attachments.

  • You learn to fear intimacy.

  • You may become emotionally distant.

  • You could simultaneously crave and fear intimacy.

  • You may use unhealthy communication styles that disregard your and others' needs.

  • You may not be able to trust your partner.

  • Therapy can help you overcome these patterns and create healthy, joyful attachments.


Childhood abuse affects your relationships as an adult. It affects your nervous system, rewires your brain, and shapes how you relate to other people. Abuse during your childhood can disrupt your development and compromise your ability to form healthy attachments.


Even years after it's happened, childhood abuse can influence your relationships. It can affect them in ways that you may not even be aware of because you're engaging in patterns that you've been exposed to throughout your life. That's why it's critical to address childhood abuse – even if you don't want to think about that part of your past.


You can have a relationship that is healthy and joyful, but in a lot of cases, you will need to address your past to get there. Here's what you need to know.


Attachment disruption


Humans' identities are shaped by their relationships with other people and communities. The interactions you have in your early childhood provide you with a template to understand future relationships.


When young children feel safe and loved by their caregivers, they develop an internal sense of security. They feel comfortable with the world around them. They have a stable sense of themselves. This bolsters their resilience in the face of distress, and it gives them a foundation for positive, healthy long-term relationships


When a child is abused by their caretakers, they are given an unhealthy template for future relationships and they’re left with attachment injuries. They don't get the love and nurturing that they need. They feel scared and unsafe. They often develop an unstable sense of self, and they take their fears into their adult relationships.


An ongoing study, The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study, has so far shown the effects of child abuse and related adverse childhood experiences as a public health problem. The study, which started in 1994 and currently has 17,337 adults enrolled, is an ongoing collaboration between the CDC and Kaiser Permanente. It has shown that ACEs are common, with two-thirds of adult participants reporting at least one ACE like abuse or neglect, and contribute to adverse outcomes like alcohol abuse, smoking, obesity, and intimate partner violence. This study has thus far shown that the prevention of ACES, like abuse and neglect, can have a huge impact on the health of our society.


Unhealthy attachment styles


Attachment injuries can lead to several unhealthy attachment styles. For example, you may develop an avoidant attachment style marked by emotional distance from your partner. Or you may have an ambivalent attachment style where you feel clingy and are on high alert for changes. You want a deep connection, but you feel misunderstood and resentful. This often happens if you were abused by someone who shifted between care and neglect.


With disorganized attachment, you crave emotional intimacy but you're also afraid of close relationships. You may get mad when you feel like your partner is ignoring you or doesn't love you. But at the same time, you're reluctant to show affection or be vulnerable.


Ineffective communication styles


If you lived in an abusive family, you likely saw (and inherited) unhealthy communication styles including the following:

  • Passive – You don't assert your needs, feelings, or opinions. You are often indirect, self-denying, and apologetic.

  • Aggressive – You assert your feelings and opinions in a way that violates others' boundaries. You often blame, control, or attack.

  • Passive-aggressive – You appear passive on the outside, but you're acting out of aggression or anger. You may act cooperative but are really trying to annoy someone.

Although these communication styles are markedly different, they are all unhealthy. Healthy communication is assertive. It allows you to advocate for your rights, opinions, and feelings without compromising the rights, opinions, and feelings of your partner.


Assertive communicators value themselves and respect others. Here's the good news – you can learn healthy communication styles.


An inability to trust


When you're being abused as a child, you cannot trust your caretaker. You never know if your needs will be met or if you will be hurt. To minimize the abuse, you may have tried to be very careful with your actions, but regardless of what you did, the abuse continued.


When you live in an abusive environment, you develop a constant state of vigilance. You learn not to trust anyone or anything. This lack of trust often follows survivors of abuse into their adult relationships, but it can take many different forms.


You may not believe that your partner loves you – even if they reassure you. You may live in constant fear that your partner is going to cheat or leave you. In other cases, you may shy away from honest and open conversations. You may resist sharing personal information or taking risks with your partner. You might find yourself withdrawing from the relationship because it's easier to focus on work, hobbies, addictions, or distractions.


The lack of trust is based on old patterns. When you cannot trust the people who are supposed to be taking care of you as a young child, you learn not to trust anyone. This is a protection mechanism. If you don't open yourself to others, you cannot get hurt. But, as you know, you're still hurting. To enjoy your adult relationships, you must be willing to trust the other person, and that requires you to be vulnerable.


It's not just childhood abuse that can have these effects on adult relationships. Other traumas experienced during your childhood can affect your adult relationships. This includes the death of a loved one, emotional abandonment, natural disasters, accidents, serious injuries, or any event where you felt scared or helpless.


The relationships you have with others are based on the relationships you have with yourself, and this is heavily influenced by your early childhood experiences. Trauma during your childhood can follow you into adulthood, and if you want healthy relationships, you need to meet it head-on.


How Love Discovery can help you heal childhood wounds and learn to have healthy relationships


You deserve to feel good. You deserve to enjoy life! You deserve a joyful relationship. Your partner deserves the same. If childhood trauma is hurting your relationship, it's time to learn new patterns – contact us and make an appointment today.


At Love Discovery, we can help you improve your emotional wellness, your openness to intimacy, and your relationships. We offer individual therapy, teletherapy, couples therapy, private couples retreats, and more.


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