How Childhood Abuse Can Manifest In Adult Relationships

The effects of childhood abuse can show up in many different ways throughout a survivor’s life.

Childhood abuse has the power to impact a survivor throughout his or her life. From the time of the first incident of abuse through early adulthood and beyond, the scars of childhood maltreatment run deep. Whether the abuse was physical, sexual, or emotional, it can lead to a host of issues for the survivor. Victims of childhood abuse are more likely to:

  • Suffer from depression
  • Have suicidal thoughts
  • Abuse drugs and alcohol
  • Develop at least one psychiatric disorder, such as an eating disorder or panic disorder
  • Grapple with relationship issues
  • Become abusers themselves

It is estimated that up to one-third of abused or neglected children will act out the same abusive behavior they were subjected to when they become parents or caretakers. The cycle of violence often continues because victims are not given the resources and the psychiatric assistance they need to help work through the traumas of the past.

No matter how much time has passed, unresolved childhood traumas can wreak havoc on a person’s life and the lives of the people around him or her. This is especially true when it comes to romantic relationships, because these in particular require a great deal of trust and intimacy. Victims of childhood abuse are not always comfortable with others close to them; early experiences taught them that loved ones were not to be trusted and that safety and security were merely fairy tales. Decades later, even when in a loving and supportive relationship, they still cannot erase those false scripts from their heads and wholly embrace a loving partner.

Lack of trust can manifest in different ways. Some people become haunted by insecurity and doubt, which leads them to become jealous and suspicious of a partner — even when there is no reason to suspect infidelity. They might need to be constantly reassured of a partner’s love. Other people might push their loved ones away, refusing to make deep and lasting connections for fear of getting hurt again. They would rather live a life of isolation and loneliness than become vulnerable and intimate with another person.

It is also not uncommon for victims of childhood abuse to get stuck in a cycle of abuse. This is known as repetition compulsion, and it describes the pattern in which victims of trauma find themselves constantly reliving the abuse. For example, a young girl who was physically abused by her father might find herself constantly seeking out abusive and unavailable men. Although she might not realize the reason behind her string of bad boyfriends, subconsciously, she is choosing these mates because she wants to recreate her trauma and “fix” the situation. She tries to be “good enough” for her partners, to be sweet enough, pretty enough, smart enough, obedient enough — anything to earn this partner’s love and hence rewrite history. She figures that if she can find a partner who is similar to her father and find that unconditional, supportive love he never offered her, it would almost be as if the pain of her childhood never happened.

Of course, the chances of that result is slim, because any partner who resembles her father (angry, violent, aggressive, withholding, etc.) will not ever be likely to offer her love and respect. Hence, she gets caught up in a cycle of unhealthy relationships, constantly choosing partners who are disrespectful and violent with her.

Addressing the wounds of childhood takes therapy. A therapist who specializes in childhood abuse will be able to offer an individual the assistance and resources needed to finally break the chain of abuse. Everyone deserves a life that is filled with love, respect, and hope, and such a world can exist only if the wounded child that is still suffering inside gets treated.

Marla Sloane, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved © 2018