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How childhood trauma affects adult relationships

Your childhood has influenced a lot of who you are today. Certain behavioral patterns developed because of your childhood experiences.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, childhood trauma is defined as: ‘The experience of an event by a child that is emotionally painful or distressful, which often results in lasting mental and physical effects.’

Some events that cause childhood trauma include:

  • Physical, sexual, verbal, or emotional abuse
  • Abandonment, neglect by a caregiver or an absent parent
  • Domestic violence in a home where a child is exposed to incidents of violence happening between his/her parents
  • Violence in the child’s community (ex: school shootings or even mass casualty events in the news)
  • Loss of a loved one
  • Bullying

Early attachment with caregivers in childhood plays a  significant role in developing healthy relationships with other people such as peers and partners in later life. As a result, childhood trauma, assessed through neglect and abuse, may interfere with the later functioning of individuals in adult life.

People who grew up in happy, healthy, and stable homes where caregivers were emotionally available and responsive to their needs have often a secure attachment style. These people don't often push partners away or cling too tightly. While they may have troubles in their relationships, an unhealthy attachment style is not likely to be one of them. 

Researchers have concluded that childhood trauma, whether it's because of physical, emotional, sexual abuse, or other incidents as mentioned above can raise distress in adult relationships. Neglecting a child or constantly criticizing them disrespectfully can induce similar behavior among them when they become adults.

Related: How rape shapes your future relationships

The effect on romantic relationships

Abuse and neglect may damage children’s sense of safety and security, and when they approach other attachment figures later in life, they may struggle to interpret the extent of a threat appropriately. For instance, excessive romantic jealousy may manifest itself as a form of defensive subsystems in romantic relationships.

If you were abused as a child or your caregiver abandoned you, your behaviors will provoke anxiety, fear, and anger as an adult. Building trust in romantic relationships will also likely be a challenge. As an adult, you will likely lose the ability to trust anyone easily.

Subsequently, childhood trauma can take away your sense of ordinary ways of reciprocation towards others. Thus, you will prefer to stay away and you will be reluctant to engage in honest conversations and bonds because you fear that you will be harmed again. You’ll further develop the need to only rely on yourself and no one else.

Trauma teaches you that you can’t depend on others because chances are more that you’ll get hurt again. So instinctively, you push people away. If anyone wants to create a bond with you, you suddenly become unresponsive to their feelings and fear of reciprocation of the same. You shut down. This leads to paranoia and even if you desire intimacy, you refrain from doing so.

People who experience childhood trauma are at risk of developing mental health disorders like depression, anxiety, borderline personality disorder and also losing their emotional and mental stability. Such destruction dynamics threaten your very sole existence. You tend to create a self-identity that revolves around mental issues, trauma, and abuse.

When you have an unhealthy attachment style, you may have a hard time recognizing your partner's emotions or responding appropriately to his or her feelings. You may feel uncomfortable when your partner shows anger or sadness and not know how to react. And you may pull away, or grab on too tightly, thus harming both your relationship and the person you love.

Parents need to provide a conducive environment for children to protect them from traumas that take years to heal. 

The most important thing to remember about childhood trauma is that its impact doesn't have to be permanent. Therapy is a great solution.

Therapists are experienced people in their expertise and they can walk the journey with you to your healing. It can be mentally difficult to revisit those memories again but once you have decided to heal, anything is possible

Did you learn something new?

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