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Do Childhood Experiences Impact Adult Relationships?

Do adults who experienced abuse, neglect, or trauma as children experience challenges in relationships related to their histories? 

It is not uncommon in therapy to encounter individuals with childhood traumas that  continue to impact their important relationships.

Trauma in itself does not inevitably lead to anxious attachment or anxiety in relationships. It is possible for children to experience trauma and other hardships, but because their caregivers are adequately protective in response to the dangers, they develop secure or relatively secure attachment behaviors.

But what about situations where parents or caregivers are not adequately loving, protective, and nurturing?

Do adults who experienced abuse, neglect, or trauma as children and who developed protective behaviors as children to remain safe, experience challenges in adult relationships related to their histories? 

Research shows that adults with negative childhood experiences such as abuse or neglect are more likely to experience patterns of domineering/controlling and intrusive/needy interpersonal problems. They are more likely to experience being non-assertive, overly accommodating, and self-sacrificing.  Dismissing pain was self-protective as a child but as an adult leads the person to refrain from acknowledging  any bad feelings arising in the relationship. They have learned not to express negative emotions or affect in order to gain some level of control. As adults, once unacknowledged feelings of pain and anger build up they may feel less able to control leading to angry outbursts.There is some evidence to suggest that a history of childhood neglect, either physical or emotional, is related to a lower prevalence of the wish to assert one's self. All of these qualities and behaviors were protective when they were children. However, the same behaviors that were once protective can be unhealthy in their adult relationships.




Research has shown that Individuals with a history of emotional abuse, neglect, or sexual abuse in childhood report experiencing more distress in relationships than those who do not have that history. Extensive evidence shows that childhood abuse can lead to difficulty with intimate relationships later in life and the formation of a secure attachment. Attachment relationships form with parents or caregivers during the early months of life. These relationships become more complex and sophisticated over the course of development towards adulthood.  Every child needs protection from danger and comfort when they are feeling distressed. They also depend on the response that the expression of these needs elicits in their caregivers. As children, these individuals engaged in strategic responses and behaviors in order to understand their caregivers and protect themselves. These responses may still be a part of the way they relate in relationships as adults. 

The Adult Has Three Inner Parts of Self:

Wounded Child, Adaptive Child, Functional Adult



The inner wounded child was the part of self that experienced fear and pain as a child and felt helpless. The intense emotions were overwhelming but they still longing to connect and experience caring.


The inner adaptive child was the part of self that tried to take care of and tried to protect the wounded child. She or he took on care-taking qualities of an adult, hid pain, and tried to act like an adult. She or he was very tough on themselves in order to appease the neglectful or abusive parent or caretaker.  As an adult, this part of self often comes to the forefront when their is anxiety or insecurity in adult relationships. She or he engages in the safety behaviors that were helpful in childhood but do not serve communication or healthy caring in adult relationships.



What is critical to realize is that in adulthood, even long-held attachment strategies are open to revision and change. The first step is gaining mindfulness of the way these long held patterns arise in adult relationships. Mindfulness can be supplemented with individual and couples therapy where we can work through unresolved traumas and learn a more secure attachment strategy that will improve the ability to experience healthy close relationships.  





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