How Childhood Trauma Affects Adult Relationships
Childhood experiences are crucial to our emotional development. Our parents, who are our primary attachment figures, play an important role in how we experience the world because they lay the foundation of what the world is going to look like for us. Is it a safe place to explore and take emotional risks? Are all people out to hurt us and therefore untrustworthy? Can we lean on important people in our lives to support us in times of emotional need?
Complex trauma refers to prolonged exposure to a stressful event. This would include children who have grown up in physically, sexually, and/or emotionally abusive households. Without the safety net of a secure attachment relationship, children grow up to become adults who struggle with feelings of low self-worth and challenges with emotional regulation. They also have an increased risk of developing depression and anxiety.
Childhood experiences lay the groundwork for what will be our general attachment style throughout our lives, how we bond with another person, as well as how we respond emotionally when that person is separated from us. The following are the four basic attachment styles. Please keep in mind that these descriptions are very general; not everyone will have all these characteristics. Attachment styles are relatively fluid and can change slightly depending on your partner’s own attachment style.
These individuals usually grew up in a supportive environment where parents were consistently responsive to their needs. People who are securely attached are generally comfortable with being open about themselves, asking for help, and allowing others to lean on them at an emotional level. They have a positive outlook on life, are comfortable with closeness, and seek physical and/or emotional intimacy with minimal fear of being rejected or overwhelmed.
Securely attached individuals are generally consistent and reliable in their behaviors toward their partner. They tend to include their partner in decisions that could affect their relationship.
Also referred to as “insecure-avoidant,” children usually develop this attachment style when their primary caregivers are not responsive to or are even rejecting of their needs. Children learn to pull away emotionally as a way to avoid feelings of rejection. As adults, they become uncomfortable with emotional openness and may even deny to themselves their need for intimate relationships.
They place high value on independence and autonomy and develop techniques to reduce feelings of being overwhelmed and defend themselves from a perceived threat to their “independence.” These techniques include, but are not limited to: shutting down; not saying “I love you” even though their behaviors indicate that they do (i.e., mixed messages); keeping secrets to maintain some semblance of independence. These coping techniques end up becoming detrimental to their adult relationships.
Also referred to as “disorganized-disoriented” in some literature, children who have developed this style may have been exposed to prolonged abuse and/or neglect. Primary caregivers are the people children often turn to as a source of comfort and support. In a situation involving abuse, these primary caregivers are also a source of hurt. These children grow up to become adults who fear intimacy within their relationships but also fear not having close relationships in their lives. They recognize the value of relationships and have a strong desire for them, but often have a difficult time trusting others. As a result, they avoid being emotionally open with others for fear of being hurt and rejected.
Sometimes referred to as “insecure-ambivalent,” children develop this form of attachment usually when their parents have been inconsistent with their responses to them. At times, these parents exhibit nurturing, caring, and attentive behaviors. Other times they can be cold, rejecting, or emotionally detached. As a result, the children don’t know what to expect. They become adults who desire a lot of connection within their relationships, sometimes to the point of being “clingy.” They are highly aware of any slight changes in the relationship. These changes, however minute, can significantly increase this individual’s anxiety. As a result, he or she will focus energy on increasing connection with that partner. Individuals who have this attachment style needs more validation and approval than the other attachment styles.
Neural pathways developed from childhood traumatic experiences help shape how we respond to others and adults often find themselves repeating the same behaviors and patterns throughout their lives. This is not meant to place blame on parents for the types of relationships you have as adults. Although parents play an important role in setting that foundation, you as an adult have the ability to create changes for yourself and your behaviors within any relationship.
Increased awareness can help you take those first steps towards change. By developing a better understanding of how your early childhood experiences have helped shape your attachment style and its connection to your present style of interactions, you can improve your relationships as an adult. This awareness can then help you move towards developing a more securely attached relationship with those around you.
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Ogden, P., & Fisher, J. (2015). Sensorimotor Psychotherapy: Interventions for Trauma and Attachment. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Van Der Kolk, B.A. (1989). The Compulsion to Repeat the Trauma: Re-Enactment, Revictimization, and Masochism. Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 12, 389-411.
Child image available from Shutterstock
Reyes, Z. (2018). How Childhood Trauma Affects Adult Relationships. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 7, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/how-childhood-trauma-affects-adult-relationships/