When you’re growing up, you experience a lot of different emotions and events. Some are challenging, while others are uplifting and positive. However, some experiences can negatively impact your emotional well-being as an adult. These events can have far-reaching consequences on your relationships with others and how they perceive you. Thanks to the recent surge of research into the effects of childhood trauma, we now know that traumatic experiences like physical or sexual abuse or neglect, separation from parents due to divorce, or often moving as a child have long-term negative effects on psychological health and social interactions as an adult. However, not all childhood traumas are created equal. Some create more stress than others, while others create less stress. Here are 5 ways childhood trauma affects adult relationships
Live in Fear
Childhood traumas like sexual abuse or neglect leave their mark on the brain, wreaking havoc on the neural pathways that control everything from emotions to habits like sleeping and eating. For example, because the neural pathways for certain emotions like fear or anger are disrupted, sufferers may feel constantly anxious and unable to relax even when they are out of danger. They may also develop intense and irrational fears of things that are not dangerous, like germs or high-pitched sounds. It can be incredibly difficult to deal with these anxieties and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) on your own. The best way to overcome them is to get help from a psychologist or psychiatrist who is trained to understand and treat anxiety and related disorders like PTSD. They can help you identify what is causing your anxieties, whether it’s a real threat or not, and help you calm down when you are stressed out.
You’re Always Watching Out for Danger
Individuals who were abused or neglected as children often grow up feeling hyper-vigilant about their surroundings, constantly on the lookout for signs that something bad might happen, even though there is no actual cause for alarm. These people may feel a heightened sense of “Danger, danger!” even in situations where there is none. For example, they may become easily frightened by minor sounds, walk a million steps ahead of where they need to be, or always look out for trouble in other people, not just in themselves. This heightened sense of danger in the absence of a threat can have serious consequences on relationships. Experiencing this type of anxiety in a romantic relationship can create extreme distrust. If your partner constantly feels unsafe, they may become too protective and unwilling to let their loved ones get close enough to truly know them. This can create distance and resentment between partners who are supposed to be in love.
You Have Poor Self-Confidence
Those who were abused or neglected by a parent, caregiver, or other adult as a child often develop low self-esteem. They may feel like they can’t do anything right, that they don’t deserve good things or that they don’t have the skills to achieve success in any area of life. This can create extreme feelings of inadequacy and insecurity, which in turn can lead to low self-confidence. Low self-confidence can cause sufferers to do things like push themselves too hard and take on more than they are capable of, leading to failure and stress. It can also cause sufferers to avoid trying new things, stay in unhealthy relationships or jobs, and avoid taking risks that could lead to success. Low self-confidence can have a negative impact on romantic relationships, where partners may feel like they don’t deserve the best things in life, like better jobs, more money, or a more successful partnership.
You Don’t Trust Others
Around the time that a child is abused or neglected, their brain is developing new neural pathways and is less likely than an adult’s brain to recognize the signs that someone is lying or trying to harm them. This can cause sufferers to be overly trusting, even of people who have hurt them in the past. They may also become overly suspicious of people who seem trustworthy, like their partners or family members. This can cause sufferers to seem needy or clingy to partners who don’t want to be clingy or to seem overly suspicious of people who are trying to help them. It can also cause sufferers to stay in dangerous or abusive relationships or to struggle to find new partners who aren’t as dangerous or abusive as their last ones.
Your Relationships Are Conflict-ridden
Children who grow up in highly conflict-ridden environments often have difficulty regulating their emotions and identifying when they are becoming upset. They may also have difficulty identifying why they are upset or identifying solutions to problems. This can cause sufferers to become overly emotional, lash out at their partners in impulsive and explosive ways, and have a hard time calming down and identifying solutions. This can cause partners to become chronically frustrated with partners who feel like they can never calm down and feel like they have to “fix” or “mediate” conflicts that should be resolved in other ways. It can also cause partners to feel like they are “helping” and “rescuing” partners who do not want to be rescued. This can create resentment and distance in a relationship.
You’re More Sensitive to Criticism
Those who were abused or neglected as children often have an exaggerated tendency to take things personally, like when a partner says something negative about them or about other things that person cares about or when a partner expresses frustration during an argument. They may also have difficulty accepting constructive criticism, which is the feedback that helps them identify areas where they are doing something wrong or needs to change. In many cases, this is not actually criticism but more like advice that helps a person identify potential obstacles or areas where they can improve. This exaggerated sensitivity to criticism can cause sufferers to try to defend themselves or “prove” that they are worthy of loving and being loved. It can cause sufferers to get defensive when partners express frustration about something they are doing or about something they care about. It can also cause partners to feel like they are “helping” and “rescuing” partners who don’t want to be rescued. It can also make sufferers feel like they are “not good enough” or that they “deserve to be abused or neglected.
Childhood trauma like abuse, neglect, or anxiety caused by a parent’s substance abuse can have a lasting impact on a person’s emotional health and relationships as an adult. If you experienced any of these themselves, or if someone close to you experienced any of these, it’s important to seek help and know that you are not alone. The good news is that there are things that you can do to protect yourself from these consequences and to better yourself so that you are better equipped to help those around you.