By: Kaytee Gillis, LCSW-BACS | February 19, 2022
"Children who experience trauma and dysfunction in their household often struggle to learn the same boundaries and behaviors that so many others seem to take for granted.
As a child is growing and developing, they look to their caregivers as examples of how to interact with the world around them. If those caregivers behave in dysfunctional or unhealthy ways, chances are high that children will learn to mimic these same unhealthy behaviors, even if unintended. “For many, the effects of abuse manifest in dysfunctional interpersonal relationships as the result of attachment disruptions at pivotal points of childhood development.” (Kvarnstrom, 2018)
Going back to childhood and adolescence usually sheds some light on adult behavior. The ways in which our caregivers interact with us, as well as each other, shape our view of the world and those around us. This will, in turn, affect three fundamental structures: our sense of self, the way we communicate, and how we form relationships. Unless we do the work to develop more self-awareness of our behaviors, we will usually repeat these same patterns into adulthood.
Following are 10 of the ways that childhood trauma manifests in adult relationships:
1. Fears of abandonment. Children who were neglected or abandoned by a caregiver often struggle with fears of abandonment long into adulthood, even if they are unaware of these fears on the surface level. While the underlying fear is that the partner will eventually leave, these thoughts often reveal themselves in everyday situations such as getting scared when a partner goes out by themselves, or being unable to self soothe if a partner leaves the room during an argument. This fear is also often manifested as jealousy, or in extreme cases, possessiveness.
2. Getting irritable or easily annoyed with others. When we grow up in environments where we are frequently criticized, or witness others being criticized, we learn that this is a natural way to express our displeasure in relationships. We learn that our imperfections and quirks are intolerable, and project that intolerance onto our partners or others around us.
3. Needing a lot of space or time to yourself. Growing up in a chaotic or unpredictable environment creates a lot of stress, and often leaves children’s central nervous system in a constant state of hypervigilance. Then they become adults who need a lot of time to themselves in order to calm these symptoms of anxiety, nervousness, and fear. Staying home, where you can control your surroundings, feels safer and allows you to relax. In extreme cases, some adults even have traits of or meet criteria for social anxiety or even agoraphobia.
4. Unequal financial and household responsibilities. Sometimes this can look like a reluctance to rely on a partner at all due to fears of depending on another person. Other times it takes the form of taking complete financial and/or household responsibility in a partnership, or fully taking care of the other person to the point where you are taken advantage of. The opposite — relying too much on them to the point where they take care of you — is also a result of unmet childhood needs.
5. Settling and staying in a relationship much longer than its expiration date. When we grow up in unstable environments, with caregivers who struggle with drug addiction, mental illness, or even illness or death, children often develop a sense of guilt that comes from wanting to end a relationship before we have been able to "fix" the other person. Staying with someone who is not a good fit for us sometimes feels safer than being alone."