It is well documented that severe and protracted childhood trauma greatly increases our risk of experiencing relationship difficulties in our adult lives. In some cases, this can result in fear, or even terror, of close, loving relationships in our adult lives. Many reasons have been put forward in an attempt to explain this not uncommon phenomenon and I summarize many of the main ones below :
If we were unloved, abused, rejected, abandoned or treated with disdain and contempt as children by our primary care-taker we may have internalized this negative view of ourselves which, in turn, can lead to an enduring state of irrational self-hatred.
Therefore, with a rock-bottom view of ourselves as adults, we may be convinced that we are undeserving of love and that anyone showing us love is either doing so out of pity or, alternatively, because they are a terrible judge of others’ characters and have failed to see us for the ‘appalling person’ we are due to some inexplicable deficit of their own.
In short, we develop a kind of ‘I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member’ attitude to potential relationships.
As such, we may, as an unconscious defence mechanism, find ourselves only attracted to people who are not, and never will be, interested in us as a romantic partner as, on some level, we are, paradoxically, more psychologically comfortable with rejection than we are with unconditional, loving acceptance – something we have never experienced and which represents a foreign, potentially dangerous, territory.
Related to the above, being cast in the role of a ‘lovable person’ when we have a deeply ingrained, core belief that we are essentially and fundamentally unlovable can serve to threaten our sense of identity; we have become so familiar with the feeling of being unlovable, and the feeling has become so central to our very identity and sense of who we are, that to start viewing ourselves as lovable would throw us into such a state of psychological confusion, and entail such enormous reappraisal of our way of interacting with the world, our habitual behaviours and attitudes, that we may well prefer to maintain the psychological status quo which feels, in ways we may find hard to articulate, somehow safer and more comfortable.
VULNERABILITY TO EXPERIENCING SIMILAR PSYCHOLOGICAL PAIN TO THAT WHICH WE EXPERIENCED AS CHILDREN
If we experienced rejection or abandonment as children (including emotional abandonment) we may be terrified (on a conscious or unconscious level) that accepting love from another person and forming a loving relationship with them will make us emotionally dependent upon them and, therefore, vulnerable to being hurt by them in the event that they, too, reject or abandon us in way that is reminiscent of our traumatic childhood experiences.
Indeed, in some cases, traumatic childhood experiences can significantly increase our risk of developing avoidant personality disorder (which operates as a defence mechanism to prevent us forming close relationships with others which could make us emotionally vulnerable).
Alternatively, being in a relationship may make us so fearful of being rejected or abandoned (as we were as children) that we become intensely possessive because perpetually and obsessively terrified that we will be cruelly betrayed.
FEAR OF BEING INADEQUATE AND DISILLUSIONING OUR PARTNER
We may have such a low opinion of ourselves that we believe, if we became emotionally involved with anyone who professed to love us, the scales would soon drop from their eyes and they would see us as the ‘despicable person’ we really are. As such. we may believe that to become part of another person’s life would be to infect and pollute it. In short, we fear may we cannot live up to what we perceive to be the other person’s idealized version of us and that they would quickly become disillusioned with us in the event we let them get close to us.
INTRUSION INTO PRIVACY
We may have experienced things as a child that we do not wish anyone else to know about and fear that a close emotional relationship with another may expose us to having our past enquired into too closely for comfort.
FEAR OF BEING CONTROLLED
If we were brought up by very controlling parents then, as adults, we may feat that a relationship may again expose us to the danger of having how we live our lives dictated by another,
FEAR OF EXPLOITATION
If we were exploited as a child by a parent (e.g. the parent used us to gain ‘narcissistic supply’, ‘parentified’ us or used us as an emotional caretaker) we may equate any close emotionally union with another as exposing us to the risk of further exploitation.
FEAR OF ENGULFMENT
If our parents created with us a relationship that was inappropriately emotionally close (see my article on ’emotional incest’) we may fear that forming a close bond with another will expose us to the possibility of a similar fate of being ’emotionally engulfed’ (i.e. ‘invaded’ and having our lives ‘taken over’). This fear of engulfment is particularly common amongst sufferers of borderline personality disorder (a condition strongly linked to childhood trauma) and can lead to an unconscious drive in us to sabotage our relationships.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).