How Our Adult Relationships Can Be Ruined By Childhood Trauma

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As we grow up, we form MENTAL MODELS representing what our relationships with others are like. The term that psychologists often use to refer to such mental models is INTERPERSONAL SCHEMA.

These interpersonal schema develop from early infancy and throughout childhood. Overwhelmingly, the form they take is influenced by the quality of our relationships with our parents/primary caregivers.

Vitally, these interpersonal schema FUNDAMENTALLY AFFECT how we interact with others in later life. Those who suffer mistreatment by parents/caregivers are very likely to form NEGATIVE INTERPERSONAL SCHEMA which ADVERSELY AFFECT their relationships with others as they get older ; problems relating to others may start, for example, at school, and then, later,  become apparent at work (or, indeed, in any other context in which it is necessary to interact with others).



The individual who, due to his/her traumatic experiences as a child, has developed negative interpersonal schema very frequently becomes unconsciously compelled to form relationships which lead to a re-experiencing or re-enactment of the original trauma (it is theorized that this occurs as an unconscious attempt to master the original trauma).

An example of this would be that of a woman who was physically beaten by her father as a child being unconsciously driven to form intimate relationships with men who are likely to physically abuse her during her adulthood.

Another example would be of someone who was rejected by parents as a child becoming unconsciously driven to ensure he is also rejected by those he forms relationships with as an adult.


In this way, the negative interpersonal schemas which we developed during our traumatic childhoods lead us to sabotage our adult relationships for reasons that are operating below the conscious threshold (until we are made aware of these unconscious mechanisms, for example, through undergoing the appropriate therapy eg schema therapy).



Essentially, the process by which the development of our negative interpersonal schema develop occurs as follows :

1) As infants and children, we are ‘programmed’ by our evolutionary history (for survival reasons) to endeavour to form strong emotional attachments with our primary caregivers; this remains true even if they are ‘bad’ caregivers (bad care is better than no care from an evolutionary perspective).

2) The negative interpersonal schema we learn from our experience of our dysfunctional early relationships PROFOUNDLY INFLUENCE how we behave in our future relationships, and what we expect from them.

3) This will tend to lead to repeated difficulties in the relationships we form as adults – they, too, will tend to be dysfunctional and destructive.

4) This in turn reinforces and strengthens the negative interpersonal schema that we formed during our childhoods, further compounding our already serious problem.

5) These negative schema, and the relationship difficulties which accompany them, can last well into adulthood, or, even, a lifetime, preventing us from ever developing emotionally fulfilling and satisfying intimate relationships.

6) Often , the problem may only be properly resolved by the affected individual undergoing the appropriate therapy eg schema therapy.




negative core beliefs


If we had dysfunctional relationships with our parents or primary care-givers as children which caused us to experience traumatic distress it is likely that, as a result, we developed negative core beliefs which now may be seriously detrimental to our adult relationships both in terms of forming and maintaining them.

A core belief is one that is deeply entrenched and one that has a powerful affect on how we view the world, ourselves and others. Importantly, most of the time we are not conscious of the fact that this mechanism is at work which, of course, makes it extremely difficult, even impossible, to control (after all, how can we control an unconscious process of which, by definition, we are unaware?).

Indeed, if we are unaware that our negative core beliefs, acquired during childhood, are at the root of our adult relationship difficulties, our lives will continue to be (most unhelpfully) directed by them.

It is only by identifying these negative core beliefs, understanding how, and why,  they developed, and becoming aware of how they are ruining our adult relationships,  that we may start to make positive changes.

One type of therapy that may be particularly useful in helping us in this regard, many may already be aware, is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).


Negative core beliefs, developed due to our childhood dysfunctional relationships with our parents/primary care-givers, may, for example, include the following (the actual negative core beliefs we develop that harm our adult relationships will, of course, depend upon the exact nature of how we were badly treated by our parents/primary care-givers) :

Examples Of Negative Core Beliefs, That Negatively Affect Our Adult Relationships, We May Have Developed Due To Dysfunctional Relationships In Childhood With Significant Others:

– people I love will abandon/ reject / leave me

– people I love will betray and exploit me

– people I love will emotionally withdraw from me

– people I love will soon discover I’m  unlovable, inadequate and worthless

– people I love will not protect me

Core Beliefs Are Easily Triggered:

Such core beliefs are very easily triggered, and, once triggered, can lead to extremely strong, uncontrolled emotions.

Very often, too, these easily triggered core beliefs lead us to jump to false and irrational conclusions. For example, if someone we are meeting for a drink is late, we might assume this is a sign of rejection when, in reality, it is because their car broke down and their mobile phone had a dead battery so they could not contact us to explain their lateness.




What Is Meant By Revictimization? :

Revictimization can be defined as harm done to an individual as a result of his/her inability to self-protect. It has also been viewed as an unconscious form of self-harm.


Why Are Survivors Of Traumatic Childhood Abuse At High Risk Of Revictimization?

Survivors of traumatic childhood abuse are at high risk of being revictimized. Indeed, sometimes such individuals seem to actually actively seek out situations within which revictimization is likely to take place (although this is likely to occur on an unconscious level). Why should this be?

Several theories have been advanced in an attempt to elucidate this, on the face of it, rather perplexing phenomenon.

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) proposed that revictimization could be explained by his theory of REPETITION COMPULSION whereby individuals are unconsciously driven to ‘re-enact’ past traumatic experiences in an attempt to ‘gain mastery’ over them – to read more about this you may wish to read my previously published article : SELF-DEFEATING PERSONALITY? ITS LINK TO CHILDHOOD TRAUMA.

Briere (1992) suggests two possible explanations. First, survivors of traumatic abuse have grown up ‘getting used to’ living in the context of problematic relationships so that, when they experience further dysfunctional relationships with others in later life, even if these again result in them being on the receiving end of further abuse, they are liable to accept it as ‘just the way things are’ ; indeed, they may assume that such relationships are an inevitable part of life and can’t be escaped (see my previously published article on LEARNED HELPLESSNESS, which is relevant here).

Second, those who have suffered childhood abuse frequently experience low levels of self-esteem as a result (see my previously published article : CHILDHOOD TRAUMA : A DESTROYER OF SELF-ESTEEM for more about this) which may lead them to develop a false belief that they are somehow unworthy of being part of a healthy, non-exploitative, mutually loving relationship (see my previously published article : THE PROCESS BY WHICH OUR ADULT RELATIONSHIPS MAY BE RUINED).

It has also been pointed out (e.g. Finkelhor, 1979), and this would seem a matter of common sense, that those who are abused as children are also at greater risk of being revictimized as they are liable to place themselves in dangerous situations when trying to escape their home environment.

Self-Revictimization :

In a desperate attempt to escape emotional pain , those who have experienced significant childhood trauma may attempt to dissociate from their suffering by becoming dependent upon dysfunctional coping techniques such as excessive alcohol intake, gambling or risky, promiscuous sex ; such self-harm may also take on a more direct guide in the form of self-cutting, self-burning etc.







David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).


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