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Childhood Pain Can Lead to Adult Relationship Abuse

Inside the mind of one man.

Gerd Altmann/Pixabay
Source: Gerd Altmann/Pixabay

Children who have sustained painful emotional wounds from their parents and others can carry that pain into adulthood. Their adult relationships bring up their original pain and cause a lot of inner conflict. Often it is easier to inflict that pain onto their partners rather than look inward for the real source of their hurt, anger, and resentment.

Let's look at this inner conflict by going inside the mind of an emotionally abusive man. The man's female partner says his behavior towards her is hurtful. She says she's on edge when he's around, and she can't trust him. But when she tries to talk to him, he disregards her feelings and won't listen to her.

If his conscience could talk to him, it would go something like this:

Hello, this is your conscience speaking. I'm the part of your mind that sends you messages about what's right and what's wrong. I'm kind of like the tip of the iceberg of your subconscious mind. That's where all your memories and feelings are stored.

Although most of me stays hidden, I'm the driving force behind your choices, actions, and emotions. I determine the way you feel about yourself and others. I'm also responsible for how you function in your relationships.

I have something to tell you that will be hard to hear. But if you have the courage to listen to what I have to say and act on it, the results will be life-changing for you, your partner, and your family.

There's a lot going on beneath the surface of your awareness. Allow me to reveal parts of you that you may have never considered. These parts of you have an enormous impact on your life and relationships.

Let’s start with your early life. Kids don't yet have the capacity to make sense of an adult world. They need caring adults to help them make meaning out of their feelings and experiences.

But your parents didn't talk to you about your feelings. They didn't ask you how you felt as a child, just discovering your emotions and how to understand them. They didn't ask you how you felt as an adolescent, enduring all the anguish of puberty and discovering who you are. They didn't encourage you to express the full range of your feelings, including hurt, sadness, fear, and shame. When you went through hurtful experiences, no one helped you understand and reconcile what happened to you.

Your parents may have loved you, but they unknowingly passed down to you their own unresolved issues from childhood. When your parents were children, their parents didn't talk about feelings either. Your grandparents shamed your parents as children for their natural feelings and instincts. So your parents didn't accept those same feelings in their children either. They shamed their children, just as their parents did them.

You learned it was dangerous to express your feelings, like loving and needing someone, being scared, and feeling sad or lonely. You accepted only those feelings approved by that inner censor created by your parents.

You thought that there was something wrong with you because of how you felt. You learned to disrespect your feelings. You came to believe you were deficient in some way and unworthy of being loved. You found ways to hide your true feelings by becoming distant, angry, aggressive, and controlling. You don't feel safe, so you justify any means of protecting yourself.

As you grew up, you began to see yourself and others through the lens of your suppressed pain. These feelings kept you alienated from your true self and prevented you from having a sense of your own emotional needs.

This abject loneliness in your childhood home led to emotional isolation in your adulthood. You shut down the very part of you that allows you to truly love others.

An emotionally intimate relationship requires both partners to have the strength to trust and be vulnerable with each other. But in your mind, if you keep your partner at a distance, she can't hurt you. If you demean her and make her feel small, you won't have to deal with your unacceptable feelings. If you chip away at her confidence and sense of self, she won't leave you.

You're caught up in a vicious cycle. You want to love and be loved, but when your partner gets too close, it triggers the defense mechanisms you developed as a child. You're terrified of feeling that old pain again, that you're deficient, less than, unworthy. So you distract yourself with behavioral disguises and cover-ups. You may be kind and generous with others, but those closest to you see quite a different side of you.

You've tried to numb the pain of all those feelings you've swallowed with risky behavior. But there will never be enough money, success, power, alcohol, drugs, sex, possessions, or people to fill your sense of emptiness.

So, here's the part you really need to get: You don't need to hide anymore. You're not deficient, unworthy of being loved. You're not the problem.

The problem is that you're allowing your past to determine your present. You continue to live in your repressed childhood, ignoring the fact that it no longer exists. Dangers that were once real are no longer dangerous. You're driven to acts of emotional abuse by an unconscious desire for revenge against those who hurt you. That's why you can be abusive to your partner and refuse to see it for what it is.

The truth is that your partner wants to see all of you. She wants to love you and be loved by you. She needs you to surrender to the intimacy that will allow you both to achieve a deep and satisfying relationship. Expressing your most vulnerable feelings to her will only make her love you more. Instead, you keep re-enacting behavioral patterns based on old, limiting beliefs that keep hurting you and your partner. Let's look at how these old patterns play out in your relationship:

You and your partner don't get along with each other most of the time. You can't agree on the smallest decisions or interactions. She says you criticize her a lot and blame her for things that aren't her fault. She says you make promises you don't keep and even lie to her. She tells you that you seem to enjoy humiliating her when other people are around. She has asked you repeatedly not to tell her she's stupid, a bad mother, or deficient in some way.

But you think she's just being difficult. The way you see it, she should just agree with you, do what you say. You justify your behavior towards her by telling yourself it's for her own good. You believe she's the one who is causing all the problems in your relationship.

Sometimes you like to tease or mock her, but you think it's all just a joke. She should be able to take a joke. She's just too sensitive. You had an affair and lied to her about it. But when she caught you, you confessed. You also pushed her up against a wall and destroyed her cell phone. But in your mind, she deserved it. You can't understand why she can't forget about what happened in the past. That's old news.

Sure, you get angry sometimes. But, hey, you're human. Besides, guys are supposed to be tough, hide their feelings, and have the upper hand. Sometimes they even use their physical strength to get their point across. Isn't that what you learned growing up?

You don't like it much when she goes out alone with friends or gets together with her family. She should be tending to your needs and focusing on your life together. Isn't that what a relationship is all about?

You can't understand why she's so cold to you. You think she's trying to punish you by withholding sex. You would never do that to her. You think she has an obligation to be with you whenever you want her. She just needs to know that couples sometimes argue and get over it.

All of her complaints just make you angry with her, and you have to put her in her place. But that's OK because, from your perspective, she doesn't even consider your feelings. She's always trying to shame you, like your parents did.

Is that really how you want to be in a relationship?

Remember, I'm your conscience, so let's be honest with each other. You're really scared that she might leave you. But you don't let her know how you really feel. It brings up a great deal of anxiety for you and makes you feel out of control, just like you did when you were growing up. Instead, you discourage her from being an individual with feelings, opinions, needs, and life pursuits.

Now that you think about it, it does ease your anxious feelings when you point out her flaws. Dissing her opinions, feelings, and needs gives you a feeling of power and success. If she's wrong, and you're right, it shields you from having to listen to the powerful and persistent voice of your own inner censor. But this distraction is fleeting. Your sense of emptiness will return.

That's a really hard way to go through life.

But there is a better way to live. Find a therapist who can help you stop operating under the influence of your past conditioning. You will become aware of your parents' destructive patterns still at work within you. You will be able to uncover and release the feelings that have festered inside you. You will be able to manage your feelings whenever they are triggered by present events.

As the great Dr. John Gray said, "What you feel, you can heal." When you've emotionally worked through your buried feelings, you will regain your sense of being alive. You can reclaim the lost part of yourself that's able to truly love someone.

Isn't having a healthy, loving relationship with your partner worth investing some time to look into what I've told you? What value do you place on the quality of your life and relationships? Is this the legacy you want to pass down to your own child?

So you've got two choices here: Stay trapped in the past and continue to inflict your inner conflict on others, or open up your mind to a more peaceful and fulfilling life. I hope you'll make the right choice.


Miller, A. (2008). The Drama of the Gifted Child. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Bradshaw, J. (2005) Healing the Shame That Binds You. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications.

Gray, J. (1994). What You Feel, You Can Heal. Mill Valley, CA: Heart Publishing