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10 Ways Childhood Trauma Can Manifest in Adult Relationships

5. Settling for someone who isn't a good fit.

Key points

  • Children who experienced trauma sometimes struggle to learn the same boundaries and behaviors that others take for granted.
  • Many people with childhood trauma later question their relationship patterns, asking, "Is this normal?"
  • Going back to early childhood development often sheds some light on our adult behavior, specifically unhealthy patterns.
 art by Kaytee Gillis
Our formative years can affect us long into adulthood, especially in our romantic relationships.
Source: art by Kaytee Gillis

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.

6. Constant arguing or fighting in relationships, or avoiding conflict at all costs. All relationships have conflict, but children who grew up in environments where caregivers were always arguing, or who avoided any sort of conflict whatsoever, often do not learn the skills necessary to have productive and healthy communication. This includes healthy and productive ways to navigate and manage conflict.

7. Not knowing how to repair after fights. As mentioned above, when we do not learn how to have productive and healthy management of conflict, we also to do not know how to repair a relationship after the inevitable conflict that happens in partnerships. This can look like pretending it didn't happen, not knowing when or how to compromise on an issue, or giving the silent treatment.

8. Serial monogamy. This is often due to fears of being hurt again, fears of being alone, or even trying to prove that you are worthy of the love and affection that you did not receive in childhood. With each new partner comes new hopes to confirm that you are worthy of the love and partnership you are missing,

9. Worrying that you are settling, being fearful of committing, or avoiding relationships altogether. This is due to caregivers who were unreliable or abandoned you, leaving you distrustful of those who claim to care for you. If you fear that others will hurt you the way your caregivers did, avoiding settling down can feel safer as it allows you the freedom to leave the relationship when and if necessary.

10. Trying to change their partner. This is a trauma response that comes from the belief that we need to do the best with what we have, or even the fear that we cannot do any better. Children are powerless to change who their caregivers are, so they learn to try to make do with what they have. As adults, it is common for this pattern to carry over into our partnerships, causing us to desire changes within our partner in order to calm our own fears of relationships. If we can "fix" the person and make them a better partner, we can somehow prove to ourselves that we are worthy and able to have a successful relationship.

Can these behavior patterns be changed?

Many of my clients ask this question during our first few sessions together. While self-reflection is essential to any form of growth, therapy can help with the process as it can hold you accountable, as well as assist with the feelings that come up along the way. Many people find support in other ways such as journaling, group support, spirituality, and other forms of support and self-reflection. Doing the work to unlearn dysfunctional behaviors is essential to interpersonal growth.

Facebook image: Hananeko_Studio/Shutterstock


How the Trauma of Childhood Abuse Affects Interpersonal Relationships, and How to Begin Healing. February 8, 2018, Elisabet Kvarnstrom, Bridges to Recovery. Web. Accessed Feb. 18, 2022.…

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