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Childhood Trauma and Adult-Life Relational Issues

Childhood trauma can impact our ability to intimately bond as adults.

Key points

  • Early-life abuse and neglect have significant and long-lasting effects.
  • Until unresolved early-life trauma is resolved, adult life relational issues are likely to manifest.
  • This can take the form of addictions, trouble feeling and expressing emotions, psychological disorders, and more.
Source: Photographee/Shutterstock
Source: Photographee/Shutterstock

Over the past 40 years, clinicians have come to understand the role that early-life trauma can play over the entire lifespan. Today, it is clear that childhood abuse and neglect impact our ability, as adults, to trust, be emotionally vulnerable, and bond with others—including the people who love us most.

An example of childhood trauma's lingering impact.

Consider Brandon, a successful 25-year-old actor with a history of substance abuse and failed romantic relationships. Brandon has been sober from alcohol and drugs for three years but continues to struggle with relationships. In therapy, he says he struggles to trust others, even people who’ve earned his trust, and that he tends to overreact to any perceived transgression, no matter how minor. He says this is impacting his work life, his friendships, and especially his romantic life.

Initially, Brandon states that his childhood was “relatively normal, with no abuse.” But a deeper examination reveals an emotionally absent, possibly alcoholic father and an enmeshed, narcissistic, and emotionally abusive mother. When pressed, he admits that he learned early on that he could not trust either of his parents to be there for him in times of need, especially if he was struggling with his feelings, so he learned to pretend everything was OK no matter what. If he went to his father, it felt like talking to a wall. If he went to his mother, her (often emotionally abusive) response was all about her—how Brandon’s weaknesses and shortcomings reflected poorly on her. Depending on the parent, Brandon’s needs were either ignored or trampled.

In a later session, Brandon admits that as a child he was never allowed to have (let alone express) feelings. He was expected to smile, make good grades, play sports, and otherwise keep his mouth shut. Being afraid, or confused, or ashamed, or in any way needy was simply not acceptable. So on the surface, Brandon was successful and happy. Below the surface, however, he was filled with shame and anxiety.

Is it any wonder that Brandon learned to project the façade of a needless, wantless person? After all, he learned early in life that other people, especially the people who are supposed to love and care for him, will continually let him down and might even abuse him any time he becomes vulnerable and tries to get his needs met. So now, as an adult, even though he craves closeness, he is afraid to reach out to friends and especially romantic partners in ways that might develop emotional intimacy. If he allows them in, they might hurt him or reject him, so he never allows them in.

For a while, Brandon masked (or at least escaped) his issues with alcohol and drugs. Now, however, he is sober, and without that escapist coping mechanism, he is manifesting symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in his life and relationships. Basically, his unresolved early-life trauma issues continue to negatively impact his ability to feel his feelings and to get his wants and needs met. Because of this, he can’t maintain romantic relationships or even lasting friendships, and he sometimes lashes out for no apparent reason at the people around him—especially the people he dates or works with, even when he truly likes and respects them.

The simple truth is that early-life abuse and neglect have significant and long-lasting effects.

The most obvious manifestations tend to be addiction and serious psychological disorders. Less obvious manifestations are what we currently see with Brandon—a tendency toward isolation, anxiety, and unwarranted outbursts of anger or other strong emotions. Sadly, these less obvious manifestations can, over time, be just as damaging to the individual (and those around the individual) as the more obvious symptoms.

Simply stated, individuals like Brandon tend to feel insecure in most if not all aspects of life. They feel an ongoing sense of danger and mistrust, even when their lives are going well. Exacerbating matters is the fact that they often don’t see a connection between their childhood abuse and neglect and their adult-life relational problems. Instead, they think of themselves as crazy and defective—thoughts that exacerbate their already shame-filled self-image.

Is there a solution for Brandon?

Certainly, though his path to healing is neither easy nor fun. He must explore and work through his early-life trauma. This means he will need to be fully honest about issues like emotional and psychological neglect and abuse, addiction within the family, repression of emotions, and more. He must also peel back the complex layers of his childhood trauma so he can know what he experienced and how it has affected him—both as a child and as an adult.

Until Brandon’s unresolved trauma is effectively addressed, his relational issues will continue to manifest. He will continue to feel shame and anxiety, and he will continue to behave in ways that drive other people away.

More from Robert Weiss Ph.D., LCSW, CSAT
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