How our childhood can negatively affect our adult relationships

How our childhood can negatively affect our adult relationships

Trauma comes back as a reaction, not a memory.

 Bessel Van Der Kolk

A year ago, I wrote about the importance of knowing yourself to have a healthy relationship with someone else. That advice still stands, and this month I delve deeper into understanding how traumatic childhood experiences can affect your relationships in later life. From who you find attractive to how you deal with conflict and show affection, your childhood environment can affect the relationships you make as an adult.

How our childhood can negatively affect our adult relationships

It has often been said (sometimes by parents to scare their children) that we are attracted to the same qualities your parents possess. From physical appearance to personality, studies have shown that what is familiar to us, we often find more attractive than what is not. Most importantly, the coping mechanisms you unconsciously adopt in response to the care and attention shown to you as a child can dictate how you communicate and react to situations as an adult. 

Psychologists and relationship therapists refer to these coping mechanisms as attachment styles and have categorised them as follows:

Secure – A child raised in a loving and supportive environment is more likely to be open to being loved and giving love as an adult. They will have no fear of forming connections as adults, having no knowledge of rejection or having to ask/compete for attention.

Anxious or anxious-preoccupied – Children raised in an environment where there was constant drama or were traumatised by an event/s and did not receive adequate care or reassurance tend to have adult fears of abandonment and distrust others’ commitment to them. They constantly question their partner’s commitment to them or seek frequent validation that the relationship is sound. 

Dismissive-avoidant – Children raised in an environment where care and attention were sporadic, non-existent or experienced emotional or physical trauma by a caregiver also may have problems trusting others as an adult. Instead of requiring constant reassurance from partners, they avoid relationships or may be emotionally unavailable to their partner as they dismiss or distrust care and concern from others. They have learnt to only trust and take care of themselves.  

Fearful-avoidant – Children raised in an environment where “obedience” was obtained through fear, anger or punishment may want to be in a loving relationship with another but fear or avoid relationships. They do not trust others to be kind, even when shown constant kindness.

If you feel like you identify on some level with the last three attachment styles, please do not think that you are not capable of being in a healthy relationship as a result. You are not to blame for repeating lessons learnt in your childhood. You were unaware you were doing them as they were unconscious responses to what was happening to and around you. The attitudes adopted were coping mechanisms our brains created to survive a non-nurturing environment. It is not always healthy to blame your parents either. Unless a cycle or pattern of behaviour is broken, non-nurturing habits and belief systems will be passed on to the next generation. However, the good news is that cycles and patterns of behaviour can be broken. Attachment styles are not fixed and can be changed.

A brighter future

Changing our behaviour patterns begins with self-awareness and examining our current relationships with others. It may be that you are unconsciously placing yourself in situations that mimic the environment you grew up in, for example. Remember, we usually favour the familiar even when it is detrimental to our emotional well-being unless we consciously try not to. Some of the questions I may ask you to help you gain an understanding of how your childhood affects/ed your relationship/s include:

  • What example did your family set for behaviour, e.g. resolving conflict, showing affection?
  • What coping strategies did you develop as a child, e.g. running away, switching off, avoiding situations, appeasement to the detriment of your needs?
  • How does your family dynamic compare to your partners?
  • What patterns do you feel you have repeated in your relationships with others?

Once we know why we do things, it is easier to create new behaviours. You can then:

  • Be open to other models of behaviour and modify existing, unhelpful ones.
  • Decide what you want your relationships to be like, and let go/change those that no longer meet your needs.
  • Set goals and learn how to communicate what you need from your partner to achieve them.
  • Forgive yourself for not knowing how to be a better partner in the past because the mistakes made were part of unconscious coping mechanisms from your childhood.

Leaving behind the lessons and behaviours learned in childhood is not always easy and can take time. My role is to help you discover and understand how your childhood experiences may be contributing to conflict in your relationships.

You are in a better position to know and love others when you know and love yourself first. Take the first step to create the relationship/s you want and book a discovery appointment here.


Would you like to talk?

If something in this blog has brought up some issues for you, book a free inquiry call with Ann Jay.

Ann Jay

Ann Jay is a Wellington Relationship Counselor who provides marriage counselling, couple's counselling, and relationship coaching for couples and women either in a relationship or single. Her goal is to help people create healthy, loving and fulfilling relationships and experience the love they deserve.