How Childhood Trauma Affects

Adult Relationships

How Childhood Trauma Affects Adult Relationships

type of abuse: sexual abuse, traumatic experiences, unresolved trauma, complex trauma, past trauma, singular traumatic event, trauma survivors, early experiences around substance abuse


The Impact of Trauma

Life is hard enough but if your early experiences were mostly traumatic experiences; relationships will not be easy.

I’m going to list how childhood trauma affects adult relationships but first, you should understand why some trauma survivors get stuck. 


  • Distorted Perceptions
    • A child raised in dysfunction has a brain that is wired for just that
    • We don’t just grow out of it
    • Our past experiences will impact how we perceive situations, people, and our environment
    • These distorted perceptions create a lot of problems in relationships
  • Emotional Dysregulation
    • We usually carry huge emotional burdens
    • Perhaps more importantly, most of us were never taught what to do with it
  • Black and white thinking
    • Sometimes called all or nothing thinking
    • We have a bad habit of thinking in extremes
  • Rigidity
    • We’ve created laws that we live by to avoid another traumatic experience
    • We are fearful of helplessness, therefore become reluctant to give up “our way”
    • Rigidity prevents humility and doesn’t require courage
    • This hinders our growth

“Triggers are like little psychic explosions that crash through avoidance and bring the dissociated, avoided trauma suddenly, unexpectedly, back into consciousness.”
Carolyn Spring


Attachment Theory

There are some different theories on how we feel connected and disconnected with others. Trauma survivors specifically struggle with relationships as a result of attachment disruptions. So, how does abuse affect future relationships?

Dysfunctional Interpersonal Relationships

Attachment disruptions can be caused from a lot of things; witnessing/experiencing domestic abuse, physical emotional & sexual abuse during childhood, being abandoned in childhood (physically or emotionally), growing up with substance abuse, being dragged through custody battles, divorce, living with caregivers that had dysfunctional/manipulative/harmful behaviors, etc.

These attachment disruptions seem to sway into two directions when they manifest in relationships; anxious attachment or avoidant attachment.

What’s important to remember is that no matter which attachment style we use (and we can use both); we are seeking the same things and afraid of the same things. 

We crave emotional intimacy and would like to have close relationships but we have a powerful fear of intimacy and trust issues; for good reason.

Both of the styles usually experience repetition compulsion; doing the same painful things, repeatedly


  • Here are some tendencies of people with an anxious attachment style 
    • Relationships seem to have a lack of boundaries
    • Might use attention seeking behavior
    • Love bombing; excessive attention, affection, & romance with the intention of creating dependence
    • Clingy 
    • Manipulation is used
  • Here are some tendencies of people with an avoidant attachment style  
    • May seem emotionally distant/cold
    • Lack of affection
    • More obvious fear of commitment
    • Avoidant, especially when being pressed for attention 
    • They sometimes refuse to rely on others & are overly responsible


Complex trauma survivors will often damage or even end relationships to protect themselves.  

Once the cycle starts in a relationship; it’s hard to bring it to a stop. It keeps happening, because pivotal points of childhood development have often been missed; leaving these adults lost as to how to get over this attachment hurdle. 

“No amount of me trying to explain myself was doing any good. I didn’t even know what was going on inside of me, so how could I have explained it to them?”
Sierra D. Waters


Stunted Emotional Development

  • Emotionally Inept Adults
    • They’re uncomfortable with emotions
    • They likely lack conflict resolution skills
    • Experience frequent unwarranted guilt & shame
  • They’re Afraid of Conflict
    • Often reading the room to prevent conflict
    • Compelled to be a peacemaker, negotiator, or mediator
    • People pleasing is exhausting and usually causes resentment
    • May enable others or have codependent tendencies


“The child trapped in an abusive environment is faced with formidable tasks of adaptation. She must find a way to preserve a sense of trust in people who are untrustworthy, safety in a situation that is unsafe, control in a situation that is terrifyingly unpredictable, power in a situation of helplessness.

Unable to care for or protect herself, she must compensate for the failures of adult care and protection with the only means at her disposal, an immature system of psychological defenses.”
Judith Lewis Herman


These deficits create emotional hurdles for trauma survivors during adulthood. Often straining relationships and even repeatedly sabotaging them.

Attachment disruptions are a huge challenge for trauma survivors.

“If your parents’ faces never lit up when they looked at you, it’s hard to know what it feels like to be loved and cherished. If you come from an incomprehensible world filled with secrecy and fear, it’s almost impossible to find the words to express what you have endured. If you grew up unwanted and ignored, it is a major challenge to develop a visceral sense of agency and self-worth.”
Bessel A. van der Kolk

The impacts of childhood trauma CAN be overcome, but not without some courage and humility. 

Attachment disruptions are a big red flag for unresolved trauma but they’re usually not highlighted until we’re in a serious relationship, often well into adulthood. Aside from relationships, here are some other ways the effects of abuse manifest.


Effects of Abuse Manifest As

  • This is what we commonly feel or witness in trauma survivors
    • Feelings of shame
    • Lacking a sense of self
    • Bullyism
    • Being bias or judgmental
    • Favoritism
    • Perfectionism
    • Lack of identity
    • Procrastination
    • Hoarding
    • Low self-esteem
    • Unhealthy behaviors
    • Unhealthy relationships
    • Lack of self-care
    • Workaholic tendencies
Other mental health issues that manifest from complex trauma
  • Symptoms of childhood trauma in adulthood include


I put some things below that have helped me in my relationships. I think personally the book Attached & the PTSD Trigger Tracker PDF were the most helpful. 

Attachment disruptions… disrupted my relationships for years. My attachment style is still there but it doesn’t ruin my relationships anymore.

It took courage to overcome the trust issues; so don’t shy away when you’re feeling vulnerable.

In fact, as soon as you’re feeling vulnerable you are going to feel compelled to resort to your attachment style tendencies. Remind yourself that emotions are human and take the time to handle them appropriately. Avoid knee jerk reactions.

It can be tricky to find balance so give yourself and your partners grace. 

Find the support that you do need. Whether it’s in a therapist, a safe friend, or groups. 

I put a couple groups below too (both I have used). Everyone is different & what helps us varies.

Take what helps you and leave the rest. 

“Managing your terror all by yourself gives rise to another set of problems: dissociation, despair, addictions, a chronic sense of panic, and relationships that are marked by alienation, disconnections, and explosions. Patients with these histories rarely make the connection between what has happened to them a long time ago and how they currently feel and behave. Everything just seems unmanageable.”
Bessel A. van der Kolk

I didn’t have the skills to get to where I am now with my emotions. It took me a lot of books, a lot of years in individual therapy, group therapy, a divorce, plenty of workbooks and a lot of other life changes to get to where I am now. 

“And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”

J.K. Rowling


Mental Health Printables Related To How Childhood Trauma Affects Adult Relationships

CBT Model Worksheet PDF

cbt printable


PTSD Trigger Tracker PDF

trigger tracker pdf


Trauma Writing Exercise

Trauma Writing Exercise

[Not Free]


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