How Does Childhood Trauma Affect Relationships? Shattered Innocence, Fragile Bonds


, ,
How Does Childhood Trauma Affect Relationships?

“For people with a trauma history, fear can be mistaken for excitement in intimate relationships. Unfortunately, a state of high anxiety can become the glue that binds people together in unhealthy relationship bonds.” ~ Glynis Sherwood, MEd

How Does Childhood Trauma Affect Relationships?

All humans are born with an innate psychological and biological need to receive consistent nurturing from parents. In this sense, strong attachment bonds are fundamental to the experience of being human and the survival of our species. As we are wired for closeness, our parental figures provide our first experiences of these crucial relationship ties.

By the age of four or five, our basic sense of self identity is formed. Children tend to see things as black or white, so at the heart of their nascent identity is the belief that they are either good or bad, lovable or unlovable. The quality of their bond with parents determines how positively or negatively kids see themselves, and is viewed as the truth.

If attachment needs are thwarted through neglect, abuse or traumatic losses (e.g. loss of a parent through death, divorce, estrangement, etc.), developing children are susceptible to feeling extremely unsure of themselves, especially their sense of worth and lovability.

Insufficient, inconsistent or absent empathy, nurturance and unconditional love from parents – fundamental for developing children – magnifies the attachment trauma problem.

Related: 8 Types Of Childhood Trauma And How To Defeat And Heal From Them

At the same time, neglected or abused children continue to yearn for a connection to the very parents who are not available to meet their needs. So these ‘insecurely attached’ children may cling to parents who simultaneously telegraph to their kids that they are not important, setting a child up to feel both fearful of abandonment, and self blaming when s/he does not receive this nurturing.

As they grow older these children may become more withdrawn and avoidant, or rebellious and acting out. In essence, the withdrawn child is saying ‘I will never get what I need, and can’t trust you, therefore I retreat or shut down’. The rebellious, more demanding child is communicating ‘Please hear and validate me or I will die’.

So as can be seen, bonding with caregivers is not only necessary for a child’s survival, but also acts as a vital mirror to a child’s developing sense of self. If enough ‘optimal’ positive mirroring by parents occurs early in childhood, then children learn to internalize those responses, affirming that they are good, loveable, worthy and wanted.

It is through affirmative parental mirroring that our essential sense of ourselves as ‘good’ people develops.

Conversely, if parents neglect or abuse their offspring, then these children learn to see themselves as bad and, therefore, unlovable. As mistreated children unconsciously blame themselves for their parent’s behaviour, a sense shame and anxiety becomes fused with their core identity. These children believe they must win their parent’s love, as their survival depends on it.

Survival psychology dictates that abused children repeatedly search for love from parents who do not meet the developmental needs of their offspring. Unable to perceive that it is their parents who are incapable or unwilling to nurture them effectively, abused kids fruitlessly attempt to prove that they are lovable.

Each subsequent rejection or unmet need by parents cement deep seated fears that they are unlovable children, leading to the development of a shame based identity, abandonment anxiety, and childhood attachment trauma.

How does childhood trauma affect relationships

What Is Attachment Hunger?

Attachment hunger is driven by a deep longing for secure bonding that did not occur with parental figures in childhood. In essence, attachment hunger is fuelled by unmet but essential developmental needs.

The formation of a shame based identity further feeds the child’s false belief that they are unlovable and leads to panic as they yearn for acceptance from rejecting or abandoning parents.

As children grow into adults with unmet attachment needs, they may either cling frantically and/or withdraw into an anxious, avoidant stance in relation to their parents, intimate partners or friends.

Because their childhood needs remain unfulfilled, these adults continue to suffer from both a deep seated attachment hunger and a shame based identity that motivates their behaviour, leading to chronic low self worth and relationship difficulties.

These attachment hunger problems may be conscious or unconscious, but are almost always accompanied by anxiety, insecurity and feelings of worthlessness.

Related: 4 Ways That Childhood Trauma Impacts Adults

How Do Troubled Parents and Attachment Trauma Relate To Each Other?

Parents who are unable or unwilling to nurture their children may suffer from personality disorders, such as narcissism, and/or addictive behaviors. ‘Love’ may be conditional, at best, or non existent at worst, due to self absorption, lack of perception of their child’s needs and absence of empathy.

Personality disordered parents are needy and look to their children for the validation they never received from their own parents, leading to destructive boundary transgressions.

Poor parental boundaries lead to insecure relationships with their children, who can become ‘parentified’ themselves, i.e. expected to fulfil a caregiving role towards their parents.

If a child is – understandably – unable or unwilling to participate in this inappropriate role reversal, affection and support may be withheld by parents, and disapproval, shunning or bullying may ensue.

Children raised in this kind of environment often come to believe they are unlovable and unworthy, leading to ‘people pleasing’ behaviours in a desperate attempt to find the validation and emotional safety they crave. These children feel chronically insecure and struggle with low self worth.

They may unconsciously attract troubled friends and, later in life, intimate partners as they gravitate towards the ‘devil they know’.

In other words, the experience of chronic childhood neglect and abuse can set a course towards the pursuit of intimate relationships with wounded people, in an effort to validate an absent sense of self worth, or may lead to the avoidance of intimacy altogether due to fear of rejection.

Traumatic Attachment in Adult Relationships – Unresolved Trauma Will Be Repeated

Unmet attachment needs can lead to compulsive relationship seeking by adults who ‘hunger’ for healthy self worth and the secure bonds that were thwarted in childhood. These adults feel needy, vulnerable and unsure of themselves, and hope that intimate relationships will provide them with the psychological ‘scaffolding’ that is missing.

Although the motivation for this behaviour can be unconscious, sufferers are aware of nagging self doubt, fear of rejection and abandonment if their vulnerability is discovered by others, leading to chronic anxiety in relationships.

Because attachment hungry people are prone to picking people who are similar to the parental figures who hurt them, their intimate relationships can be fraught with the negative dynamics they fear – abuse, neglect, rejection and abandonment.

Attachment hungry people may pick narcissistic, codependent or addicted partners. Such relationships reflect and amplify low self worth, lack healthy boundaries, and lead to ‘trauma bonding’ – the fusion of love with abuse.

Trauma bonding is the unconscious acting out of attachment hunger, following a dysfunctional script – that love, rejection, abandonment, or abuse go together – learned in early childhood. Attachment hungry people may become addicted to the eroticized coercive control that is at the heart of trauma bonding.

How does childhood trauma affect relationships

Trauma bonding also intensifies psychological harm due to double bind dynamics in the following ways:

  • The relationship-compulsive person believes they are an unlovable and unworthy, and looks to others to meet needs that they unconsciously believe will never be met. Consequently, they are prone to high levels of rejection fear, all while being driven to seek connection. At the same time they believe that they must be sexually engaged in order to be loved.
  • Yet sex and romance are doomed to fail at healing a fractured sense of self. Men in this situation tend to see sex as the most important sign of love and yet their most terrifying need. Women believe they must be sexual to be loveable, yet also fear that if they are sexual, they are bad. These double bind situations amplify chronic anxiety and low self worth.

Related: What Are Adverse Childhood Experiences? How The Trauma From These Affects Adult Relationships

Solutions to Attachment Hunger

Healing from the pain of attachment hunger requires the patient cultivation of emotional and cognitive insights, as the wound runs deep and is entangled with self identity.

The first principle of recovery from attachment hunger is to focus on developing a healthier relationship with oneself, especially before pursuing new intimate relationships.

This process can be greatly enhanced by working with a psychotherapist who understands developmental and attachment trauma.

Recovery of Relationship With the Self

The tasks of recovery from attachment hunger include learning to identify and manage emotion in the moment, especially repressed grief and anger; reducing anxiety based responses (fight, flight, freeze or collapse), so that the feelings behind the anxiety may be experienced and expressed constructively, and developing the ability to self soothe.

The simple act of accessing emotion – from a place of acceptance – tends to be cathartic, validating, calming, helps pinpoint legitimate needs and fuels personal motivation.

Developing emotional self regulation skills is fundamental to recovery from attachment hunger.

Most people with a history of neglect or abuse have some difficulty dealing with stress, accessing feelings and may be prone to mood swings. Mood swings may seem mysterious, but in fact do not come out of the blue. They stem from painful unconscious emotional and cognitive triggers that cause fear, self criticism and shame.

The key here is to work backwards to discover the source of the pain, and to cultivate tolerance and compassion for emotion(s) while understanding the source of trigger. Familiarity with pain triggers allows the individual to make choices to either deal with the hurt directly, or to withdraw and avoid it in future, thereby increasing a sense of self control and validation.

Becoming adept at recognizing and standing up to negative thinking is also critical to overcoming core beliefs that undermine self worth.

For example, most attachment hungry people are bound to false beliefs that they are bad and irredeemable. Ongoing, unconscious strikes from the Inner Critic – aka The Judge – perpetuate anxiety, depression and low self worth.

Challenging negative core beliefs, which are usually not based in reality, is key to regaining self worth, and emotional management. At the same time, treating oneself with care and compassion, even if it doesn’t feel ‘real’ at first, is integral to healing as it eventually neutralizes the attacking Judge.

How does childhood trauma affect relationships

Trauma Attachment and Intimate Relationships

Relationships are challenging for people who were not loved or supported adequately by their parents during childhood. Difficulties with trust and self worth compromise closeness and healthy connections.

The second principle of healing from attachment hunger is to develop a more positive self identity before starting new, intimate relationships.

Relationships should be entered into from a place of strength and the desire to grow, not out of fear or neediness. For people already in relationships they wish to continue, couple’s counselling may be indicated.

Related: Haunted By The Past: How Childhood Trauma Impacts Your Adult Relationships

Rules of Thumb: Go slow with new relationships. Learn to identify positive signs that a relationship has potential – for example, consistent, respectful attitudes and behavior in a potential partner – and be aware of ‘red flags’, such as neglect or abuse. Be mindful that your motivation to overcome attachment trauma and to be in a relationship is sound.

In other words, you feel confident about yourself, and want to share your time and life with someone whom you believe is equally invested in supporting their – and your – personal development as a human being.

The experience of being treated as unlovable and worthless during childhood is the most damaging breach that must be mended if a more positive and realistic identity, and healthy relationships, are to be forged.

Learning to treat oneself with the compassion that was missing in childhood, while deepening understanding and management of emotions and core beliefs, is key to overcoming attachment hunger and the development of self worth.

Written By Glynis Sherwood MEd
Originally Appeared On Glynis Sherwood
effects of childhood trauma on relationships

— Share —

— About the Author —

Leave a Reply

Up Next

10 Warning Signs Of Abandonment Issues In Adults And How To Heal From The Pain

Warning Signs Of Abandonment Issues In Adults

Imagine you are sitting in a bustling coffee shop surrounded by lively conversations, and laughter filling the air. There’s a group of people that catches your eye. They seem to radiate an invisible energy, an unspoken longing for reassurance and connection. Welcome to the world of adults struggling with abandonment issues. Today, we are going to talk about the signs of abandonment issues in adults.

We’ve all heard the phrase “abandonment issues” tossed around, but what does it really mean for grown-ups? They are actually the hidden battles that play out beneath the surface, and which end up shaping your emotions, relationships and self-perception.

Let’s explore some of the biggest signs of abandonment issues in adults, and how the fear of abandonment influences their lives.

Up Next

6 Signs Of High Functioning PTSD: The Silent Battle Within

Signs Of High Functioning PTSD: The Silent Battle Within

You must have heard of high functioning anxiety, and just like that, high functioning PTSD or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is also a thing. And understanding what it is, is very important for understanding how complex trauma can be. Well, what is high functioning PTSD?

High functioning PTSD is a form of post-traumatic stress disorder that often goes unnoticed because those affected by it seem to have it all together on the surface. But beneath that seemingly calm exterior, the battle rages on.

Today, we are going to explore six important signs that are going to help you identify if you or someone you know is dealing with high functioning PTSD. So, let’s begin, shall we?


Up Next

7 Telltale Signs Of Unresolved Trauma: Recognizing The Invisible Scars

Telltale Signs Of Unresolved Trauma

Have you ever felt like you’re carrying a weight but you don’t know how it got there? And this heavy feeling is always showing up in unexpected ways. The thing is all of us have had experiences that have changed us in many ways, but the scars still remain. I am talking about unresolved trauma and the signs of unresolved trauma.

Most of the time, it’s easy to ignore or suppress what we feel emotionally, however, but ignoring the signs of unresolved emotional trauma will lead to more problems in the future.

Let’s take a closer look at the seven glaring signs that are telling you that it’s high time you take som

Up Next

How To Help A Grieving Loved One: Embracing Empathy

How To Help A Grieving Loved One: Embracing Empathy

When you see someone you love grieving, it can hit hard, and might even make you feel helpless. If your intention is to support a grieving loved one, then you have come to the right place. This article is going to talk about how to help a grieving loved one, and helping someone who is grieving.


It’s natural to want to make a grieving loved one “feel better,” but the task should be to help them feel less isolated.

Some well-meaning statements can cause feelings of isolation for those experiencing grief.

It’s important to show grieving loved ones caring, presen

Up Next

What Is Enmeshment Trauma? Understanding The Depths And Impact Of Emotional Entanglement

What Is Enmeshment Trauma? Ways To Break Free

Are you over-burdened by the needs, desires, expectations and emotions of people around you? Do setting healthy and strong boundaries feel impossible for you? If so, you may be experiencing enmeshment trauma. But what is enmeshment trauma and how to heal enmeshment trauma? Let’s find out.

What is Enmeshment Trauma?

Enmeshment trauma is a psychological condition that arises from extreme closeness and blurred boundaries in relationships, making you feel overwhelmed and detached from your own self. 

It is a form of psychological distress caused by an unhealthy relationship where there is no individuality. It usually

Up Next

How To Deal With Trauma Triggers In A Relationship: 6 Strategies for Healing and Connection

How To Deal With Trauma Triggers In A Relationship: Tips

Ever felt extremely emotional or overwhelmed while interacting with your partner? Do you feel distant or exhausted by specific situations and behaviors of loved ones? Trauma triggers in a relationship can severely affect the emotional and mental health of both partners. That’s why it is crucial for you to learn how to deal with trauma triggers in a relationship.

Whether you are dating someone with relationship trauma or you are the one who is dealing with such emotional turmoil, understanding the interplay of trauma and relationships can help you better manage these triggers and build healthier and more positive relationships.

What are Trauma Triggers in a Relationship?

Up Next

8 Tips For Healing Attachment Trauma And Building Healthy Connections

Tips For Healing Attachment Trauma and Embracing Freedom

Are you trapped in a cycle of toxic relationships? Do you often ask yourself why you are unable to build or maintain loving, healthy relationships? When you are constantly haunted by past trauma, it can be difficult to connect with others. Understanding the importance of healing attachment trauma can improve your ability to trust others and build more positive relationships.

Trauma is a deep-rooted psychological and emotional wound that can have a profound impact in different aspects of our lives. Learning to identify and overcome certain negative experiences from our past can empower us to build healthy attachment bonds.

So today we are going to explore what is attachment trauma, signs of attachment trauma in adults and attachment trauma treatment. Let’s dive in.