Abusive Childhood Can Hurt Adult Intimate Relationships

Dear Neil: Would you address the effects of childhood sexual/emotional abuse on adult intimate relationships?

I have just finished a four-and-a-half year relationship that ended painfully. The relationship confronted me with the effects that my childhood abuse has had to make good partner choices, on my ability to trust, to commit and to be emotionally and sexually intimate.

I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that I have high tolerance for emotional pain. Men need to be more aware that they can trigger abuse issues in women who were incested simply by not being trustworthy.

A legacy for incest survivors is that sexuality and self-esteem are so closely entwined, one is not damaged without the other also getting damaged. This is more painful for me because he is the only man I have ever been truly emotionally and sexually free with. Maybe, I wonder, because we got too close?

Many people live in their own private hell without realizing how far reaching the effects of their childhood abuse really are. This has enhanced my sense of failure in intimate relationships. I don’t want to despise men, or become bitter and cynical about relationships. I want to grow old with someone who is gentle, loving, respectful and honest with me. I just hope my fears will not keep me so defended that I can’t let anyone in.

Christchurch, New Zealand

Dear Christchurch: Our pasts may indeed be in the past, but we always seem to find ways of recreating what happened to us as children, in our adult lives, and especially in our intimate relationships.

If you were abused—or otherwise grew up in an emotionally bankrupt family—you are likely to suffer from loneliness, yet you will tend to keep people at a distance all the same. You learned, unfortunately, not to trust, not to talk, not to feel, not to share, and not to make an emotional investment in your intimate relationships—so you won’t get hurt.

You may think commitment or marriage will solve this problem, and then find yourself in the alarming position in which you’re committed or married, but still emotionally unattached.

The mental, spiritual and emotional damage done to children who grow up abused, neglected, incested or unwanted is staggering.

How does all of this affect your intimate relationships—or your ability to be intimate—today? If you and I are in an intimate relationship, and I was an abused, incested, neglected, unwanted or unprotected child, I’m going to want you to make up for what I missed or didn’t get when I was younger.

If I didn’t get affection—or attention or nurturing—as a child, I’m going to want you to be affectionate, attentive or nurturing to me. I will constantly want more from you, as a way of making up for what I didn’t get in my childhood. I may also not offer much nurturance, attention or affection back to you, because I will think I need it far more than you do.

You, of course, don’t see that I am trying to make up for the past. In effect, I am handing you the bill for the damage done to me in the past, and expecting you to make up to me for what I didn’t get when I was younger.

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