There’s research out there that links childhood abuse to dysfunctional relationships later in life, including domestic violence. Most of it focuses on childhood physical and sexual abuse, but the Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma focused on the link between childhood emotional abuse and problems in adult relationships later in life in its February 22, 2010, issue. In order to have a healthy relationship, we need to have a strong sense of self as well as regard for another, and these things are often damaged as a result of childhood emotional abuse, leading to dysfunctional relationships.
It’s not unusual to seek relationships that support the emotionally abusive experiences we had as children. It’s what we became accustomed to. We learned that this is the way relationships are supposed to be. There may also be cognitive issues where our brain learns to make dysfunctional associations in a relationship. For instance, we follow a weird logic where being treated badly is proof that the other person cares for us.
Another way we search for abuse in a relationship is when we choose a partner who treats us in ways that go against our childhood experiences to the opposite extreme. We try to fix what went wrong by going in the opposite direction. For example, my grandmother on my mother’s side was a narcissist who dominated the household, including her husband. My mother was sickened by this. She chose a dominating husband (my father), thus bringing on herself an emotionally abusive marriage that went to the opposite extreme of the emotional abuse she witnessed as a girl between her parents.
Why we choose abusive relationships after escaping the abuse in our family is a complex issue and one that researchers are still trying to figure out. One theory discussed by Alison Paradis and Sophie Boucher in an article that tries to link childhood abuse to dysfunctional relationships in adulthood is the interpersonal model. It basically says that when we interact with someone, there are two things involved: communion or how we relate to the person (i.e., friendly versus hostile) and agency or how much control we have in the relationship (i.e., dominating versus submissive).
They suggest that child abuse of any kind, including emotional abuse, teaches us destructive lessons regarding these two things. Emotionally abusive parents, for instance, may have taught us to be suspicious of others, making it difficult for us to trust others. Emotionally abusive parents are also controlling parents, leaving us with a warped idea of what control is really about. As a result, dysfunction in a relationship can range from us being too submissive to us being too dominating, and from being clingy to being distant. We then find ourselves experiencing abuse in our relationships either as the abuser, the abused, or both.
Possibly the most common relationship problem for us has to do with control issues, which isn’t surprising since emotional abuse is mainly about being controlled. Domination versus submission can become a game of “who’s got control now.” I watched this game between my parents while growing up. Although my father demanded to be treated as king of the family, there were times when he let my mother control things (such as child-rearing and domestic duties).
In other relationships, it’s clear that one partner is dominant and the other is always giving in. The domineering one uses their partner to fulfill their needs, but they’re equally dependent on their partner because without having someone to dominate, they’d feel insecure and worthless.
As children, we were dominated by our abusers, so we can react by either finding someone who’ll dominate us or who we can dominate. We may even shift from one situation to the other. The dancer Isadora Duncan, for instance, was involved with several men in her life. Some of her partners were controllers and physically abused her. She, in turn, emotionally abused the others.
Less obvious forms of control are passive. Your partner may become clingy and needy. That sets up a dynamic that’s difficult to resist because it makes you feel needed and we all like to feel needed. But the needy partner is exerting no less control on you than a dominating one because they’re demanding that your energy go to fulfilling their needs. Alternatively, you may be the one who’s clingy and needy, placing your well-being into the other person’s hands, which creates dysfunction in the relationship.
Another passive form of control is passive-aggression. You find yourself giving into your partner’s every need without realizing how it happened. Such people successfully avoid confrontations by being indirect, but we feel like we’re constantly being taken advantage of. For instance, each time you request that a partner run an errand, they may conveniently forget or have to deal with unexpected emergencies. The pattern of this leaves you feeling like you’re at the whim of the other person’s will.
Trust is crucial to a healthy relationship and often damaged from emotional abuse. We struggle to trust, even though we know we should. Our partner feels it, and that creates conflict in the relationship. That conflict is doubled if the other person also has trust issues.
Infidelity is an obvious violation of trust in a relationship, but there are other trust problems that can be just as damaging. We may withhold affection because we think we can protect ourselves from being hurt. After all, we gave our abusers unconditional love and look what happened. Even though we know we’re dealing with a completely different person, the tendency to protect ourselves emotionally is difficult to let go of. In many ways, it happens automatically without our even realizing it.
We may also show our partner that we don’t trust them. It can feel like we’re living alongside our partner rather than with them. We make choices without involving them, fail to share important things we’re going through with them, and share more with our friends than with them. It can make them feel like our love is only on the surface and when it comes to really important things, we hold back.
Gender Role Issues
One more way a relationship can be dysfunctional is by basing it on dysfunctional ideas about gender roles. I suppose this doesn’t apply if both partners are happy following traditional gender roles or violating traditional gender roles. Most of us, however, appreciate that Victorian ideals about gender, though still lurking beneath the surface of Western society, don’t fit well into modern life.
Emotional abuse in our childhood can be a factor here if that abuse was gender based. Often there is a difference in how abusive fathers and abusive mothers treat their sons and daughters. Fathers may be harder or easier on their sons because they’re boys and more condescending or lax towards their daughters because they’re girls. Likewise, mothers may show preference for or rejection of their sons because they’re boys and make more demands or become enmeshed with their daughters because they’re girls.
As a result, we may seek the same situation or the opposite situation based on gender. If, for instance, a father treated his daughter badly because she was a girl then she may seek a passive man who’s willing to take on “female” duties like cleaning and cooking, thus avoiding any possibility of being treated that way because of her gender in the relationship. If a mother spoiled her son and treated him like he was better than his sisters because he’s a boy then he may seek a motherly partner who will also spoil him and treat him like he’s the most important thing in her life to maintain that sense of superiority.
Often such situations are time bombs because healthy relationships are partnerships and fixed gender roles, whether traditional or reversed, are not. Modern life doesn’t completely support these traditional roles, and at some point we’re exposed to this. A man who takes over domestic duties, for instance, may go to dinner parties at friends and feel resentful that unlike his wife, their wives have no problems cooking and cleaning up. A woman may witness her sister’s husband treating her as if her needs mattered rather than constantly demanding that she meet his.
Problems instilled in us from emotional abuse in our childhood spill into our relationships. Sometimes we replay the dysfunctional dynamics of the family situation and sometimes we go in the opposite direction in an attempt to avoid doing that. The result is still dysfunctional. If the other person is not at fault or is willing to change then we can work through these problems. Recognizing the link between them and our emotional abuse experiences is, I think, important to healing dysfunctional relationships, or if that’s not possible then avoiding them in the future.