Research: How Does Childhood Abuse Lead to Troubled Romantic Relationships?

Isn’t it nice when research validates what you already know? I came across this headline yesterday, Troubled Romantic Relationships May Stem From Childhood Emotional Maltreatment, and had a “yeah, no kidding” moment. A reminder once again that common knowledge to those of us familiar with trauma is not all that common.

What I find interesting here is not only that the link is made between childhood abuse and trouble with adult relationships, but also that self-criticism is identified as a mediating factor. I’ve written a great deal about the link between childhood abuse and self-criticism, or negative self-talk, as part of my Learning to Love Yourself After Trauma series in 2010.

I also appreciate the specific focus on emotional abuse (which includes neglect) and the assertion that emotional abuse is present in all forms of child maltreatment.

It is unclear to me from this summary, and my later reading of the entire article,  if self-criticism is only seen as contributing to the relationship becoming unhealthy versus also playing a role in the choice of an unhealthy partner to begin with.

In my article Relationships after Severe Trauma: Making Healthy Choices I covered the the factors that can contribute to unhealthy romantic relationships, including traumatic bonding and abuser dynamics.

The following is a summary of this research on childhood maltreatment and adult romantic relationships. As always I look forward to your thoughts!

Troubled Romantic Relationships May Stem From Childhood Emotional Maltreatment

People who experience Childhood Emotional Maltreatment (CEM) are more likely to have troubled romantic relationships in adult years, according to Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) researchers.

In two separate studies, doctoral candidate Dana Lassri and Prof. Golan Shahar of BGU’s Department of Psychology examined the stability and satisfaction of intimate relationships among college students with a history of CEM. The studies, published in the Journal of Social & Clinical Psychology, suggest that emotional abuse as a child impacted relationship fulfillment due to self-criticism. Participants had an extremely strong tendency to bash themselves, and this interfered with their relationship satisfaction.

The studies also revealed that some participants had symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (P.T.S.D.) due to the emotional abuse they endured. This could be the result of internalizing behaviors caused by the maltreatment or by a child’s inability to properly comprehend their circumstances.

Childhood Maltreatment (CM) includes sexual and physical abuse, emotional maltreatment and neglect, and is a significant contributor to the dramatic increase in referrals to university counseling centers. CM also foments self-criticism causing a deleterious effect on romantic relationships.

“Over time, this tendency might be consolidated, becoming a defining part of a person’s personality, and ultimately derailing relationships in general and romantic relationships in particular,” explains Ms. Lassri, whose doctoral dissertation, supervised by Prof. Shahar, served as the basis for the study. Lassri and Shahar are with the Sealth and Health Research Lab (SEALTH) located at the Department of Psychology of BGU.

Lassri believes that even though these findings were gathered from college-age individuals, the behaviors could potentially worsen throughout adulthood.


American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the. (2012, May 6). “Troubled Romantic Relationships May Stem From Childhood Emotional Maltreatment.” Medical News Today. Retrieved from

Dana Lassri and Golan Shahar. Self-Criticism Mediates the Link between Childhood Emotional Maltreatment and Young Adults’ Romantic Relationships. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 2012; Vol. 31, No. 3, pp. 289-311 [link]

This entry was posted in Abuse, Childhood Abuse, Emotional Abuse, Health, Mental Health, Psychologist, Relationships, Trauma and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Research: How Does Childhood Abuse Lead to Troubled Romantic Relationships?

  1. Bourbon says:

    Oh yes – troubled romantic relationships should be my middle names! Nice site 🙂

  2. “…if self-criticism is only seen as contributing to the relationship becoming unhealthy versus also playing a role in the choice of an unhealthy partner to begin with.”

    I can’t imagine it not being a combination of both factors contributing to unhealthy relationships. The things told to me as a child, especially things relating to my appearance and likeability, created within me an intense self-hatred. No one decent could ever want me. Moreover, I was essentially brainwashed into believing there are no decent men out there anyway. Mostly, I’ve remained alone.

    The couple relationships, if you can call them that, I did get myself entangled in were doomed from the start. For the most part, whenever I have waded into romantic relationship waters, I’ve expected to drown. There’s nothing there for me.

    • siamor says:

      As adult survivors we can say that we were practically socialized in this falsehood; negativity. People of all shapes, sizes, looks, and imperfections all over the world are in relationships and are “learning” how to love and have healthy relationships. If we hold on to a grain of hope; we will be open to going on a journey of self-love which might invite a spouse to be to help you happened to me and I am still healing:)

  3. Kerro says:

    It interests me that there’s so much talk about survivors wading into “unhealthy relationships” and very little, from what I’ve seen, about those survivors who can’t wade at all, or can’t find anyone to wade with. ?

  4. I think this can also apply to people who were bullied in school.. like myself. I was bullied by boys and now I have trouble trusting men outside of my family.

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  6. Michele G. Wampole says:

    I agree with Kerro what about those of us that can not wade at all. It seems like an ocean and we are drowing with no life jacket. How do we make it through, if it is even possible?

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  8. siamor says:

    Absentee is a big issue and is now being recognized as a form of abuse. It leaves so many scars of hurt creating desperation in which, I tried to have many methods of trying to pull my father into my life and he expressed love, but rejected a deep meaningful relationship with me every time. In addition, it made me desperate and created such a deep low self esteem and inferiority when dealing with people, especially males. I have also experience a great deal of neglect and verbal abuse. Both my ex step-father and father have been abused in the same way, they have abused me; so it helps me to understand..Abuse can be a learned behavior. This is why judgement is not effective and forgiveness is so healthy. In my relationship with my husband who comes from a culture of collectivity (family oriented) he has never for one day rejected me or made me feel unloved. But when he tells me the truth about my self, I take it very hard. I can say, it hurts my heart very much and because he has noticed this, he has learned how to show me love simultaneously. Like, I had a fast food addiction, he used to ask me why do I continue to buy things that are not healthy for me and also, causing us to have more expenses? Food has always been there when I experienced neglect, rejection, and verbal abuse. I love my husband, but it has been three years and I am just now getting a grip on that. I also thought he was extremely wierd because I was not used to being loved at all; it is still weird for me. I am used to infatuation and chasing fantasies; go figure. So when my husband showed commitment to me; it just does not feel comfortable. My definition of love is different;and I am still getting used to it. He has not ever dissapointed me.

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