Childhood emotional maltreatment (CEM) can have lingering effects. Adults who suffered mistreatment as children often struggle emotionally and socially throughout their lives as a result of being neglected or emotionally abused. Although there is an abundance of literature and research that focuses on the negative impact of childhood maltreatment (CM) in general, there is little available clinical evidence documenting the devastating effects of CEM. It has been well established that CM, including sexual and physical abuse, can increase the risk for depression, anxiety, substance misuse, and a host of other emotional problems. However, for adults who experienced CEM, one of the most difficult challenges they face is cultivating a healthy romantic relationship.
CEM can significantly deteriorate one’s self-esteem and erode an individual’s ability to trust another person. Beliefs about one’s value and worth and a bond of trust are the foundation of a healthy intimate relationship. This foundation can be further compromised when CEM survivors exhibit body-image dissatisfaction, which is often manifested through disordered eating behaviors. To provide more detailed evidence of the long-term consequences of CEM on relationships, Dana Lassri of the Stress & Risk and Resilience Research Lab at the Department of Psychology at Ben-Gurion University in Israel examined the stability and satisfaction of intimate relationships in a sample of college students with a history of CEM in two separate studies. Lassri found that CEM directly impacted relationship fulfillment in the participants by way of self-criticism. Specifically, Lassri discovered that the participants with CEM had extremely low levels of self-value, exhibited difficulty coping with stress, and held negative attitudes about life events.
The results also revealed that the individuals who had posttraumatic stress due to the CEM were less able to realize their self-worth and had significant problems maintaining relationship satisfaction. This could be caused by internalizing behaviors due to the abuse or by a child’s inability to properly comprehend their circumstances. Either way, Lassri believes that even though these findings were gathered from college-age individuals, the behaviors could potentially worsen throughout adulthood. Lassri added, “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.”
Lassri, D., Shahar, G. (2012). Self-criticism mediates the link between childhood emotional maltreatment and young adults’ romantic relationships.” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 31.3, 289-311.
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