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Childhood Emotional Abuse Can Damage Future Intimate Relationships


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.

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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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  • Chase April 5th, 2012 at 10:05 AM #1

    Anything that happens to you like this as a child is certain to skew your future relationships and how you look at other people. You may always wonder if this person is going to hurt you in the same way that those in the past did, so you put up these walls that can feel impossible to break through.

  • dantE April 5th, 2012 at 2:07 PM #2

    If this is the only way that someone has ever treated me, and this is all I know, how am I supposed to know that this is not how I am supposed to treat my own mate?

  • Annie April 6th, 2012 at 6:03 AM #3

    I am a social worker and stories that I see every day in that system make me want to cry. But you keep on going, hoping to get these children through this abuse and get them out on the other side happy and healthy, both physically and emotionally. I don’t think that we realize the depth of the pain and the scars that these children are having to live with, and these are young children who have no idea how to process and work through the grief. Instead many of them will carry this into adulthood with them and they will bear the brunt of it then. The system works hard to try to get kids out of situations like this, but often it is not before a significant amount of damage has already been done.

  • sullivan April 9th, 2012 at 4:45 AM #4

    would be angry, sad, to know that i was derailing any relationship in life due to the abuse i had faced as a child

  • Ali April 24th, 2012 at 1:17 PM #5

    My brother and I are products of CEM. My brother handled it a lot worse than I did. He abused alcohol & drugs, was very hostile, was in and out of jail yet, he could be in control if he wanted to. I, on the other hand, tried to keep busy with extracurricular activities, summer camps, projects, hoping that I could forget things for the moment. It seemed to work, for awhile. I found difficulty in trusting others and feeling close to others, in relationships, which weren’t many. It was even hard for me to accept any kind of compliments or encouragement. I figured people we’re just trying to be nice and it was just something to say. I’m 31 years old, I figured I would be over it by now. I have a 2 year old daughter and I give her the treatment that I wished I had as a child, plenty of hugs, encouragement, I tell her I love her, and talk to her in a respectful manner when she gets out of hand. I would never want her to go through what I went through. The important thing is to stop the cycle from leading into the next generation.

  • admin April 24th, 2012 at 2:40 PM #6

    @ Ali – you have a lot to be proud of and I commend you for being the dad that you are – conscious and loving.

  • Joe May 18th, 2012 at 2:37 AM #7

    I saw some disgusting texts between my wife and her “therapist” who is helping her deal with separation issues and emotional abuse by her father. She was also sexuaually abused by her uncle. She denied having sex with him(therapist), but admitted she was “in love” with him. She agreed the texts were inappropriate and was terrified when I told her I would tell his wife. I then met with him(therapist) and he said it was erotic tranference. That he needed to let her show herself to him to fully understand and deal with her issues. I have several questions. I lover her deeply. We have been separated for 2 years. What should I do? Can I request a copy of al the texts to confirm if they did in fact have sex. I understand you need a court order to get copy of texts. Do I have grounds ot request them in light of a potentially illegal sexual abuse-as defined in the APA? Any answers will help. I am devastated. Hope someone sees this and gives me direction.


  • Tyler September 10th, 2012 at 12:42 AM #8

    Unfortunately My brother and I are products of Cem, My stepmother would undermine anything we could possibly do right, she would insult us, punish us for no reason, repeatedly slap us for her enjoyment unfortunately in the state of connecticut she had every right to do so which is infuriating, the social workers called me a liar because none of the other kids confirmed my story because they didnt want to be punished as well(she had three of her own kids as well). I finally got out of there when i was 17 but my brother is still stuck there and my father wont stand up for us and he wouldnt acknowledge she did anything wrong, since i left there my life has been on a spiral in the downwards direction because of my hate for her and it didnt help that i was the kid everyone picked on in high school because i wouldnt fight back despite my size. since then i failed out of college because i couldnt focus and i needed to escape reality so i turned to books, Ive been trying to get back to who i was before, the confident and happy go lucky child but i dont know what to do, everything says i need to forgive and forget but how can i forgive her when she did it becuase she loved abusing us for her sick pleasures and i constantly have to deal with her if i want to see my dad at all. I dont know what to do, do you guys?

  • AJ October 12th, 2012 at 11:17 AM #9


    I have been in a very committed relationship w/ someone who was the victim of CEM. They texted me last week and told me that ‘I(other person) can’t be there for you 100% because of my childhood exp. I do love you(me) and its not you its me, I can’t marry you, not now, maybe not ever.’ All this was out of the blue, as I thought everything was fine. The other person then told me that they’d been having those feelings for at least 6 months and couldn’t tell me, they were afraid they’d hurt me. So, essentially I was led to believe that they had those feelings I had for them, when they hadn’t, at least not for six months.

    I told the other person I’d rather have them in my life as a friend than not at all, but I really do love this person and want to be with them in a committed relationship. What, if anything can I do to help this person realize that I’m not going to ditch them, or hurt them like they’ve been hurt. I’ve been hurting since then, and it feels like the other is not affected at all.

  • nicola November 22nd, 2012 at 6:55 AM #10

    I am a victim of CEM. And after several relationships i still find myself pushing people away whom i love and hurting both them and myself… this really is my last chance and wandered if anyone can reccomend a book i can read that can help me overcome these feelings i do not understand.

  • lee December 29th, 2012 at 7:48 AM #11

    As a result of emotional abuse I find that I am unable to trust anyone. I often question why people want to talk to me, get to know me and even socialise with me. I question their motives and it is due to low self esteem and lack of self worth. I am 33 and I know that I will never be rid of these feelings and so I just try to get through life the best I can. I’ve never had an intermate relationship and look at what you would call a “normal” life as a fantasy. For me I think the problem lies in that no one talks about emotional abuse and secondly that when society does see it taking place no one speaks out to the perpetrators. Society needs more education and adults need to be held responsible for such actions.

  • Kat February 5th, 2013 at 8:58 PM #12

    Your stepmom treated you the way she would have treated the perfect child. It had nothing to do with you. It was the hate and fear inside of her- possibly from being abused herself. It is her issue. Although that’s not ok and I wish you could get your brother out.
    Holding a grudge is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die. Forgiveness is about setting yourself free.
    Prayer is the best healer I have found. Peace.

  • tora April 16th, 2013 at 3:57 PM #13

    this sounds totally inapropriate. The therapist should be setting healthy appropriate boundarie. He could loose his liscence. Find out what his liscence is and call the liscensure board and report this. I am sorry for both you and your wife. This is wrong.

  • Nikki April 28th, 2013 at 7:30 PM #14

    As a child I transitioned from one abuse to another. I grew up being neglected by my alcoholic mother and then I was both physically and emotionally abused by my adoptive father. I’m 22 now and I still find it extremely difficult to trust others. I tend to isolate myself for fear of someone disapproving of me. Each day though I remind myself that I am worthy of better, fulfilling relationships. If I don’t start to trust people now, I probably never will. Life is about looking forward and letting go of pain. All I can do is know that I was a victim. I was a victim then, but I don’t have to be a victim now.

  • Lisa May 9th, 2013 at 2:19 AM #15

    You have a great atitude!!!!! I am 44 yrs old and I have difficulties with all relationships, don’t be like me and loose your life to the scars of neglect and abuse.


  • Margaret Lopez-Stane May 29th, 2013 at 12:20 PM #16

    I experienced very severe childhood emotional abuse. My mother would threaten that she was going to kill me and cut me up into little pieces to get back at my dad when they were fighting. She would threaten that he would come home and find me dead. She told me often how much she hated me, wished I were dead and that I was a worthless piece of shit. This all started when I was only four years old. I dissociated severely and have PTSD. The abuse happened all of my growing up years. When I was 14 and attempted suicide, my mom told me that she wished I had succeeded in killing myself. My experience led me to search for answers. Although I had gone through other forms of abuse, nothing compared to the emotional abuse. I completed my PH.D in psychology and did my dissertation which revealed what I knew all along – extreme childhood emotional abuse is actually associated with worse outcomes than other forms of childhood abuse. More attention needs to be given to this often neglected form of trauma!

  • anonymous September 3rd, 2013 at 10:43 PM #17

    I am 36 year old male.  Emotional abuse has damaged me for life.  I spent most my youth isolated and locked in a room with no activity or stimulation (not even a book).  My attempt at suicide was when I was five years old.  How a five year old can devise a plan to hang himself with a belt comes from nothing but desperation.

    I was told I was to blame for all my misery.  “you were a horrible child” my mother says, even today.

    At the end of it all, it has left me with lifelong emotional problems.  I have always suffered from anxieties, especially social anxieties.  I also suffer from chronic depression.  I never had much self esteem or desire to excel.  I can not bond or connect with others and choose to isolate myself (much like when I was locked away in my youth).  I am very distrustful of others and have no trust for anyone.  I never experienced love, support, or had anyone to confide in.

    But I keep pushing on. Reading some of these comments lets me know that I am not alone. The best we can do is try to prevent the abuse of children.

  • Grew up in care from age 2 September 19th, 2013 at 12:32 PM #18

    Hello people, Great info. My family was slowly placed together in a children’s home.The couple who ran the place? Alcoholic and abusive male, verbal, emotional and physically abusive female. WHY!!!! I have lost one brother to alcohol abuse, one is in a mental institution, one is floating from place to place. A sister who is full of hatred …. (big family)… I have 2 fabulous kids now, although they do take advantage of me. My survival route are self help books. The best one so far is “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle. This helps you focus on today. For people in a relationship with someone with CEM, DON’T give up. It took the father of my children aprox 30 attempts of me threatening to leave. We had 10 pretty good years together. Congratulations to everyone who has survived. You’re doin’ great!

  • Slyncro September 26th, 2013 at 10:55 PM #19

    What’s worse is that sometimes, you end up not minding that you don’t trust anyone. You figure that even though you feel alone, at least you don’t hurt. But is that really a way to live?

  • Gabby November 11th, 2013 at 11:56 PM #20

    I am a 33 yr old woman…I am a victim of child sexual abuse from ages 7 to 11. My mothers boyfriend was in charge of me when she worked and he took full advantage. The hardest part was I told my father then my mother six months into it. They exploded w rage only to ignore it soon after. The abuse continued over three more yrs with my abuser scaring me out of my wits with

    death threats. Pointing a finger in my
    face and threatening my pets life, then
    my family, then me…ever I told again. I
    have never had a healthy long term relationship w a man. I am afraid I am damaged for life and struggle with the fear that no man could want me or will understand me. Time will tell. Be a voice for children who cannot speak.

  • Cheryl November 22nd, 2013 at 4:22 PM #21

    I feel this kind of pain every day of my life. I isolate myself to keep from getting hurt even more but to thoughts and rejection never leave me. If you want to talk please send me an email , it won’t erase anything but to have someone to talk to will help. Someone who can relate and cares. Not someone who gets paid for it. Need a friend

  • GT Support November 22nd, 2013 at 4:38 PM #22

    Thank you for your comment, Cheryl. We wanted to provide links to some resources that may be relevant to you here. We have more information about what to do in a crisis at http://www.goodtherapy.org/in-crisis.html

    Warm regards,
    The GoodTherapy.org Team

  • Cheryl November 22nd, 2013 at 4:51 PM #23

    I will try to stay positive but if I fail please forgive me. I only seek to build others up but I myself have issues as well. I talk to God many times a day and sometimes I ask Why?I say sometimes because over the years of reading his word I now have images of Jesus on that cross and none of my pain compares to that. I now ask him to help me go through these hard times. I’m 49 and I haven’t found love or trust or a friend but he sent me a puppy who is 6 yrs. Old and needs me. She has lost her sight and it is painful and she depends on me to give her the meds. I cry for her. I know our time will come when all my tears will be wiped away and with that hope, which Jesus promised, is what will help each of us get through another day. I’m here if you want to talk. We are alike in many ways. Reach out help is on the way.

  • Natasha November 23rd, 2013 at 10:14 AM #24

    I don’t know what to say or how to say it. Today is the first day i have done any research on this. I’m going crazy being scared of literately everything that has to do with people. I’m scared to go to stores, I shake with fear just to put gas in my car. Even if i use my card at the pump. I recently and i guess still am in the process of a divorce, and my ex’s (my old house) is the only place I can go to feel any sort of calm and safe. I’m even terrified of my family. I want to start my new life but I’m to afraid to do ANY thing. Its frustrating me so much. I never used to be like this, and I don’t know how it got this bad! No one seems to understand what I’m talking about! And I’m to afraid to go to a doctor! That is almost the worst fear of all of them. I’m only 25 I don’t want to live like this and the way I feel I’m almost ready to give up! I just want to be normal!

  • Tyler November 27th, 2013 at 9:41 PM #25

    I’m 18 and I struggle with this daily. My bio dad walked out and I have no memory of him and my adoptive dad beat the fuck out of mom and out of me. The abuse my mom endured changed her from a loving caring mother to a very neglectful an hurtful woman. Today I am married with a baby on the way and I struggle with alcohol abuse, I spend about 4-5 nights a week drunk, not to mention our marriage problems. I can’t trust anyone. I speed home from work with anxiety expecting to find my wife with another man, on multiple occasions I’ve busted through my door ready to beat down another man multiple times only to find my wife asleep waiting for me. I always think she’s eventually gunna hurt me, cheat on me , lie to me, try to take my child away from me. I love her to death but this constant anxiety bothers me. I can’t walk around town without feeling like I’m going to be attacked, it’s very rare if I get along with someone and if I don’t I have a very strong hatred for them. I don’t know what to do anymore. It’s like I thrive on my life being in chaos, things will be good and I’ll be happy then I sabotage myself and make myself miserable again.

  • Elisha February 17th, 2014 at 10:10 AM #26

    I went in and out of care 13 times by five and half years old, we were waiting to go back to our mum, she died on us. Went into a long term foster placement where we were abused emotionally to the point where i was in complete state, very suicidal by the time i left severe depression by the age of eight onwards. Seven years and a lot of hard work later and I am much better with no depression but have severe trust issues, if anyone reading this has successfully overcome these trust issues, including how to identify healthy people I would love to hear how you did it. Many thanks :)

  • Elisha February 17th, 2014 at 10:17 AM #27

    To Tyler, your currently trapped in a self perpetuating cycle, that you are inflicting on your wife. Continue to be a nightmare to live with and she probably will leave you… she must have low self esteem to tolerate your behaviour, but she must also love you very much :) learn to be be grateful and honour her commitment, and learn to honour yourself aswell…(really need to follow my own advice here!) you need to stop reacting to stuff and take time out to sit with your behaviour and learn to manage it, take charge of the person you want to be…when you get paranoid stop your thoughts spiralling out of control and remind yourself she innocent until proven guilty not when you decide to ALLOW your thoughts to go on a rampage…alos you need to stop drinking your doing it to protect yourself becaus you feel threatened by life and you need to face it head on…good luck, sorry if it came across as brutally put i meant it nicely :D good luck! x

  • ashley February 25th, 2014 at 8:19 AM #28

    When I was a child I was abused heavily by my dad. I’m 24, finishing school and I have a loving boyfriend who adores me but it doesn’t fix the fact my dad used to come to my room when I was 5 and push me and shove, hit me. I have a really good memory so I remember it all. I remember right after he pushed me I was deciding if I should get back up cause he may kick me when he leaves or if I should stay down. I stayed down. But as a 6 Year old this shouldn’t of ever happened to me. I remember running back to my room and just sat there staring at my face in the mirror wondering and confused as to why this happened to me. No child should go thru this ever. I feel like I really missed out on having a childhood and a dad that I see other people have, loving supporting just great. Since I was a child, I have been physically. And mentally abused and I’m embarrassed because of it. I feel like it’s my fault, he’s shook me, pulled my hair, dragged me, hit me. Told me to get my act together cause if I don’t he will end. Up in jail cause he will kill me. You think a dad would be more. Worried about his dead daughter than being stuck in jail.. guess not.
    I cry a lot wishing this never happened sometimes I think I’m being dramatic but Idno. I remember this one time he came to my room when I was 15-16 I did something that wasn’t so bad but he hit me and thru down all the pictures I had in frames on my shelves. It took me forever to put those pictures up. I told myself one day I’m going to have an amazing husband and I’ll be able to make our house a home and put as many pictures up of us, our kids, friends and no one will throw them down. My mom never stood up for me, she’s been abused by him as well. I wish my mom would of stood up for me. Last summer he verbally abused me and I felt horrible, said so many things to me that will forever remain with me. Since then he has been trying to. Be nicer to me but it’s too late. He should have been nicer when I was a little girl. When I needed it the most. It’s way too late now. I can’t forgive him, he’s ruined me when it comes to my confidence, me. Feeling pretty, me feeling like I’m worth something. I mean I have an amazing boyfriend who I will marry we have been together for a long time but my boyfriend can’t fix what my dad did to me. He can only be there. I really can’t wait to have kids either, I really want a little girl so I can love her the way I needed to be loved and I know her dad (my boyfriend) will treat her like his princess and will never do to her what my dad did. Through this I hope I find some strength to move on from what I been through. I really needed a loving dad and a supportive mom. Never had that. I will never ever forgive my dad. It’s too late damage has been done. Damage that will live on with me forever. I hope he understands one day. I could go on forever on how many times he’s abused me but I’ll stop now. I really hope to find a good mother and dad in my boyfriends parents. A dad especially. It’s life I guess, not always perfect but you find the best in it and be strong. I hope to be the best mommy to my children one day. They deserve that. All kids do. I can’t wait to start my own family. I can’t. Wait..

  • Laura March 28th, 2014 at 11:50 PM #29

    I happened upon this site to find out how to help my boyfriend. After 3 years he has finally started to share more about the abuse he endored as a child. I was horrified to discover that he was regularly wipe with a 9 tail leather cat wipe. Even more horrific that he was punished by having his hand placed on a hot stove burner for just being a silly kid. My heart goes to everyone and can’t even fathom how a parent could wish their 5 year old child dead. I’m very sad and angry!! Sending you all a great big hug xoxo. Please if anyone has any advise to share how I can help my boyfriend who is now 53 years old heal his pain it would be greatly appreciated!!

  • Charlotte March 31st, 2014 at 3:19 AM #30

    When I was 2 my mum married my step dad, she became pregnant with my brother and everything was fine, I rememeber my mum asking dad if she could hold my either and he said no, you have Charlotte. My mum pleaded with him for a while to no avail. I should probably mention that my step dad is bipolar. My brother had problems with asthma so was always really poorly but as a child I felt he was her favorite, I do understand her worries but that’s how I felt. When I was 5 my 2nd brother was born. At this point my mum would cuddle with my first bro and my dad with my 2nd bro, that was that unless we were all alone in which case my first bro would get all the attention of dad whilst me and my 2nd bro would watch on, untill dad invited my 2nd bro for cuddles then they would both look my way a grin, I used to hit out due to my feelings and so my bros wouldn’t play with me. Mum worked the most whilst dad stayed home with us, the boys would be playing upstairs whilst dad would be watching the footie or whatever sports was on, he didn’t like being distracted or spoken to either, one day he told me to go and play with the boys, after they told me no (they were taking the new toys apart with their michano tool set) I can sit and watch so I sat on the stairs, he kept telling me to go and play so I told him to f*** off, I was 8 years old, so he ran and got the soap chased me up the stairs and rinsed my mouth out. I ten went to bed untill mum got home, this went on for years even in the old house. I rememeber one time I spent the day in bed whilst dad and the boys watched sports with each other I was only 5, because I screamed and shouted I was ‘naughty’ so when mum got home I was so happy to see her, she put dinner on and we waited at the table whilst she dished it up, whilst waiting me and the boys were playing (bickering) the boys got there dinner first (mash beans and sausages, my favorite) when mum brought mine in she screamed hat up and smashed my dinner across the wall sending me to bed. I was so confused. She eventually came up offering me a sarnie. I think I accepted one. As I write this I am currently in a relationship with a great man, he too had a damaging childhood receiving emotional and physical abuse from his mother putting him and his younger siblings in care at the drop of a hat whilst they begged not to go. Sometimes I over react and lash out at him, the things I say to him really cut deep ”no one wants you, I hate you, it’s I over,) I push him away and tell him not to touch me I also throw things at him it’s not fair and it’s damaging him further more but not only that I think it’s affecting me and my mental health, I love him so much but he feels he is constantly treading on egg shells around me and I hate that, I’m 25 and he is 30. When I was 17 I moved out of my mums and in with an abusive ex who bullied me about my looks and guilted me into having painful sex, he was too rough and I wasn’t aroused enough. I should mention my step dad and mum split when I was 12 and she got a boyfriend who was great when I was 13. I should also mention that when I was 12 and mum and dad were working on their marriage we (kids) including 2yr old sister went to stay with family friends, the woman has been in our lives forever and her husband no so long, she worked all week in London whilst he stayed home with us. In that week he told me to have a shower without locking the door and proceeded to walk in on me in the shower in the nude, he tried to come into my bedroom one night but Karen said no she’s too old to be tucked in. When she wS at work and the kids were playing outside I was watching telly, he picked my legs up and opened and closed them my trousers had slipped down exposing my bum I tried pulling them up whilst he put my feet against his privates and told me to push (exercise) as he put it whilst he pushed against me pushing my knees to my chest/chin I said I didn’t want to almost crying so he let go, I then said I want to use the computer no go outside In the cold garden to play (anxiety causes me to get cold easily) so he said yes I could only he put his hand only hand standing over me so both hands are on the desk it was too much for me I wasn’t used to the attention and closeness from this man it wasn’t wanted not even my step dad or mums husband ever behaved like this towards me just this man. Someone’s I think I’m crazy any advice would be appreciated xx

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