Children who have been victims of maltreatment can develop emotion regulation problems that affect many areas of their lives. Some survivors of abuse can experience symptoms of posttraumatic stress, anxiety, and depression throughout life. Coping and relational skills learned in childhood form the foundation from which future behaviors evolve. It has been hypothesized that women who survived maltreatment, in the form of physical or sexual abuse or neglect, will have sexual challenges in adult relationships. To test this theory, Alessandra H. Rellini of the Department of Psychology at the University of Vermont conducted a study involving 192 women ranging in age from 18 to 25.
The study focused on how emotional regulation, childhood maltreatment, sexual expression, sexual satisfaction, and relationship intimacy were associated in the context of committed adult relationships. The women in the study completed online surveys describing the type of abuse they experienced and their level of intimacy, affectionate expression, and sexual satisfaction in their current relationships. Rellini found that the more severe the childhood abuse was that the women experienced, the more unsatisfied they were in their adult relationships. This was true with respect to general and sexual relationship satisfaction. The severity of abuse also directly predicted the severity of emotional regulation impairment, which could be indirectly influential of satisfaction.
In contrast to Rellini’s predictions, however, the findings did not demonstrate any association between emotional regulation impairment and intimacy or emotional expression. This was rather surprising, as previous research has suggested that abuse survivors tend to have challenges sustaining emotionally healthy sexual relationships. One factor that may have contributed to these results is the broad categorization of abuse used in this study. Specifically, this study did not examine sexual abuse separately from emotional or physical abuse to determine each type of abuse’s independent effect on emotional regulation. Despite this limitation, Rellini believes her findings provide evidence of unique correlations between childhood maltreatment and adult relationships for women, but more work needs to be done. “Research is now needed to explore the stability of such ﬁndings over time in order to determine the time course and sequencing of change between the studied variables,” she said.
Rellini, Alessandra H., Anka A. Vujanovic, Myani Gilbert, and Michael J. Svolensky. Childhood maltreatment and difficulties in emotion regulation: Associations with sexual and relationship satisfaction among young adult women. Journal of Sex Research 49.5 (2012): 434-42. Print.
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