Angela Leong
Written & Posted by Angela LeongRegistered Clinical Counsellor, Founder of AEM

The Impact of Childhood on Adult Romantic Relationships

28 Nov, 2018
Three hearts in a grid

So we’ve been talking about a lot about parent-child relationships the several posts. Perhaps some of you can connect to this material right away and are taken right back into the most devastating moments of your childhood. Perhaps some of you require more of a why.

So why is it important to do a deep dive into childhood experiences? Research finds that not only are adverse childhood experiences linked to greater rates of depression, drug use, and health problems, it shapes our ability to function in relationships. The relationship we had with our early childhood caregivers unconsciously governs how we act and react in relationships. They often say that when you are married to someone, you are not just married to that one person, you are also married to their mother and father. We often unconsciously treat our romantic partners the way our parents treated us. Alternatively, we can also we react to our romantic partners the way we reacted to our parents throughout our childhood and adolescent development.

Childhood experiences also govern the beliefs and expectations we have about relationships and thereby has an effect on the relationships we choose. Freud was not completely off the mark when he said that as children, we have sexual desires for our mother and fathers. We may not literally have sexual desires for our parents, but we end up choosing romantic partners who treat us the way that our parents did.

Take, for example, the story of Frances. Frances felt like she knew where she was going in life: she was in school studying architecture and working part-time as an assistant in an architecture firm. However, she felt constantly unsure about how to move the relationship forward with her boyfriend of five-years, Hector. She was attracted to ambitious men like Hector because she considered herself a go-getter. She wanted to be understanding to the fact that he worked long hours but she wished for Hector to be more inclined to connect at the end of the workday instead of turning to video games or television shows to unwind. Frances came into therapy feeling confused about her needs. She did not understand why she felt so upset with Hector all the time. After a few sessions, she realized she felt empty in her relationship with Hector and she realized that this feeling was not far from how she felt as a child: confused about her needs and starving for affection. It had dawned on her that she had accepted these behaviours from Hector because it was something that she was familiar with and used to.

As Frances reveals more in therapy, she begins describing her mother as distant and cold. This experience in her early childhood relationships normalized cold and distant relationships as being acceptable. At the start of therapy, Frances thought that she would be able to tolerate “a man’s tendency to want space” but the more she talked, the more she realized that she was desiccating from the emotional starvation she felt and no amount of tears from her eyes would be enough to nourish the emotionally parched relationship she was in.

If you’re in a happy relationship, the most loving gift you can give to your partner is taking an honest, hard look at your childhood and adolescent experiences. Look at the neglect, confusion, pain, loss, and betrayals experienced in those times and the pattern of behaviours that have led you to have the viewpoints and habits you have now. If you are in a relationship that you feel ambivalent or confused about, it’s crucial that you seek therapy. Without awareness, we are at the whim of our unconscious beliefs, expectations, and behaviours.

To start exploring some of you childhood experience and how they affect your current day relationships, call 604-800-9285 or email us today.

To Read More About Adverse Childhood Experiences See:

  • Anda, R.F., Felitti, V.J., Bremner, J.D. et al. Eur Arch Psychiatry Clin Neurosci (2006) 256: 174.
  • Daniel P. Chapman, Charles L. Whitfield, Vincent J. Felitti, Shanta R. Dube, Valerie J. Edwards, Robert F. Anda, (2004). Adverse childhood experiences and the risk of depressive disorders in adulthood, Journal of Affective Disorders, Volume 82, Issue 2, Pages 217-225.
  • Anda, R.F., Felitti, V.J., Bremner, J.D. et al. (2006). The enduring effects of abuse and related adverse experiences in childhood. Eur Arch Psychiatry Clin Neurosci, 256: 174.
  • Shanta R Dube, Vincent J Felitti, Maxia Dong, Wayne H Giles, Robert F Anda. (2003). The impact of adverse childhood experiences on health problems: evidence from four birth cohorts dating back to 1900, Preventive Medicine, Volume 37, Issue 3, Pages 268-277

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