The Impact of a Tough Upbringing on Adult Relationships

The scars of childhood trauma often condition present relationships. Keep reading to learn more!
The Impact of a Tough Upbringing on Adult Relationships
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 15 November, 2021

Insecurity, affective dependence, low self-esteem, abusive bonds. It’s difficult to determine the impact of a tough upbringing on adult relationships, as many factors play a role. In fact, psychologists have been studying this for a long time. After all, each person is an individual and the consequences they’ll face after a childhood full of mistreatment, abuse, or lack of affection are very particular.

However, one thing does underlie most of these cases: the shadow of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Now, it’s vital to remember that every childhood experience is crucial for emotional development. Everything you experience when you’re young outlines the foundations of your psychological well-being and mental vulnerability.

As Agatha Christie pointed out, “One of the luckiest things that can happen to you in life is, I think, to have a happy childhood”.  However, sadly, this doesn’t always happen. Believe it or not, many individuals carry a past of broken pieces and open wounds with them that continue to condition their present.

The impact of a tough upbringing on adult relationships

Childhood trauma is more common than you’d think. The University of Zurich, the University of Vermont, and Virginia Commonwealth University all worked together to conduct a study. The researchers concluded that about 60 percent of the children who participated had experienced some traumatic event.

This figure is undoubtedly very high. However, it’s important to bear in mind the great variability of adverse events that one can experience in the first years of life. For example, the abandonment of a parent , the death of a loved one, witnessing family violence, suffering abuse, psychological violence, not getting enough attention, and being a victim of bullying, among others.

Likewise, a fact that they pointed out in this study is that a complicated childhood casts a long and complicated shadow throughout the person’s entire life. Thus, they run the risk of suffering from various psychiatric disorders and having a hard time establishing relationships with others.

Now you may be wondering what the impact of a tough upbringing on adult relationships is. Interested? Keep reading!

A woman with her eyes closed.

Identity development issues

The foundations of an individual’s identity develop during childhood and adolescence. While it’s true that they’ll continue to develop into adulthood, it’s also necessary to consolidate solid pillars. Basically, the person must learn to trust themselves and others. They can achieve this through those around them, people who represent secure attachments.

The brain development of those who grew up constantly feeling rejected and threatened is affected. Feeling angsty hinders the opportunity to build a confident, strong, and optimistic identity. All this will make it difficult to build quality relationships because the person won’t know what they want.

A feeling of emptiness that no one can fill + destructive relationships

Now, the impact of a tough upbringing on adult relationships can be seen in a very common pattern: the feeling of emptiness. Those who had a rough childhood tend to feel that everything is wrong once they reach adulthood. They feel empty and they don’t know why. Thus, and almost without even realizing it, they seek other people so they can appease this longing and fill those gaps left by a complicated childhood.

Therefore, it’s very difficult for them to build solid and satisfactory relationships. They usually expect everything from others and end up frustrated and hurt. Believe it or not, those who suffered trauma in their childhood often build destructive relationships in adulthood. They end up tolerating manipulation, deception, and toxic relationships or friendships just to have someone around them. Anything to fill those emotional voids, anything to feel less alone.

Attachment disorders

One of the effects of a difficult childhood is alterations in the attachment process. We all know that it’s healthy to establish mature and secure attachments that allow you to love fearlessly and freely.

Well, when someone suffers trauma in their childhood, they’ll likely suffer attachment alterations when establishing affective bonds. These are the dynamics that usually appear:

  • Avoidant or insecure attachment. In this case, the individual prefers to maintain their independence in order not to get hurt again. In the event that they start a relationship, lack of trust, the inability to open up to the other, and the clear impossibility of fully loving will always be present.
  • Anxious attachment. This is the opposite of avoidant attachment. In this case, there’s a great need to bond with the other. That person’s dependence is so great that, instead of feeling happiness, they only feel fear. They don’t want the other to leave or stop loving them.
A man feeling worried and sad while thinking about how his upbringing affects his adult relationships.

How does a difficult upbringing affect adult relationships?

All children want their parents to love them and take care of them. In many cases, children do everything they can to please their parents, make them proud, and get their attention. Little by little, they end up creating a false self that just wants to be appreciated, valued, and loved. In a matter of time, that desperate resource integrates into them, which they begin to use for almost any situation.

Thus, they start adopting toxic behaviors in order to make friends, be visible to others, and make their partner love them, as their parents didn’t. The “false self” can work sometimes, but there comes a day when the “authentic self” cries out for help. Deep inside, there’s anger, frustration, anguish, and deep sadness. Those underlying emotions will eventually emerge in one way or another.

“Unexpressed emotions will never die. They’re buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.”

-Sigmund Freud-

In short, if you’re wondering about the impact of a tough upbringing on adult relationships, the answer can be summed up in one word: unhappiness. It isn’t easy to function as an adult when there’s a wounded child inside you that wasn’t cared for properly. You have to work on that trauma in order to move forward and achieve balance and well-being.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Dye, H. (2018). The impact and long-term effects of childhood trauma. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment28(3), 381–392.
  • Estévez, A., Chávez-Vera, M. D., Momeñe, J., Olave, L., Vázquez, D., & Iruarrizaga, I. (2018). The role of emotional dependence in the relationship between attachment and impulsive behavior. Anales de Psicologia34(3), 438–445.
  • Vargas, T., Lam, P. H., Azis, M., Osborne, K. J., Lieberman, A., & Mittal, V. A. (2019, October 24). Childhood trauma and neurocognition in adults with psychotic disorders: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Schizophrenia Bulletin. Oxford University Press.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.