You are a sponge. Even as children, you absorb more than you realize — your relationships, your experiences, your surroundings. All those moments, the hurt, the loss, the love and the support, it’s all sucked up into your little being.

It becomes a part of who you are, how you communicate and how you filter emotions. It molds you into the adult who you are right now, including your relationships.

For good or bad, for repeated heartbreak or countless needy partners, your current love life is a puzzle — the pieces formed from past experiences. And let’s face it, it’s the negative childhood experiences that most impact your adult relationships. It’s the abandonment, abuse and neglect of your youth that wreak havoc on your life today.

You may feel this truth deep inside you. However, you should know that you can heal from the past and break free from the cycles of unhealthy relationships that hold you captive.

First, you must understand how your past influences your present.

As a life coach, individuals therapist and couples counselor in Greenville, SC, I often spend time with my clients talking about how the traumas of childhood often originate from a break in the bond between child and parent. It’s a disruption of the most foundational relationship. The relationship between you and your parents helps or hinders your emotional growth: how you view your emotions, how you react to your own emotions and those of others, and how you communicate your emotions.

An example of a type of trauma that can hurt your emotional growth is abandonment.

When you begin life with a parent(s) who abandons you, you grow up feeling unworthy of love. They left you, so you feel as though you don’t warrant the attention and the affection of others. Deep inside, you think it is your fault that your parent abandoned you.

As an adult, you feel as though you must convince your partners and your friends to be with you. You chase love, and you feel like you need someone to love you. You will do whatever you can for love.

And I mean “love.”

You see, people who have been abandoned often do not really know what true love is. They equate “staying” with love. That is because in their first intimate relationship, their parent left them. So as an adult, if someone stays, that seems like love. They look past lies, cheating and abuse because all they want is their partner to stay. They will attempt to “save” or “fix” their partner just so they will not leave.

You might have friends or co-workers who stay in horrible relationships, and their devotion to a lying, cheating  partner boggles the mind. You do not understand why. Well, it goes deep, and your friend may not even be aware of the emotional wounds and dynamics that are being opened and played out in their relationships.

Understandably, the effects are just as potent for adults who suffer abuse as a child: sexual, physical or emotional.

Abuse takes a traumatic hold on those who are not able to process their experiences in healthy ways.

Someone who was abused as a child often grows up to equate abuse with love. Someone who was abused as a child may grow to feel that “abuse is what happens when someone loves me” or that they deserve the abuse because of the shame they felt as a child.

With emotional abuse — for example, their parent was overly critical of them, making them feel shame or guilt for their actions and emotions — they may grow up to have trust issues. That’s because they feel if they can’t trust family or adults, who can they trust? They always feel as though they are at risk of being taken advantage of or abused. And usually tend to have low self esteem or exaggerated “false” high esteem.

And then there is neglect.

For a child, that means having no steady place to stay, living in a home where the lights or heat are not always on and food is not often in the refrigerator. They may not have clothes that fit or coats and boots during winter.

Neglect, in this sense, forces the child to take on adult responsibilities, mindsets and roles. The child is forced to relate to the world in an adult way but, of course, with only a child’s intellect and emotional capability. They begin to pretend as best they can to be an adult — they “wear a mask” — to help them survive. It is a way to protect themselves, but inside they are scared and confused.

As an adult, the neglected child avoids intimate relationships because they do not want others to get too close. They do not want people to see who they really are, may appear emotionless, fearful of emotional connection, controlling and manipulative. They may fear confronting issues and look to escape from problems in relationships.

Childhood Trauma & Relationship Cycles

To help you understand even more how these childhood traumas influence how you interact with your partner, I created a story that gives insight into what I see as a couples counselor and relationship therapist. And although this story is specific, the effects of childhood trauma can be interchangeable. Meaning, a child who was neglected, abused and/or abandoned may exhibit different ranges of the adult behaviors we have discussed.

Okay, story time!  Let us say that a girl grows up without her father who, like her mother, is a teen parent. Her father is in her life until she is 6 years old, but he begins to drift into a new life and start another family. Eventually, he takes himself out of her life completely, and the girl’s mother is forced to raise her child by herself.

Her mother struggles financially, but she works hard. She provides food and shelter and clothing, and she even makes birthdays and holidays special. The girl admires her mother, but because her mother works often, the girl is left with her maternal grandmother. Later, when the girl is old enough, she stays home by herself, which leaves a void in her emotional needs.

The girl grows up wondering about her father. Why did he leave? Did she say or do something to make him want to go? Whenever she asks her mother, she just says, “We don’t need him.”

But the truth is the young girl does need him.

She also needs affection and emotional support, encouragement and someone to believe in who she is, to talk to her about relationships.

So that’s why the girl begins to develop this mindset: My mom struggles because my father left. The girl does not want to struggle and she does not want to be alone, so she begins to equate future happiness with having a man or love. Deep down, she truly believes it is her fault that her father left, which means she “assumes the responsibility”  to keep the one she loves in her life.

At the age of 13, she has middle school crushes. Then there are high school boyfriends. And then college boyfriends. No matter where she is, she always has a feeling that she must be in a relationship to feel validated, to feel loved. With each partner, she latches on and gives all of herself quickly. She stops her life for her partner. Remember, to people who have been abandoned as a child, staying and love are the same thing. So no matter how unhealthy or hurtful the relationship becomes, the girl only wants her partner to stay.

So now, her love life has become a cycle that is constantly revolving. She makes the same mistakes over and over and over again, because that’s all she knows. Specifically, I call this the immersed cycle, which describes someone with abandonment issues who immerses themselves into the lives and emotions of their partners.

Now, let’s give the girl a partner.

A boy grows up with a mother who is neglectful. She works during the day, and she spends most nights at her boyfriend’s house. His mother often forgets to keep food in the house, and the lights and heat occasionally get shut off.

His clothes always seem too small, too dirty, too stinky and not warm enough. Because of it, he gets teased, which affects his self-esteem. It also affects his confidence in his mother to provide and protect him.

While his mother acts as though nothing is wrong, he begins to take an active role in holding his mom accountable for putting food on the table and making sure the bills are paid. He starts questioning her about paying the bills: When are they due? Will she be able to pay? Will she remember to pay?

He takes on the adult role in the house, and he starts worrying about adult responsibilities, which limits his ability to be a child.

At 16, he gets a job to help out with the finances. His mother does not say thank you or acknowledge his effort. In fact, she begins to depend on the money. She even starts to micromanage him, which builds resentment in the teenage boy.

But he is also conflicted, because she is his mother. And the conflicted nature of their relationship only continues as he gets older: She continues to rely on him and she increasingly feels as though her son owes her, which leads to manipulation. She tries to control the boy by putting the responsibility of taking care of her on him.

As the boy becomes an adult, he adopts his mother’s emotional extremes — either being too emotional and needy or withdrawn and aloof. This emotional tug-of-war certainly affects his adult relationships. In fact, he feels like he has to pretend to be someone he isn’t in order for others to like, love and appreciate him. Outside, he is happy and fun and even charming. Inside, he is scared and confused.

Remember the “mask” worn by the adult who suffered neglect as a child? This is how it plays out.

When he meets someone, he initially appears to be kind and thoughtful, and then as the relationship grows, his emotional extremes set in. He never learned to be himself, to be confident in who he is. He didn’t learn about balanced emotions because he was forced to be an adult too soon.

The Mask

He goes from one relationship to another — putting on the mask and taking it off each time. He wants his partner to love the person he pretends to be, but when there is pressure on the relationship, he can no longer keep up the facade.

Then he blames his partner for the conflict, for maybe not being exciting enough, for being too critical, for the relationship ending. He attempts to control his partners’ emotions to control their actions.

I call this the avoidant cycle. As we discussed earlier, a person who has experienced neglect learns how to survive at a young age.

So they develop this “me against the world” mentality and use it as a defense mechanism to avoid being responsible for how their actions affect their partner.

Expressing emotions and showing empathy are HUGE challenges for the avoidant person.

Neglected Boy Meets Abandoned Girl

Usually a person in an avoidant cycle and a person in an immersed cycle come together like love at first sight.

They feel like they have met the one. Why? Because the immersed girl gives of herself freely. She makes him a priority, gives unconditional love. To the boy who was neglect by his mother, that love resembles what? A mother’s love.

The immersed girl falls in love with our avoidant boy because he is responsible, mature beyond his years and does not allow emotions to dictate decisions. He is stable and protective. That, to the girl who was abandoned by her father, resembles what? A father’s presence.

So they both have the qualities of a parent who first taught them about love and relationships. Subconsciously, the child in them is attracted to the qualities of the parent they needed the most but who was not there.

This is deep, right?

However, the qualities that are initially attractive become triggers. Their partners have the traits of the parent who hurt them so the partner can very easily trigger the negative feelings caused by their parent’s actions.

For example, the immersed girl has learned the patterns or actions that hint that her partner is getting ready to leave. So from her perception, if her partner doesn’t do something exactly as he said he would or stops showing her as much attention, she goes into “save it” or “fix it” mode.

She tries to spend more time with him and surrenders more to his needs and wants.

She asks constantly about long-term relationship goals, to feel “safe” again, and becomes jealous when he spends time with others.

This triggers her avoidant boyfriend. Because he was neglected as a child, one of his triggers is expectation. If he feels forced into something — even if it makes sense, even if he wants to do it — he feels like that little boy whose mom neglected him and forced him into adulthood.

It causes him to withdraw from the relationship or sabotage it because his partner is “too” something. Too needy, too clingy, too boring, too loving, too critical.

Remember that his emotions are based on extremes. He does not know how to communicate about feelings or understand a balanced give-and-take relationship. He only knows how to give too much or take too much.

So they trigger each other, causing a lose-lose relationship cycle. Because you can’t make someone love you by running after them and you can’t express your love to someone by running away.

So can this couple make it work? Can they have a win-win relationship? Can they have their happily ever after?

The short answer is, of course, yes. But they both would need to be AWARE of their relationship cycle and ACCOUNTABLE for their actions.  It will take the both of them to give 100% effort and commitment.

This is why getting support from a couples counselor or therapist is vital in helping you begin healing from the trauma of your childhood. Becoming aware of how your childhood trauma affects you today and taking responsibility for your actions in your adult relationships.

As you can see, this topic has many layers to it and I plan on peeling them all back!

My intention this year is to guide you to go deeper…deep into those experiences that are holding you back from the life and relationship you deserve.

We will discuss relationships cycles more in my next blog and video, focusing on how childhood trauma can lead to codependency in relationships. And ways therapy can help individuals and couples heal from past trauma.

In the meantime, if you need help breaking free from unhealthy, destructive relationships cycles, I can offer support and insight.

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