Everyone Struggles in Relationships. Why?

By Rick Isenberg - 10/15/2019


Everyone struggles in relationships, especially with their intimate partners. Some people struggle a great deal and can see patterns showing up over and over again in relationship after relationship.

Why is this? What makes relationships so difficult and why do we see the same challenges showing up over and over?

Recent research has looked at relationship difficulties through the lens childhood adversity and asked the question “what is the impact of childhood abuse, neglect, and trauma on our relationships?” No one has a perfect childhood. I thought I did… until I started looking deeper and asking myself hard questions. In all my years at PCS, I am yet to meet someone who emerged from childhood entirely unwounded. And do I see my childhood issues playing out in my marriage? You bet I do!

We have learned a lot in the past 20 years about the lasting impact of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). The ACE Study, conducted in the late 1990s, startled the medical world by showing conclusively that different forms of childhood trauma, alone or in aggregate, increase the risk of many major mental health and physical health problems—by up to 5 or 10 times (or more!). The study called out specifically the risk associated with ten childhood risk factors: physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, emotional neglect, physical neglect, and living in a home with domestic violence, alcohol or drug abuse, depression or mental illness, divorce/separation/death of a parent, or incarceration.

Having any of these risk factors in your childhood was found to raise your risk of physical, emotional, and/or psychological problems later in life. And it doesn’t seem to matter how often bad things happened or how bad they were—it simply doesn’t take much to wound a child. Relatively few of us can claim to have none of these risk factors.

Fortunately, many of us are able to adapt to some forms of abuse and bounce back without much consequence—our resilience can offset the risks. However, having four or more of these factors may exceed a child’s ability to adapt and may interfere with the child’s emotional, psychological, neurological, and physical development and may lead to substantial problems in life. 

We now understand that childhood adversity multiplies your risk for developing addiction, chronic depression, suicidality, smoking, IV drug use, domestic violence, criminality, and teenage pregnancy. Childhood abuse, neglect, and trauma also dramatically increase the risk of diabetes, obesity, heart disease, cancer, stroke, sexually transmitted diseases, and premature death. And not surprisingly, they also increase the risk of failure in the workplace and failure in relationships.

So, what is it about childhood adversity that messes with our ability to have happy relationships as an adult? Here the research has been very illuminating as well.

Studies have shown that kids who have been traumatized may grow up to be adults who need to be perfectionistic, having learned that anything less than perfect behavior less brings abuse or neglect. They may be prone to anger–anger that may become a personality trait or lead to domestic violence. They may be sensitive to negative emotions and highly reactive when triggered. They may have an anxious attachment to others– worried about losing important relationships or unwilling to get close in the first place. They may not tolerate stress very well, becoming controlling, aggressive, or shutting down altogether. It is not surprising that these traits would make it difficult to be successful in relationship (just ask my husband!).

Interestingly, research has also shown that people who live through aversive childhoods tend to be more resilient—to have more grit, that is, a better ability to bounce back from difficulties. So curiously, while childhood adversity seems to set us up to have difficulty in our intimate relationships, it also makes us more able to weather and overcome the challenges that we create. 

Perhaps we can have a bit more compassion for ourselves and our partners if we remember that the lingering effects of childhood adversity and trauma can cast a shadow over our intimate relationships. While it does not give us an excuse to misbehave, the tough parts of childhood (which we likely had no control over) continue to influence our way of looking at the world and the choices we make, day in and day out. 

So, what can we do? Fortunately, there is growing evidence that trauma-informed therapy techniques can help to heal the wounding that happened to us when we were children. Treatments such as EMDR, somatic experiencing, and psychodrama (among many others) can effectively address the pain of childhood neglect, abuse, and adversity. This may allow us to become healthier, happier adults, and thereby pave the way for us to have healthier intimate relationships.

Article by Dr. Rck Isenberg, MD, LAC

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