If you are researching abusive childhood effects on relationships then presumably you believe you have had an abusive childhood, you recognize that some of the problems you are having in your relationships may be related to your childhood and you are trying to make sense of your situation.
With this in mind, I am going to briefly explain what happens to children in abusive situations and use this as a foundation to point out how the common issues in later life are a direct result of the abuse and then I will make some suggestions about how to deal with these issues.
In a psychologically abusive environment, the victims' behavior, perceptions, thoughts and emotions are closely controlled by the manipulators. The information available to the victims is also monitored and controlled. The manipulators are all the time basically molding the personalities of their targets.
In a cultic situation, the members individual personalities are destroyed and replaced by the cult personality, hence everyone has the same beliefs, they rationalize the same way, they act in the same ways and so on. This is why family members and friends often say of people who have been recruited into a cult that they don’t recognize the person any longer. The old personality has been repressed by the new cult personality and this is often very different from the old, real personality. It obviously benefits the cult leadership that the members all have the cult pseudopersonality because this pseudopersonality is programmed to work for the benefit of the group, which in real terms means recruiting new people and taking their money. All this is hidden from the members, who live in a reality invented by the cult leader where they believe they are 'spreading the word about the group for the benefit of mankind'.
You can read more about this idea of the pseudopersonality here. (It's very important!)
In a family situation, the very same dynamics are at work. However, an important factor to keep in mind is that the child's real personality is never allowed to develop. Instead, the pseudopersonality is imposed from the start. The manipulators control the child in such a way as to try and mold the child to their own selfish desires. They want the child to be a certain way, they want the child to act a certain way, they want the child to consider them, the parents, in a certain way. They want the child to think of themselves in a particular way. They want the child dependent on them. They do not want the child thinking for themselves, having their own desires or challenging the parents. They want submissive, obedient, adoring children. (The same things can be said of manipulative, abusive siblings, by the way.)
The child grows up with all sorts of beliefs that benefit the manipulators while being detrimental to the child themselves. For example, the child believes that the parent is always right, the child always wrong, the adult is superior, the child inferior, the child believes they will never be as good as the parents. The child is criticized so often that they come to believe that they are inherently defective or flawed in some way. Some children come to accept that they can never have exactly what they want, they have to settle for second best, or that they were never meant to be happy in this life and so on.
You can read more about such myths and beliefs in this article about abusive mothers.
Children in abusive families also learn particular things. They may never be given any privacy, either physically or mentally with the child believing that they have to tell people everything. They learn that expressing emotions is not just forbidden, but can be downright dangerous. They learn to monitor others moods and to modify their behavior accordingly because they have gotten into trouble so often for doing or saying something when the adult was in a bad mood. They often learn to stay out of the way and play alone or go to their room so as not to get into trouble. Some children deal with the situation by fighting back, some become 'peace makers', others become people pleasers. While these strategies may be good survival strategies for the child, even life saving, they are often the only strategy the adult has to cope and, as such, they may be very limiting and end up causing problems for the adult.
Remember that the child is brought up in an abusive environment. They have no happy, normal environment with which to compare their lives. Therefore, all these rules, all the control and abuse, seems normal to the child. It is the way the world is. That's just how things are. This is life. All the bad stuff is just normal to the child. (They may have a sense that something Is not right but they don't have the vocabulary or life experience to be able to understand it or express to others what is going on.)
There are more details about the dynamics in abusive families in these articles about controlling mothers and narcissistic parents.
Another major problem is the issue of bonding with the caregivers. In normal healthy situations, a child when distressed will attract the attention of the parent, they will be comforted and they settle down. The parent is a safe haven for the child and the child feels secure in the knowledge that they know where to go for help and that they will be looked after when needed. When they feel ok again, the attachment behaviors stop and then they move away from the parents to explore the world once more.
When the caregiver does not regularly provide comfort for whatever reason, the child's attachment style adapts. Without getting too technical, there are two particular groups here. Where the caregiver is intermittent and unreliable, the child is rarely fully comforted, and their attachment behaviors persist. They become clingy, anxious and spend a lot of time trying to get the attention of the caregiver, occasionally succeeding. Obviously the more time they spend doing the attachment behaviors, the less they spend exploring the world.
The second group is where the child is repeatedly rejected or neglected and the child gives up trying to be comforted. Even when upset, they repress their attachment behaviors and remain detached. They still get fearful and stressed but they do not look to outsiders for help.
Both of these adaptations are useful in that the first allows the child to settle sometimes, and the second often stops the caregiver from hurting the child further. People in these categories have an organized, predictable way of relating to their environment.
In psychologically abusive situations, there is another response that children are forced into. The caregiver is at one and the same time the safe haven and also the source of the fear. The child is simultaneously running to the abusive parent and running from them. There is no way out and the attachment system breaks down and instead of the organized responses above, the response becomes disorganized. The child may flip between the various responses described above which may be accompanied by freezing, confusion, dissociation and a variety of other behaviors. Children need proximity so the general tendency is to approach the abuser, while internally their withdrawal and approach systems are active and in conflict.
This disorganized response is not adaptive, it is not useful and obviously causes problems. It actually reinforces the dependency of the pseudopersonality on the manipulator. The confusion leaves the individual vulnerable because they will follow any instructions in order to try and resolve the situation. This gives the manipulator more control. Another difficulty for the child is that the instructions from the manipulative parent are often ambiguous or put the child in a double bind, where they are damned if they do and damned if they don't.
Now that we have an overview of some of the things that happen to children in abusive situations, lets examine how that translates into problems in relationships later in life.
Abused children will have a pseudopersonality and this pseudopersonality is programmed by the manipulator in various ways. It is programmed to believe and trust the manipulator. It is programmed to put the wants and needs of the manipulator first.
Taking care of others is a big aspect of the pseudopersonality. This shows up as not being able to say no, committing to favors before it's even known what the favor is and not being able to ask for what one wants. The pseudopersonality will often make sure that others are comfortable first and foremost because only then can the pseudopersonality settle down and feel ok itself.
The pseudopersonality is also programmed to be dependent on the leader or abuser, oftentimes the parent telling the child that the world is a dangerous place and they are only safe in the family. If the abuser gives compliments, the child feels good about themselves. If the abuser is critical, the child feels they are bad or defective in some way. This carries over into adulthood where the person is very dependent on what others think of them to know whether they are doing well or not. There may be little or no internal reference that the individual can use to know if they are good or bad, worthy or useless, whether they are doing well or not or even to know who they are.
The pseudopersonality is not allowed to make it's own decisions. The beliefs and ideas of the abuser becomes the master program that determines how the pseudopersonality makes decisions. This usually means the the decisions of the child are organized around making sure the abuser is comfortable and not upset.
Obviously this causes problems in later relationships where the grown up child becomes a people pleaser with little or no attention to themselves. Often such adults have difficulty making their own decisions and may not even know what their personal favorite food, or color, or clothes are. They just end up going along with the crowd, or the people around them at that moment.
The pseudopersonality is made to feel inferior, useless, stupid, worthless, less than others, a sinner, a loser, ignorant, and a whole host of other labels. This self perception carries over into every aspect of a person's life and there is often difficulty taking compliments, recognizing one's own successes, taking credit for things that go well and so on. This goes beyond humility where the child/adult hates hearing compliments or even becomes suspicious of the speaker, even if the speaker is genuinely praising the individual.
Feeling that others are better than oneself also has far reaching effects. The individual may not speak up in conversations, they don’t try new things, they are afraid of conflict and will put up with things rather than voice concerns and so on.
The pseudopersonality often learns to suppress it's emotions because expressing them causes problems. Obviously this causes it's own set of problems later in life.
The pseudopersonality often does not recognize lies because it has been programmed to accept at face value whatever the voice of authority puts forth. The pseudopersonality is often naive or gullible and will accept all sorts of ideas without questioning them.
The dependency of the pseudopersonality on the manipulator can shift to the new partner meaning that the adult can be very clingy with the new partner. They want the new partner around all the time, they want and need the approval of the new partner.
If the new partner is upset the pseudopersonality may automatically assume that it has done something wrong. And because the abused child is led to believe that whenever there is a problem with the abuser, the child may lose the relationship, whenever the adult has a problem in another relationship there may be a fear that the whole relationship is on the line. This will usually cause the adult to back away from confrontation and appease the new partner in order not to lose the relationship. This dynamic often only exists in the head of the abused adult. The new (normal!) partner is typically not thinking this way.
The abused adult may feel very insecure in the relationship, "Does he still care about me? Does he still want to be with me? Oh, look, he is doing this and he has never done that before. What does it mean? Have I upset him? Is he going to leave me?" If these concerns are expressed, the new partner will often go to great lengths to reassure the abused adult because there really is no issue. However, over time, the new partner can get fed up with the 'insecurities'.
The attachment problems also have a direct cause effect on the ability of a victim of childhood abuse to get involved in a healthy loving relationship. The unpredictability of a psychopathic parent has profound effects on a person's ability to trust others. One day the child can say something and it's ok. The next day if they say the same thing, a war breaks out. When the parent comes home the child is never quite sure what mood the parent is going to be in when they walk through the front door. This leaves the child in a hyper-vigilant state, having to constantly assess their environment in order not to get into trouble. Even if one parent is a psychopath and the other parent normal, if the normal parent does not understand psychopathy, there is often mixed messages for the child. This makes it incredibly difficult for the child to make sense of things. There seems to be nobody out there who 'gets it'. The normal parent, with the best of intentions, aggravates some problems.
For example, abused children are often told that their abusive parent loves them, but just have difficulty expressing it. Or that they express it 'in their own way'. This gives children a very distorted idea of what love is. And the child may hate the abusive parent but feel that they should love them because they are the parents. This further isolates the child because they can't express that to anyone and it makes them feel more-so that no-one understands what it is really like for them.
When there is sexual abuse in the family, the concepts of love, sex, care, family etc can be a jumbled mess in the child's head and bringing this confusion into an adult sexual relationship can cause a variety of problems, from terror of intimacy, to shutting down during sex, to sexual promiscuity etc. etc.
The pseudopersonality, as already mentioned, is programmed to give out information about itself and some adults will give away way too much information to others. They may reveal too much to new people about their abusive childhood, for example, so people treat them in a particular way, as a victim, as weak, as indecisive and so on.
While we are on this topic, this article would not be complete without considering the idea that children of abusive parents end up in abusive relationships themselves later in life. Many say that the victim seeks out similar relationships as their childhood ones, or that they are dependent or indecisive and they need strong people to take care of them. I think this is nonsense.
I don’t believe that people seek out abusive relationships. If anything, someone coming out of an abusive relationship clearly wants a normal healthy relationship. They want to be loved, they want to be cared for as equals. If they end up in another abusive relationship it's because they have been tricked into it. The manipulators actively seek out people they think they will be able to control and if they meet someone that has the patterns of abuse already in place, (that is, someone who already has a pseudopersonality) of course they will target them. You can read more about how abusers target their victims here.
With this in mind, a weakness or vulnerability for children who have been in abusive families is that they know what it is to be treated poorly. When someone treats them well they are very appreciative and want this nice person to know it. The victim will say thank you a lot, and may go overboard with gifts and so forth when someone does them a favor. The nice treatment makes the victim feel so good that they naturally want more of it and they often tend to fall in love with people quickly. Add to this the fact that the typical manipulator uses love-bombing on their victims initially and you have the perfect recipe for repeated abusive relationships.
Being overly grateful is a sign for the manipulators that the person has been in bad situations before and will be an easy target. In the same way, someone who apologizes a lot, believing that things that don't go well are always their fault, as referenced above, will also attract unwanted attention.
Just because a child leaves the family home does not mean that the control stops. In fact it can often get worse. The adult now has one or both parents involved in all aspects of their life, including and in particular the choice of a new partner. The abused child may have to run things by their parents before they can make any decisions. This is obviously very distressing for their new partner who expects to have a significant share in any decision making. The abusive parent(s) may also feel entitled to start to control the partner or spouse, too, spending a lot of time 'visiting', offering 'advice' and generally controlling the relationship. The abused child is unable to stand up to their parents and defend their spouse. The pseudopersonality is never allowed to challenge the leaders.
Many people in abusive families think that once they leave home and are away from the abuser that then things will be different. They often think that now that they are out, that they can forget what happened because they are free to live their own lives. Unfortunately this does not work. The pseudopersonality was put in place and kept in place for years, using very powerful mind control techniques. Just because a person leaves the environment does not mean that the pseudopersonality disappears. It will persist, for decades. The real personality of the victim has never been allowed to dominate and the victim believes that the pseudopersonality is the real thing. The pseudopersonality was put in place for the benefit of the abuser and this, in itself, causes problems for the victim as long as the pseudopersonality persists.
Those who do decide that they need help often go to a therapist for particular problems. If the therapist does not understand mind control, the attention is put on the victim. The victim is told they need to learn how to say no, how to take care of themselves, how to put themselves first, how to make different decisions and how to build up their self esteem and so on. The difficulty is that the pseudopersonality is programmed not to do all of these things. Simply doing things to build self esteem does nothing to undo the damage done by the manipulators. Helping or making the person say 'no' in certain situations causes angst because they are programmed not to do that. This anxiety then reinforces the beliefs of the pseudopersonality, "I am useless because I cannot do it, there must be something wrong with me, my father was right after all..." The victim believes they should be able to do what the expert is telling them and when they have difficulty, believing that others can do it and the techniques work, it becomes further evidence that they themselves are the problem.
So working on oneself, changing, adapting, does not work. The pseudopersonality is not put in place for the victim's benefit and trying to 'fix' or improve it is a waste of time and effort.
Education and understanding are fundamental here. Many of the abusive childhood effects on relationships occur because of deeply held beliefs and profoundly ingrained patterns in the victims. Simply telling such an adult to 'just say this' or 'stop doing that, do this instead' is never enough, as you well know. The combination of fear and guilt, used for years against you to construct a reality for you in which you perceive yourself in a particular way and you relate to the rest of the world in a particular way, has worked well and is still working. Just thinking that you can do things differently doesn't work. Trying to ignore the family situation and carry on as if it didn’t happen, never works either. The programming is too pervasive.
You have to learn to recognize that the reality that was created for you to live in is a fantasy. It's not real. It was created in your abuser's head and then imposed on you. The way to understand this idea is to learn how specifically it was created. What techniques did the abuser use against you? Why those techniques with you? What effect did the techniques have on your thinking, your decisions, your emotions and your behaviors? How did the abuser create your beliefs? Are these beliefs even true?
And what about the abusers themselves? Who are they? The fact is that many of the abusers are psychopaths, sociopaths or narcissists. What does this mean? It is actually of the utmost importance to know if your abuser fits the profile of someone who has a personality disorder. Because if so, the rules are different. The way you have to consider your situation is different. The steps you have to take to undo the damage are different.
Undoing the effects on your relationships that were caused by an abusive childhood means learning about mind control and psychopaths, understanding their motivations and being able to recognize the effects they had on you. Once you recognize how they were influencing you, the effects disappear and only then do you have a choice about which thinking and behavioral patterns you pick for yourself instead. It's not an easy task, but it's absolutely worth it.
You can spend the rest of your life trying to figure it all out alone, or you can find an expert and shorten the learning to a year or so. Remember the pseudopersonality is programmed to think it should be able to figure things out alone. This stops you asking for help. Break this pattern and get help!
You can read more about toxic parents, toxic families, narcissistic parents, problems in adult children of narcissists, and how to recover from an abusive relationship.
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