How early trauma affects later relationships

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Riggs, S.A., Cusimano, A.M., & Benson, K.M. (2011). Childhood emotional abuse and attachment processes in the dyadic adjustment of dating couples. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 58, 126-138.

Summarized by Emily Manove, UMB clinical psychology doctoral student

Introduction: Research has linked childhood maltreatment (emotional, physical and sexual abuse and neglect) to adult attachment styles, including those of anxious, avoidant and disorganized attachment styles. Past studies have further tied adult attachment styles to interpersonal relationship functioning, including in romantic relationships. However, most past research examined only one partner in a couple at a time. Riggs and colleagues sought to extend this research by examining the effects of childhood emotional abuse on adult attachment style and relational functioning in both partners simultaneously. The authors here examined two distinct attachment styles: anxious and avoidant.

  • Attachment anxiety may manifest as low self-worth and fears of abandonment, which may lead to problems such as compulsive caregiving, low responsiveness and excessively seeking reassurance.
  • Attachment avoidance may manifest as offering a partner low levels of support, and as low self-disclosure and withdrawing.

Method: Participants were 155 heterosexual college student couples who had been dating from 5 to 60 months. Couples were from diverse backgrounds and had a mean age of 21.91 years old. Students completed an online survey including a demographic form and the following measures:

  • Childhood trauma memories: focusing on experiences of emotional abuse
  • Adult romantic attachment: assessing experiences of anxiety and avoidance within relationships
  • Dyadic adjustment: including aspects of adult romantic relationships (e.g., satisfaction, conflict management strategies, affection)

The authors used multilevel modeling and the Actor-Partner Interdependence Model (Kenny et al., 2006), which allowed them to simultaneously examine the associations between participant childhood emotional abuse, participant attachment anxiety and avoidance, partner childhood emotional abuse, partner attachment anxiety and avoidance, and participant perceptions of the relationship quality.

Results: Results support that childhood emotional abuse is associated with poor romantic relationship adjustment. Specifically, the authors found that:

  • Participants’ attachment anxiety was positively linked to their partners’ attachment anxiety
  • Participants’ and their partners’ attachment avoidance was tied to worse relationship adjustment
  • Women reporting higher levels of childhood emotional abuse had more attachment avoidance than men did  
  • Increased reports of childhood emotional abuse by participants and their partners were linked to higher attachment anxiety for both parties, which in turn was tied to worse relationship adjustment overall

Conclusion and Implications: Results of the current study suggest that young adult women and men who report higher levels of childhood emotional abuse have greater degrees of attachment anxiety and avoidance in romantic relationships. Further, individuals’ attachment approaches interact with their partner’s style to negatively impact relationship adjustment. These findings fit with theory and previous research that found that childhood maltreatment was linked to adult attachment styles, and that adult attachment styles were tied to functioning in adult relationships.

Implications for Mentoring: The findings from this study have implications for mentoring, specifically the way in which attachment histories may influence the type and quality of relationships formed between youth and mentors. Mentoring programs may wish to be attuned to reported histories of childhood maltreatment in both mentees and mentors, as it is likely to impact both of their attachment styles, and thereby the quality of their relationship. Mentors should be educated as to the role that childhood maltreatment plays in later attachment styles, and how anxious and avoidant attachment styles in either the mentee or mentor may display themselves in the relationship (e.g., initial difficulties connecting). Mentoring programs may also wish to train mentors in strategies for how to compassionately handle such manifestations of disrupted attachment in their relationships with mentees.