A common long-term effect of childhood sexual abuse (CSA) is creating and maintaining healthy relationships later in life. These relationships may be between friends, family members, children, intimate partners, or spouses—essentially, between a survivor and anyone that they are attached to in a strong way. Some of the reasons for the difficulty in creating meaningful attachments to another individual may be a lack in ability to trust, a lack of self-confidence or self-esteem, feelings of guilt or anxiety, depression, and more. Additionally, depending on the nature of the abuse they experienced, survivors of CSA may be more likely to seek out individuals who are abusive (not just sexually), due to feelings of low self-worth or a lack of understanding as to what healthy relationships, partners, or friends are supposed to be like.2,3
Past experience with abuse can impact a survivor's ability to maintain relationships
Some experts have described this relationship pattern as “wounded attachment”, and may lead an individual to not only seek out people who do not value them, but also jobs or situations that are unsafe, abusive, or unhealthy.4 All of these factors can limit the number of positive influences in an individual’s life, and make it hard to create and foster positive relationships. This trend may be continued throughout intimate relationships, and may impact a survivor’s ability to find, and remain committed to, a positive partner. This may impact the sexual wellbeing of a survivor and their partner, especially if a survivor finds a strong partner, but does not disclose their past abuse nor their triggers to their partner.3 A lack of healthy intimacy and understanding of each other may lead to difficulties in maintaining romantic relationships or marriages.
CSA survivors are not destined to have only negative relationships
It is important to note, however, that being the survivor of childhood sexual abuse does not mean an individual will be destined to have only negative relationships. Relationships are hard and can fluctuate for anyone, as creating and losing relationships is a normal part of life. However, it’s important to recognize when you, or a loved one or partner, is demonstrating unhealthy behaviors when it comes to relationships. Some of these may include excessive arguing, severe emotional distress, mood swings, sudden and unexplained withdrawal from another individual, or excessive doubt in a relationship or another’s motives. Enlisting support to help manage underlying long-term effects of CSA that may be impacting healthy relationships may be needed, and can take the form of counseling, medication, therapy, and more. Healthy relationships can be created and maintained by survivors of CSA.
- Hall M, Hall J. The long-term effects of childhood sexual abuse: Counseling implications. American Counseling Association.https://www.counseling.org/docs/disaster-and-trauma_sexual-abuse/long-term-effects-of-childhood-sexual-abuse.pdf?sfvrsn=2. Published 2011. Accessed January 5, 2018.
- The Long-Term Effects of Child Sexual Abuse. Australian Government: Australian Institute of Family Studies. https://aifs.gov.au/cfca/publications/long-term-effects-child-sexual-abuse/interpersonal-outcomes. Published January 2013. Accessed January 5, 2018.
- Blackshaw C. Sexual Abuse and a Woman’s Later Intimate Relationships. Bayridge Counseling Centres. http://www.bayridgecounsellingcentres.ca/article-sexual-abuse-and-a-womans-later-intimate-relationships/. Accessed January 5, 2018.
- Kuykendall-Rogers V. Wounded Attachment: Relationships of Survivors of Childhood Sexual Assault. https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/wounded-attachment-relationships-of-survivors-of-childhood-sexual-assault-0627135. Published June 27, 2013. Accessed January 5, 2018.