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Childhood Trauma Can Have Long-Term Impact On Adult Relationships, Study Finds

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Maddy Chapman

Junior Copy Editor and Staff Writer

clockOct 5 2021, 15:07 UTC
childhood trauma

Maltreatment in childhood is linked to insecure attachment styles and depression, as well as lower quality adult relationships. Image credit: Jan H Andersen/Shutterstock.com

Childhood maltreatment is associated with lower quality relationships later in life, a new study from the Netherlands has found. The link between the two is seemingly influenced by depression severity and insecure attachment, according to the research, which is published in the journal Child Abuse & Neglect. 

In particular, an anxious attachment style in conjunction with severe depression was strongly linked, while avoidant attachment styles also “fully mediated the relationship”. Interestingly, anxiety and alcohol dependence were not found to impact adult relationships.

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“Adults with a history of childhood maltreatment are more likely to experience distrust, feel distant from others, and develop an insecure attachment style,” the study authors write. Previous research has established this, as well as links between childhood trauma and mental health problems, including depression and anxiety, that are known to affect relationship quality. However, the current study goes further to explain the interplay between these factors.

More than 2,000 adults aged 18 to 65 were involved in the study, which took place over nearly a decade. In years one, two, four, and six, participants’ mental health – depression and anxiety – was assessed. In the fourth year, childhood trauma was surveyed, and in the ninth year, relationship quality and attachment style were evaluated.

Initial analyses demonstrated a negative association between childhood maltreatment and insecure attachment, and relationship quality, respectively. While it was found to be positively associated with depression and anxiety severity.

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The team then modeled six pathways that could explain the relationship between the variables. After controlling for age, gender, and level of education, two pathways that “fully mediated the relationship between childhood maltreatment and the quality of intimate relationships” were identified. The strongest of these connects childhood trauma to increased depression severity, anxious attachment, and lower quality relationships.

“This pathway indicates that some individuals, who reported being maltreated during childhood, may develop low mood and other depressive symptoms, become more dependent and unconfident, which may be perceived as clingier and experience more distress in the relationship, which might subsequently affect the relationship quality,” the authors write.

The second pathway also links to depression and lower quality relationships, but is mediated by avoidant attachment – individuals tend “to turn away from intimacy, be less trustworthy of their partners, and [have] difficulties relying on them or confid[ing] in them.”

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Exactly how or why each of these factors might lead to another is still not clear, but the data overwhelmingly shows that our health and wellbeing are greatly affected by our childhood experiences. 

The authors hope that “informing parents, teachers, general practitioners, and the general public about the possible destructive impact of childhood maltreatment on mental wellbeing and intimate relations, may lead to better recognition and earlier detection,” and call for greater support for children and parents from school systems and clinicians.


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