• Trigger Warning: This content includes scenarios that, while fictional, may be a close reflection of the actual experiences of survivors. Please proceed with caution and stop if the content leaves you feeling overwhelmed.

We all come across relationships in our lives that are difficult to navigate. These relationships might be familial, romantic, professional, social, or simply casual acquaintances. Challenges in our relationships may stem from differences in background, experience, opinion, interests, goals, or personality. Such differences may require more patience, support, and compromise for a relationship to work. And these differences are signals that a specific relationship may be best managed at a distance, with the help of a mental health professional, or perhaps discontinued altogether.

We absolutely need social support and connection in our lives—particularly when we are working to heal from a traumatic past.1 But certain relationships may create more distress than fulfilment. They may have a harmful impact on our well-being, as well as the well-being of the other person involved. In some instances, we may be unhappy with both ourselves and the other person but not know how to make a change in the dynamic. Other times, we may feel conflicted about ending a relationship or reducing the level of investment and/or interaction.

And there may even be times when we aren’t fully aware that we are in a relationship that is dysfunctional. Whatever the situation, identifying why a relationship may not be working is a crucial step in building a circle of support. A circle of support consists of the people in your life who you can trust and lean on as you work through your trauma.


What Makes a Relationship Dysfunctional?

A variety of factors can influence the quality or stability of a relationship. And even more variables come into play when we consider that no two relationships are the same. Yet there are some foundational traits by which the quality of a relationship can be measured.

In general, a relationship can be characterized as dysfunctional when it features:2,3

  • Low levels of trust.
  • Low levels of safety.
  • Low levels of authenticity.
  • Low levels of support.
  • Low levels of communication.

These characteristics can lead to a wide range of dysfunction that could manifest as disagreements, dissatisfaction, or even with one or both parties being at risk of abuse. Some of the common outcomes might include:

  • Being unable to resolve conflict in a healthy manner.
  • Being unable to communicate, set, and maintain boundaries.
  • Being unable to empathize with or feel empathy from the other person.
  • Struggling to enjoy sexual intimacy in romantic relationships.
  • Struggling to remain invested, committed, and/or faithful to the relationship.
  • Struggling to feel a sense of high self-worth or security.4

While dysfunctional relationships are common across all ages and demographics, survivors of trauma are especially vulnerable to experiencing these types of relationships.5, 6

Are Dysfunctional Relationships Natural for Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse?

How we relate to and interact with others in adulthood is heavily shaped by our experiences as children. As our brains develop throughout childhood and adolescence, we observe the behaviors and actions of others.7 These observations help us to establish our own understanding and expectations of relationships and social situations.

This is why a survivor’s perception of themselves, others, and relationships can be significantly altered by the trauma of child sexual abuse. This trauma not only pertains to the abuse itself but to how it can influence the survivor’s sense of safety, self-worth, and understanding of what a relationship looks like. This influence may include the following:5

  • Feelings of betrayal.
  • Feelings of stigmatization.
  • Feelings of powerlessness.

Feelings of Betrayal

Oftentimes, feelings of betrayal accompany child sexual abuse. The survivor may experience these feelings both towards the person who abused them—especially if that person was a trusted loved one—as well as towards those who failed to protect the survivor or support them after disclosure. Such deep feelings of betrayal and hurt can make it difficult for a survivor to trust someone again. This distrust can lead to an aversion to relationships, even when a survivor is experiencing feelings of isolation and loneliness. Distrust can also lead to relationships where suspicion and anger are prominent elements.3

For other survivors, feelings of betrayal stemming from childhood trauma can later manifest as a need to regain trust and security. Such a need may lead to survivors displaying a trustworthiness in people who do not earn it. As a result, adult survivors of sexual abuse can be especially vulnerable to relationships that involve physical, psychological, and/or sexual abuse.5

Examples

Kiara’s neighbor asks her if she’d be interested in joining a weekly game night with others in the neighborhood. Kiara considers accepting the invitation. It may help with the long evenings of isolation and depression. But, ultimately, she declines. She’s been hurt too deeply in the past and is safer being alone.


When Leslie’s cousin initiates a friendship after they begin working at the same company, Leslie grudgingly accepts. But given how other relatives responded when Leslie revealed that aunt had sexually abused her for years, Leslie’s certain she can’t ever fully trust her cousin. Though they begin a friendship, Leslie finds herself getting angry with her cousin over the smallest things. She also gets suspicious every time her cousin is texting someone, certain it’s a member of their family who responded poorly to the abuse.


Li mei knows her coworker, Scott, means well. Sure, he has a tendency to say hurtful or offensive things and seems to target her with many of his comments even after she’s tried to correct him. But she’s probably being too hard on him. After all, Li mei is the one with a long history of not trusting people. She needs to give Scott a chance and prove she can make even the most challenging relationships work.

Feelings of Stigmatization

While progress has been made in our society, misconceptions, misinformation, and outdated views on child sexual abuse persist. A general lack of awareness and education on the issue increases the likelihood that a sexually abused child or teen will develop feelings of stigmatization. This stigmatization often leads to feelings of shame, low self-esteem, and low self-worth. Such effects may foster a survivor’s belief that they are unworthy of love or of a partner who respects and values them. Like low levels of trust, low self-worth may hinder a survivor from engaging in or committing to relationships, even when they are in need of social connection and support. Low self-worth can also reduce the chances of a survivor withdrawing from a relationship that is detrimental to their health and well-being.

Examples

Natalie is thrilled when her former coworker, Monique, asks her out on a date. She’s liked Monique for a while, and the idea of pursuing something with her makes Natalie’s stomach flutter. This excitement is followed by a crushing despair. Natalie knows she cannot go out with Monique, because eventually Monique would sense just how damaged and broken Natalie is. Natalie may even feel safe enough to tell Monique about how she and her brother had been abused by their stepfather. Monique would never want that amount of baggage in her life.


Carla’s sisters keep telling her that she deserves someone better, someone who doesn’t treat her the way Jordan does. They keep reminding her of all the ways Jordan doesn’t value her enough, going so far as to insult Carla whenever she tries to participate in large conversations. A small part of Carla thinks her sisters might be right. But then she remembers how the softball coach who abused her said that no one but him would ever want her. She reminds herself that she’s lucky to have Jordan. She’s lucky to have anyone at all.


Taylor always feels terrible after visiting with her mom. In fact, sometimes their visits leave Taylor feeling depressed and exhausted for days. It doesn’t help that during these visits, Taylor is continually brought back to her worst memory. Taylor had disclosed to her mom that she’d been abused by one of her mom’s boyfriends. In response, her mom had told her to never tell anyone else and to never talk about it again. Even now, 15 years later, Taylor’s mom seems annoyed that Taylor had ever disclosed about the abuse in the first place. Taylor wants to put some distance between herself and her mom while she sorts through her emotions. But she can’t. She has to be there for her parent. Being a caring, loving daughter is the least she can do after all she’s put her mom through.

Feelings of Powerlessness

Child sexual abuse can result in what is called “learned helplessness,” or feeling like you have no control in a situation and therefore no reason to try avoiding, changing, or escaping the hurt it is causing you.8 This sense of powerlessness can play into adult relationships, particularly relationships where there is a low level of emotional and physical safety. A survivor may therefore choose to stay in relationships that are harmful or avoid setting boundaries or initiating changes that may improve the relationship.

Ultimately, being in a relationship involves two people, and how the other person responds to proposed changes or established boundaries is not within the survivor’s control.

Oftentimes a relationship may require the help of a counselor or therapist, which we strongly encourage to pursue. Other times, it may be in the survivor’s best interests to leave the relationship behind. This is especially the case if the survivor is in a relationship involving physical abuse. Situations involving domestic violence, along with other types of abuse (sexual, verbal, emotional), are never okay and endanger the health and safety of the survivor.

That being said, feelings of powerlessness may make it more difficult for a survivor to initiate change, seek the support of a professional, or to remove themselves from a distressing situation or relationship.

Examples

Carmen knows that David is a good husband and father. He’s just been under a lot of stress lately, what with the changes at work. Things just haven’t been the same since he began drinking more. And every conversation they have ends with him storming out and slamming a door. Carmen wishes things could change but she knows David’s behavior is beyond her control, just like the behavior of those who sexually abused her as a child was beyond her control. It didn’t matter what she thought or wanted then, just as it doesn’t matter now. She will just have to wait and hope that everything returns to normal.


Gemma panics whenever her father comes into town. He always wants to visit with her and the kids, and she can never bring herself to say no. Because Gemma can never predict what will happen if he’s provoked. So when her father starts asking if he can take one of her kids on a fishing trip, Gemma goes completely numb as she watches herself say yes. If her mother had no control over how he abused Gemma all those years ago, then Gemma cannot control what he does in the present.


Janey wants to leave, to get someplace safe, at least for a few nights. What Lee did to her last night should be the last straw. And though she packs a bag, after giving it more thought, Janey decides not to leave. It’ll be no use. Whatever she tries won’t work. Because Janey’s learned since childhood that no matter what she does, people will always hurt her.

Can a Dysfunctional Relationship Be Fixed?

Every relationship is different, and the outcome best suited to your well-being within that relationship depends on many factors. In some instances, relationships can be strengthened with additional resources and strategies, such as assertive communication or a professional mediator. In other instances, a dysfunctional relationship may require being put on hold or put to rest for the sake of everyone involved.

But whether you are a survivor or not, relationships are important.9 And when it comes to healing from trauma, creating a strong support system can be a powerful foundation to build on.1 It’s essential to include people in your support system who can hold space for you when you turn to them for guidance, validation, and empathy.

Resources to Help Address Dysfunctional Relationships

Below are three recommendations from our resource library. Each of these recommendations are tools that might be effective in helping you address the dysfunctional relationships in your life.

Navigating Your Relationships

It’s important to recognize when a relationship may be hindering your healing journey. As you take an honest look at the health of your relationships, you can better identify the strengths of those relationships, as well as areas that may need some improvement.

learn more

Assertive Communication

This resource can help you better understand and practice assertive communication, a skill that is essential in creating and maintaining healthy relationships.

learn more

Practicing Boundaries

Determining what your boundaries are, as well as setting and maintaining those boundaries, will help provide clarity, consistency, and safety in your relationships.

learn more
References:
1. Perry, Bruce D., & Winfrey, Oprah. (2021). What Happened to You? Flatiron Books.
2. Finkel, E. J., Simpson, J. A., & Eastwick, P. W. (2017). The psychology of close relationships: Fourteen core principles. Annual Review of Psychology, 68, 383–411.
3. Colman, R. A., & Widom, C. S. (2004). Childhood abuse and neglect and adult intimate relationships: A prospective study. Child abuse & neglect, 28(11), 1133­–1151.
4. Asperg, K., & Renk, K. (2014). Perceived stress, external locus of control, and social support as predictors of psychological adjustment among female inmates with or without a history of sexual abuse. International journal of offender therapy and criminology, 58(1), 59­–84.
5. Finkelhor, D., & Browne, A. (1985). The traumatic impact of child sexual abuse: A conceptualization. American journal of orthopsychiatry, 55(4), 530–541.
6. Nielsen, B. F. R., Wind, G., Tjørnjøh-Thomsen, T., & Martinsen, B. (2018). A scoping review of challenges in adult intimate relationships after childhood sexual abuse. Journal of child sexual abuse, 27(6), 718–728.
7. Bandura, A. (1977).Social learning theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
8. Cherry, Kendra. (2020, June 07). What is learned helplessness and why does it happen? Verywell Mind. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-learned-helplessness-2795326
9. Winfrey, O., & Perry, B. D. (2021). What Happened to You?: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing. Flatiron Books.