9 ways an unhappy childhood might be influencing your adult relationships

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We’ve often heard it said to leave the past behind, especially if it’s been a painful one. 

But like it or not, our past leaves imprints on us and shapes the way we handle relationships as adults. 

So, if your childhood wasn’t exactly filled with rainbows and lollipops, it might have left you with patterns that still pop up in your current relationships. 

How? 

That’s what we’re here to talk about today. Here are 9 ways an unhappy childhood could be influencing your relationships as an adult: 

1) You always feel like something’s missing

First up, I’d like to emphasize one thing about childhood – it’s the stage of our lives when we form our identity. 

If you’ve had an unhappy childhood, it’s understood that you’ve experienced some level of distress. 

And unfortunately, instead of your developmental stages unfolding naturally and healthily, you may have had to miss a few steps just to cope with that distress. 

For instance, a child who had to deal with a lot of conflict at home may dissociate from all of that in order to survive. 

They may put forth a version of themselves where everything seems fine and stable – such as being a straight-A student. All for the sake of feeling in control. 

The thing is, that part of them, the scared and unhappy child, is still stuck inside. Waiting for some sort of resolution. Waiting for the missing piece that would get them unstuck and make them whole. 

Even in their adult relationships, they still go on feeling like something’s missing, even if they’ve got the most perfect partner in the world. Even if they’ve built a life that’s secure and stable. 

That missing piece is related to their sense of identity, so unless those childhood issues are resolved, that feeling of incompleteness isn’t likely to go away. 

2) You have a fear of abandonment

This is one I know so well. My parents split when I was eight, and for a while, I didn’t get to see my dad. 

Now, on the whole, it wasn’t a terribly unhappy childhood. Thanks to my mom and my maternal grandparents, I still felt very much loved. 

All the same, I had a fear of abandonment. My worldview, though I wasn’t even aware of it then, was this: 

People leave, and it hurts. So if they’ll leave anyway, I’d better get ahead of them. 

So what did I end up doing? I unconsciously sabotaged my adult relationships. I’d break up even when there was no reason to. Or I’d never let myself be vulnerable with my partner. 

Why? Because I felt sure they’d either: a) reject me when they see who I really am, or b) leave anyway after a while. 

If that sounds familiar to you, it might be time to overcome that fear. However, before you can get there, you’d have to first learn to trust other people…

3) You find it hard to trust others

This should come as no surprise. People who’ve had a rough childhood were hurt and burnt, more than once, maybe too many times. 

According to PsychCentral, “As adults we are unable to trust those around us because, historically, those who were the closest to us did not meet our needs when we needed it most.”

It took me a while to learn to trust other people enough to show my real self. My husband would be the first to tell you that I was a tough nut to crack. (But hopefully, he’d also say it was worth it!) 

But once I did, it definitely helped me form more genuine and deeper connections with other people. I didn’t have to feel as lonely as I did when I was a child. 

4) You have issues with boundaries

Do you often say ‘yes’ when you really want to say ‘no’? Do you find yourself in situations where no one seems to mind your comfort or preferences? 

This could mean that you find it difficult to set boundaries. That’s a skill that many who’ve had an unhappy childhood struggle with. 

When people neglect you or walk all over you, you tend to internalize that your boundaries don’t matter. Heck, you might even have no concept of boundaries. 

As adults, this often translates to a poor understanding of what’s healthy in relationships. 

So, it’s not uncommon to find yourself tolerating terrible behavior, maybe even making excuses for an uncaring partner. Being scared of offending others while paying no mind to how they offend you. 

Sounds pretty unbalanced, right? 

Well, time to change that up. Start with saying “no” to minor things, and work up to bigger issues. I promise, it gets easier with practice.

Maybe no one advocated for you when you were a child, but now that you’re an adult, there’s someone who can – YOURSELF. 

5) You have low self-esteem

Closely related to the struggle with setting boundaries is low self-esteem. As I mentioned earlier, childhood is the time when we develop our sense of self. 

And unfortunately, science shows that childhood trauma is directly linked to low self-esteem. 

Let’s face it – if you had to deal with being ignored, getting bullied, suffering abuse, being in a high-conflict zone…well, the message you pretty much got was – you’re not important. 

The problem is, that might be a message you’re still carrying around to this day. Which could lead to you putting up with whatever bits and pieces and crumbs people can give you. 

Nope. Say that again. 

Nope. Say that to this long burdensome message and lay it down. And say it to all the people who aren’t treating you right. 

Of course, it’s not a magic word that will magically make you more confident instantly. But loving yourself begins with challenging all the negative self-beliefs you have.  

6) It’s how you have your attachment style

Now let’s get a bit into attachment styles and how it all starts with your childhood. 

Attachment theory explains the relationships and bonds between people. In a nutshell, it states that our early bonds influence the relationships we will have throughout life. 

That’s pretty weighty when you think of the far-reaching impact it has. Without going into too much detail, it comes down to this: 

Happy childhood = Secure Attachment = a greater chance of happy relationships

Unhappy childhood = Insecure Attachment =  a greater chance of dysfunctional relationships

Insecure attachment may manifest in several ways, such as: 

  • Dismissive avoidant: You don’t want to depend on anyone
  • Fearful avoidant: You want intimacy but you also don’t want to trust or depend on anyone
  • Anxious: You have a fear of abandonment and tend to be clingy/demanding/always needing reassurance in relationships

That said, an insecure attachment style is not a life sentence. Taking the time to understand yours can get you started towards cultivating a secure attachment style.

7) It also influences your communication style

Even the way you communicate can be a result of your unhappy childhood

Think about it – if all you ever witnessed as a child were people sniping and yelling at each other, then you probably grew up thinking that was normal. 

Or if you had parents who constantly brushed their issues under the rug, you probably saw that as the only way to “resolve” conflict, right? 

As an adult, you might communicate this way too, either passively, passive-aggressively, or outright aggressively. 

This can create a pattern of unhealthy communication and conflict resolution strategies in your relationships.

8) You’re attracted to destructive relationships

Maybe you’re into the bad boy/girl type? Maybe for some strange reason, you find yourself gravitating to and staying with partners who aren’t good for you

Eminem’s “Love the Way You Lie” comes to mind here: 

Just gonna stand there and watch me burn?

Well, that’s alright, because I like the way it hurts

Just gonna stand there and hear me cry?

Well, that’s alright, because I love the way you lie

I love the way you lie

Well, the reason isn’t as strange as you think. It could simply be unresolved childhood trauma, according to psychologists

But hey, it’s not always all bad. Because once you become aware of it, you then move on to this next thing…

9) You actively aim to be in a healthy relationship

That’s right, an unhappy childhood doesn’t always have an unhappy ending. I’m proof of that. 

As I grew older, I could see more clearly where my parents fell short, both with each other and with us, their kids. 

And I resolved to try and have a healthier marriage and to be more careful with how I raise my children. I took them as a cautionary tale and learned from their mistakes.

However, it does take a great deal of self-awareness. A certain resolution to do better, to make your adulthood way, way better than your childhood ever was. 

So yes, some patterns might be deeply ingrained in you, but if you’re the self-aware type, you can catch yourself falling into those patterns and self-correct (whether on your own or with a therapist). 

This is why I always say, an unhappy childhood may have gotten you started on the wrong foot, but it doesn’t dictate your future. 

With awareness, effort, and sometimes professional guidance, you can break the cycle. 

You can build a life that reflects who you want to be, not just who you were conditioned to be. 

Your past may have shaped you, but it certainly doesn’t have to define you.

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