7 Unexpected Ways Childhood Sexual Abuse Hurts Your Relationships As An Adult

Photo:  Frank Flores | Unsplash
sad woman taking a leap

You’ve lived with the after-effects of child sexual abuse, assault, or molestation for too long.

Now, you’re wondering if it’s affecting your relationships and love life. The answer is yes. Here are some reasons why.

Sexual abuse makes it hard to trust. You’re never sure if someone wants to use you.

If someone appears caring and kind, do they want to take and not give?

RELATED: A Letter To 10-Year-Old Me, Who Was Repeatedly Sexually Abused

How do you figure that out and feel safe? 

It’s not easy if you also have fears of abandonment, or wall yourself off in terror of any kind of intruder.

You might be hyper-vigilant about a lot of things, looking over your shoulder either literally or metaphorically.

Certainly, you’ve suffered from depression and anxiety. Maybe your symptoms are quite severe.

Not only do you not trust others, but you also live with a deep sense of shame. All of this makes life very difficult.

It’s hard to open up. Love and friendship have scared or disappointed you too many times. You don’t see a way out.

You need help. But either you’ve been too ashamed to look, not sure who you can trust, or past psychotherapy has failed you, too.

You try to adapt to your life, but you want to be happier. You’d like to have love.

Or, if you do, you want to feel safer and more open in the relationship you have.

Here are 7 unexpected ways childhood sexual abuse hurts your relationships as an adult:

1. You don't know how to trust

Sexual abuse makes trust a big question. Relationships were not at all reliable as a child.

There was no one to count on, and whoever abused you also betrayed you.

Maybe you’ve even had to keep it a secret, not feeling there was anyone who would listen and understand.

You may be quite certain (or were, even when it was happening) that something wasn’t right.

But either you didn’t feel you’d be believed, or you wondered if it was your fault.

Maybe that doubt is still on your mind. You wanted to tell someone, but you were afraid you’d be blamed.

Or if you did try to talk, maybe you were.

None of this makes trust easy now — and trust is essential in any close relationship.



So either you don’t get close, or you (not consciously) choose relationships that only confirm your distrust and make you feel more ashamed.

Maybe you stay away or run fast from close relationships so as not to take the risk.

2. You choose "wrong" relationships

Have you chosen the wrong relationships? You may sometimes not even know, mistaking someone’s self-serving interest for love.

Or maybe you even find yourself in abusive relationships that humiliate or shame you, thinking that’s what you deserve.

Or with people that take, take, take, with no thought of you.

It’s not your fault. There are reasons why.

When you’ve been sexually abused, it’s common to choose the wrong relationships. You don’t expect love.

You have to be happy with anything you get or expect to be mistreated or to give more than you get.

And with the kind of self-doubt you feel, you just “take it” if the one you love makes you feel there’s something wrong with you.

You aren’t surprised if you don’t get very much back.

Or if you find yourself with someone unreliable and not to be counted on emotionally, because it’s so familiar.

You try hard to give enough; and be good enough, but then you get left anyway. That’s one more painful abandonment.

Plus, you’re never sure if you’re the one who’s done something wrong. You ask yourself, do you need too much?

Do you have to be resigned to being alone and taking care of yourself forever?

You have a lot of shame and self-doubt about your needs anyway, and you suffer because of that.

RELATED: I Honestly Don’t Know How I Survived My Childhood

3. You feel intense shame

Shame has followed you into every aspect of your life and it goes on and on if the effects of your sexual abuse haven’t been treated.

It affects your relationships, and you never know if you can safely open up to anyone. 

Shame is one of the worst after-effects of sexual abuse. You fight it, but it’s at the heart of most of your struggles with trust, friendships, and love.

You wonder how people are looking at you, sure you’re being judged.

You try hard to do your best and to be lovable, but you live with a judgmental voice inside your head.

That voice blames you for everything; and makes you feel you’ve done something wrong.

You live with the belief that there is something wrong with you, in almost everything you do (or maybe say).

That shame lives so deeply in you, that it feels like it virtually exists in every pore. You can’t believe it isn’t you.

You don’t think you could ever feel differently or that anyone you admire or respect or think is good could want you.

So being in a wrong relationship is paradoxically a built-in safeguard to stay closed off.

It’s hard to open up with anyone if you carry deep and old shame.

4. You worry that you're never good enough

If you never feel good enough, it’s even harder to let someone who might be good for you see who you are at your core.



You’re convinced they wouldn’t like what they find, so it makes you more vulnerable and scared if you believe you’ll be rejected for the "real" self you keep hidden away.

Never feeling good enough has been a life-long struggle. You find fault with everything you do.

You’re very self-critical, and it’s hard not to imagine that everyone else thinks the same. You’re watching out for judgment and rejection all of the time.

These feelings are at the heart of many of your current fears and anxieties about relationships.

They began with the experience of sexual abuse, but now these feelings are being lived out in your fears about yourself: Whether anyone loves you or can love you; how much you have to give to have a chance to be loved or to get anything at all.

5. You give a lot and expect very little in return

You over-give because you feel that’s what’s expected, and you do whatever’s asked of you.

You ask for little in return; you’re used to it. Being abused means you were expected to give what no child should.

You feel giving is the only way you can get even the least amount of love.

Maybe it was the only way you got any kind of love or attention when you were little, but now you’re at a loss about what love is.

Likely, you lived an emotionally deprived life as a child — maybe you were quite neglected.

So the whole thing about giving and what you might reasonably want in return is very confusing.

Now, you over-give out of habit and self-protection. You’re the "helper". Being needed at least gives you some kind of value.

Maybe you won’t be left or yelled at if you do. You expect almost nothing. Asking for something feels out of the question.

If you get even a little, you think it should be enough. Of course, it’s not.

And when you give and give, you have resentment and anger. You’re deprived of the love and acceptance you need.

The only other option is closing down.

Out of disappointment, you decide to stay away from relationships. You don’t want to take the risk of being hurt.

You already have some walls up, and you're watching to see who can be trusted and if anyone will offer anything that feels genuine.

RELATED: 6 Signs Your Past Childhood Trauma Is Making You Physically Sick

6. You stay distant and create "walls"

If you stay distant and can’t get close, it’s most often to protect yourself from being hurt or taken advantage of or to fend off any potential intrusions.

You can't relax with anyone — not in your marriage, your committed relationship ... especially on a date.  

Maybe you run away before you can get close. Or if you do open up, you might need a lot of reassurance that you are loved.

Sexual abuse is emotional abandonment, so if you don't get an immediate text phone call, or response, you’re convinced it’s over and just more proof you aren’t wanted.

Maybe you never open up; your relationships stay superficial. You choose distant relationships because they suit you.

It feels like you have someone, but there’s little risk. And in some ways, you’re in control.

Needing that kind of control is understandable when the effects of sexual abuse go untreated.   

Neither of these two ways of being in a relationship satisfies a deeper need for love.

Even when you do have love, you hold back and it doesn't give you the comfort or pleasure you need. Opening up to love is too scary.

7. You have problems with intimacy

If intimacy brings back memories or feelings of your early molestation, it can be hard to let go.

Anyone you let yourself get close to can seem like a molester.

Sometimes the memories aren't even conscious, but what you know is this: You often don't like being touched or intimate.

You want to enjoy it, but you don't.

You go through the motions but feel anxious and uncomfortable. You wonder if this feeling can ever change; it can.

Understandably, you can’t let go and open up. Your sexual abuse severely hurt you and broke your trust.

When there is someone you think you might trust now, you doubt it.

Sometimes, even when you're with someone you’ve learned you can trust, you still don't feel safe. Why?

The sexually abused child still lives inside you. That traumatized child self who doesn’t trust love is the one who needs help to work these effects out because it interferes with a lot of things.

This can hurt your ability to turn to the one who does love you when you need some emotional support.

In many instances, it’s not just emotional closeness that’s a problem; untreated sexual abuse makes it difficult to enjoy the good intimacy that is a part of any loving relationship.

Is there any hope for you?

Yes! You can find hope in psychotherapy with someone who understands and specializes in treating survivors of sexual abuse.

Because you can do more than merely survive. You can learn to trust. And to open up (and enjoy) all that a good love relationship can bring.

If you haven’t yet, you can learn to choose “right.”

Wrong relationships, shame, fears of closeness, never feeling good enough, intimacy problems, and hopelessness do not have to fill your life.

You don’t have to be alone with secrets or feelings that no one has ever understood. 

You can find someone to listen; to "speak out" about your anger, hurt, and fears. Your life can change.

Sexual abuse of children and minors is incredibly common.

According to the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN), 1 in 9 girls and 1 in 53 boys under the age of 18 have experienced sexual abuse from an adult. Girls are far more likely to be victims of sexual abuse; the organization reports that 82% of all victims under 18 are female, and those who do suffer from assault and abuse are more likely to also develop mental health issues like depression, PTSD, and drug abuse.
There are ways to help child abuse victims.

Want to get involved to bring an end to child sexual abuse? There are a few things you can do. There are organizations like Prevent Child Abuse America that are good places to start and that are always looking for people to donate their time and money to their efforts. The organization also suggests writing to local elected officials to support policies that bring an end to sexual abuse, and of course, the simplest thing to do is to keep eyes and ears open and to report abuse when you see it — and to always take children seriously when they say they're being abused.

RELATED: The Sad Reason Why Childhood Trauma Is Holding You Back As An Adult

Dr. Sandra Cohen is a Los Angeles-based psychologist and psychoanalyst who specializes in working with survivors of sexual abuse and childhood trauma.

This article was originally published at Sandra Cohen, Ph.D. Reprinted with permission from the author.