How Unmet Childhood Needs Affect Adult Relationships

Feb 14, 2023

Therapist doing online therapy Telehealth

Our early relationships and experiences significantly impact who we become later in life. Experts in mental health agree that how we connect as children affects how we form relationships as adults. In other words, our relationships with attachment figures may significantly impact our mental health, relationships, intimacy, and general well-being.

Ruminating about the past can hurt you, making your pain worse without giving you a way out. But working through your past with a trained therapist can help you figure out what’s really causing your problems.

And the more you become aware of how unmet childhood needs impact your adult relationships, the more empowered you will feel to let go of damaging habits that no longer serve you.

So, here are three ways your unmet childhood needs affect your adult relationships.

Your Attachment Style

According to research, a warm, positive relationship with our parents or caregivers lays the groundwork for a strong self-esteem, psychological well-being, and successful relationships later in life. This is known as a “secure attachment” in childhood.

On the contrary, people who grew up in households with insecure attachment, where caregivers were either inattentive and negligent of their needs or actively abused them, frequently struggle in adulthood to build and sustain meaningful relationships.

There are four main attachment styles:

  • Secure
  • Disorganized or disoriented attachment
  • Anxious-ambivalent attachment
  • Anxious-avoidant or dismissive attachment

The exact attachment mechanisms between children and their caregivers may also explain how attachment develops between adults.

Secure and Anxious Attachment

As adults, we seek meaningful relationships because, like our relationships with primary caregivers as children, they provide a sense of security and stability. Secure attachment relationships foster development, well-being, and high self-esteem by allowing both partners to be vulnerable while still feeling safe and free to be their authentic selves.

But suppose you were raised by parents who were distant, insensible, negligent, or unpredictable and didn’t meet your needs for safety, love, and protection. In that case, you might develop an anxious-ambivalent attachment style and transfer it to your adult relationships.

As an adult, you may feel worthless and consistently seek to prove yourself to others. As a result, you may constantly worry about your relationships, being convinced that you are not good enough, that your partner will eventually leave you, or that you don’t deserve to be loved and respected.

You may be sensitive to rejection and need your partner’s approval to feel loved and important. Because of this, you might become a people-pleaser who gets into toxic relationships where you take responsibility for your partner’s feelings and actions because you are afraid of being abandoned again. As a result, you could end up being manipulated and abused, with low self-esteem, severe mental health issues, and no idea how to get away.

How You Communicate and Manage Conflicts

Unmet childhood needs may affect how you interact, express emotions, and resolve conflicts in your relationships.

Arguments and conflicts are unavoidable in a relationship. However, if you grew up with parents who didn’t know how to control their emotions or deal with conflicts healthily, you may have internalized unhealthy patterns that now damage your relationships.

How do you react when you feel uncomfortable, insecure, and anxious? Do you express frustration by lashing out, getting violent, or being passive-aggressive? Do you shut down, suppress your emotions, and avoid bringing up the matter because you don’t want to upset your spouse?

Do you pull away and feel ashamed and guilty, telling yourself that you’re the cause of the problem because you are not good enough, which makes you feel even worse about yourself? Your communication is ineffective either way.

Psychotherapy may be a safe space to develop relational communication skills, let go of toxic behavior patterns you picked up from your family of origin, and have fulfilling relationships as an adult.

Your Expectations form a Relationship

If you grew up in a loving home with parents who communicated constructively, and who loved, and supported one another, you are more likely to expect the same in adult relationships. In addition to this, you are more likely to behave in ways that encourage constructive connection, support, and trust in others.

On the other hand, if you went through a difficult divorce as a child or grew up in a home where your parents frequently fought or emotionally withdrew from one another, this may affect the way you approach love relationships as an adult, causing you to replicate your parents’ communication patterns in your own interactions.

Children often believe that the divorce of their parents significantly threatens their safety and wellbeing. The experience of your parent’s divorce or unhealthy relationship dynamic, which remains an overwhelming memory, might contribute to the misunderstandings and biases you have as an adult in regard to romantic relationships, intimacy, and sexuality.

As a marriage and family therapist and clinical sexologist, I specialize in intimacy issues. Also, I help couples that are dealing with communication issues, conflict, falling out of love, or infidelity. Let’s connect soon so we can set up a consultation.

Filippo M. Forni, LMFT is a sex and couples therapist in Los Angeles, CA. His goal is to provide high-quality and effective goal-oriented sex and couples psychotherapy to the Los Angeles and Century City community. He has extensive training in sexuality and multiculturalism and serves as an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University Graduate School of Education and Psychology.