It can feel like such a cliché when you first go to therapy and eventually, at some point, end up talking about your parents. Not all parents mess up their kids in profound ways, but having an emotionally abusive parent changes every relationship a person has throughout their life. Luckily, that doesn’t mean a person is ruined or hopeless. Just the opposite, actually. Growing up in a household that’s not emotionally safe can make you stronger later in life — and your adult relationships can eventually end up being so much more rewarding because of it.
That said, having an emotionally abusive parent does often result in doing a lot of emotional work on yourself, whether that’s through therapy or just growing up one day and realizing that your emotionally abusive parent’s issues aren’t your own.
It’s not easy, no matter how it manifests or how you get through it and beyond it.
Even if you’ve had a “healthy” relationship with your parents throughout your life, or now, finally, the way you’re raised affects how you get intimate with other people, so your friendships and romantic partnerships are all impacted by the attachment you had to your parents. It all comes back to attachment theory, which is widely accepted by mental health experts to explain a massive amount about how we interact with people. According to the National Institutes of Health, how an infant attaches to a parent or caregiver will predict their social and emotional outcomes later in life. Attachment isn’t just about bonding, though.
“Attachment is one specific and circumscribed aspect of the relationship between a child and caregiver that is involved with making the child safe, secure and protected,” according to the NIH.
Basically, attachment theory says that as human beings, we naturally want to be around other people because being loved and loving people back makes all of us feel safe. Somewhere deep down in our DNA, we’re pack animals. But when a member of our pack, especially a parent, is emotionally abusive to us, there’s no way to feel safe and it totally messes with how we interact with other humans later on.
Emotional abuse can come in so many forms.
Mayra Mendez, PhD, LMFT, told Bustle, “Emotional abuse includes behaviors by caregivers that includes verbal and emotional assault such as continually criticizing, humiliating, belittling or berating a child, as well as isolating, ignoring, or rejecting a child. Emotional abuse results in injury to a child’s self-esteem and damages a child’s emotional or psychological well-being.”
Growing up around any (or all) of that means that you end up possibly having super low self esteem, being unable to trust other people, or just always feeling like your entire existence is a problem, which leads to accepting all sorts of BS in adult relationships. Children who grow up in emotionally abusive homes are also likely to suffer from anxiety, depression, and in the worst cases, PTSD.
An American Psychological Association report found that “children who are emotionally abused and neglected face similar and sometimes worse mental health problems as children who are physically or sexually abused, yet psychological abuse is rarely addressed in prevention programs or in treating victims.”
So yeah, your bully mother or totally disinterested dad can totally leave you holding a heap of mental health struggles, even if they never laid a hand on you.
All of those effects of emotional abuse should theoretically make it really hard to have a healthy, loving relationship with someone else, but actually they’re a testament to how badass and strong we are. Yes, that sounds like a Hallmark card, but it’s true.
When you’re still figuring out just how properly messed up your emotionally abusive childhood really was, relationships can be tricky and sometimes terrifying. It can also be super hard to not get stuck in a cycle of replicating (subconsciously, obviously) your crappy relationship with your parents with romantic partners and toxic friends, which can be really dangerous.
If you find yourself repeating the same toxic mistakes, it might be time to talk to a mental health professional about it. Talking about it with a professional means you learn a *lot* about yourself and can maybe stop feeling awful all the time. You start to learn that “self worth” isn’t some cheesy thing people put on inspirational memes but an actual thing you actively have, which is something that doesn’t come naturally to people who’ve been emotionally abused.
As result, you get really good at spotting the people who aren’t worth your time.
There’s a lot to be said for making mistakes when it comes to love and trial and error in friendships. It sucks that your relationship with your actual family isn’t ideal (or even is a total disaster), but dealing with hurt, rejection, and all that awful stuff early on in life can better prepare you for it later on. You become kind of a pro at knowing what you can put up with and what you have to give back to people based on how they treat you. Having had emotionally abusive parents, you have the perfect model for what you don’t ever need in a relationship.
Since you’ve never had a parent to teach you that you’re worthy and safe, you end up having to learn how to validate yourself , which can make you a better partner once you learn how to do it. It also means that you eventually become really picky about who you get intimate with, who let into your life, who you open up to.
As you grow up and have more successful and shitty relationships, you start to realize that your emotionally abusive parents didn’t screw you up at all. They sort of turned you into a relationship warrior. Since you’ve been through hell trying to have fulfilling relationships, you know a good one when you see it. And you sure as hell will do everything you can to keep it that way.