We rarely choose who we fall in love with, and we never get to control what their life was like before we met them. If you’re dating someone who experienced significant trauma when they were a child, it’s helpful to know what to expect and how you can help.
In this article, I’m going to explain the different kinds of abuse that people can experience as children, how you might know that they’ve experienced trauma in the past, and the steps you can take to help them deal with everything they’ve been through and process their trauma.
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Before we dig deeper into what we can do to support a partner with substantial childhood trauma, let’s be clear about the kinds of trauma we’re talking about.
The first type of childhood trauma we’re going to talk about here is physical abuse. This is when an adult in a child’s life causes them physical pain and harm. Physical abuse can be a single incident, but it’s more common for this to be a pattern of behavior across weeks, months, or even years.
Some physical abuse will leave marks and even scars that remain visible well into adulthood. Other types may be invisible.
Children who are subjected to physical abuse are often also made to lie to other adults about how they were hurt.1 This can constitute additional emotional abuse as well.
Where physical abuse means hurting the child’s body, emotional abuse is harming their emotional and psychological selves. Emotional and psychological abuse includes a wide range of different behaviors designed to scare, humiliate, degrade, manipulate, or isolate a child.2
Emotional abuse stops a child from feeling safe enough to grow into a confident, self-assured adult. They will often become very timid and put a lot of effort into managing the emotions of the adults around them.
Some emotional abuse is active. This would include threatening the child or shouting at them and calling them names.
Other types of emotional abuse are passive. They’re things that someone didn’t do for the child that they needed. These include:
Someone engaging in sexual activity with a child is committing abuse. There are two main types of child sexual abuse; contact abuse and non-contact abuse. Contact abuse is when someone makes physical contact with them in a sexual way.
Non-contact sexual abuse means that someone is engaging with the child sexually without touching them, for example asking for sexual pictures or showing them pornography.
Being the victim of childhood sexual abuse makes it difficult for someone to understand their own sexual agency and to develop healthy physical and sexual boundaries for themselves and others.3
Neglect is the most common form of child abuse.4 The child might be left alone for long periods of time, not given sufficient food, clothing, or shelter, or not be taken to school or medical appointments.
Children who were neglected often won’t recognize their experiences as abuse, even when they look back as an adult. They might have explanations about why their parents weren’t there for them and they’ll often blame themselves.
Approximately 5% of children experience the death of a parent.5 If a child experiences the loss of a parent or significant adult in their lives, it can have a significant impact on their adult life. They might be more prone to depression and anxiety, for example.6
Bereavement as a child also impacts your attachment style. Someone who lost a parent at a young age is more likely to have an insecure attachment style, which can make it harder to have open, trusting romantic relationships.5
Bullying isn’t just a normal part of growing up. Bullying is designed to make a child feel alone, afraid, and unworthy. It can have a huge impact on their life as an adult, especially if they felt as though their experiences were ignored or even condoned by their parents or their school.
Bullying can include physical and emotional harm. It also includes cyberbullying. Cyberbullying is especially difficult for children and young people because it continues to happen even when they’re at home alone. This can leave them feeling hopeless because they don’t see any way to escape.
It’s incredibly difficult to identify people who have experienced childhood trauma, especially if they’re generally high-functioning. By the time they’ve reached adulthood, they’ve often found ways to hide or mask most of their difficulties.
That said, here are some signs that might indicate that you’re dating a man with a bad childhood.
Some forms of trauma can lead someone to become conflict-averse. This is most likely if they were the victim of physical or emotional abuse. When they experience an argument or conflict in their relationship, they feel as though they’re likely to be hurt or damaged all over again.
This can manifest in different ways. They might avoid disagreeing with you or they might end a conversation at the first hint of conflict. They might also experience conflict as more intense than it seems to others.
For example, a guy with childhood trauma might just walk away when you try to explain that you’re frustrated about him being late. He (subconsciously) feels as though he’s about to be hurt just like he was when he was a child. He’s taking himself away to let him feel safe again.
People who have experienced childhood trauma will also often have very strong emotional responses to things that you don’t expect or understand.
For example, if you had a healthy childhood you might be perfectly comfortable saying “I absolutely don’t want to watch football tonight. I know it’s the final, but I’ve had enough of it. If you want to watch it, why don’t you head over to John’s and watch it there.”
If you’re dating a man with childhood trauma, he might hear that as you saying “I hate you for making me watch football last week. You’re a horrible person and I never want you in the house again.” Obviously, you didn’t say that. But that’s what they’re having an emotional response to.
A man who had a traumatic childhood often didn’t learn to turn to other people for love, comfort, and support when things get difficult. Instead, he learned that other people wouldn’t keep him safe. Often, he might only have felt truly safe when he was alone.
This pattern repeats when he’s an adult. If he’s stressed, upset, or struggling, he’s likely to pull away from you and try to deal with it by himself. This can be upsetting when you care about him and want to help, but it’s the only way he knows how to cope.
This is partly due to his trauma leading him to develop a disorganized (also known as fearful-avoidant) attachment style.7
One of the most damaging things about having had a traumatic childhood is that it makes it difficult to believe that you are safe and loved, or even that you’re worth loving.
A man who was abused, neglected, or harmed during his childhood will probably have tried to find a way to make sense of what happened to him. Unfortunately, the way most children do this is by blaming themselves and believing that they did something to deserve what happened or that they caused it in some way.
This is often a subconscious belief. He won’t come straight out and say “I’m unlovable” because it’s not a conscious thought. Instead, he’ll be surprised when you show him affection and expect every small mistake to mean that you’re about to reject him.
The single most powerful thing that you can do to support a man with childhood trauma is to believe him when he tells you about it. Listen to what he’s telling you and respect the courage it has taken for him to open up and be so honest with you.
Hearing about someone else’s traumatic childhood can be difficult, especially if it’s so dramatically different from your own. To make ourselves feel better, it’s natural to want to ‘play down’ what happened and try to fit it within our own frame of reference. Don’t do this.
For example, if he tells you that his parents were emotionally abusive, you might remember times when your parents yelled at you for fighting with your sister and try to imagine what it would be like if that happened more often. But that’s not what he told you. He told you that his parents were abusive.
I’ve already mentioned that lots of people who were the victims of neglect and abuse as children can struggle to describe what happened to them as abuse. They’ll make excuses or give explanations. Research shows that relying on people describing their own experience of abuse leads to underreporting, not overreporting.8
If he says that it was abuse, the chances are that it was either much more severe than you understand, or he’s worked with a therapist to understand what happened to him. Most people don’t throw around the term abuse lightly, especially if they’ve experienced it.
So, how can you show him that you believe him? It might sound obvious, but make sure that you actually use those words. You might say “I’m sorry you had to go through that. I want you to know that I believe in and support you wholeheartedly.”
Be careful about how you ask questions. Questions such as “So, they didn’t actually hit you?” or “but why didn’t you tell anyone?” might feel like you’re just trying to understand, but they often sound like you’re trying to test whether they’re telling the truth.
It’s natural to want to know and understand, but that’s not the priority when he’s first opening up to you. You don’t need to know the details of what happened to him to support him.
Instead, try saying “thank you so much for trusting me with this. I’m here to listen to anything that you feel comfortable telling me but I also don’t want to pry into anything that you don’t want to share.”
The second thing to remember is that it’s not your role to fix him. Even if he’s carrying scars and damage from his bad childhood, he’s not “broken” and he doesn’t need you to make him better.
That’s really hard for most of us to accept because we desperately want to support and care for someone we love, especially if we find out that they’ve been through something so horrible.
Remind yourself that your role is to support him in dealing with his trauma, not fixing it for him. He’s the only person who knows what it was like to live through that and he’s the only one who can heal the damage.
If you had a traumatic childhood of your own, you’re going to have to be especially careful. You might want to push him toward things that were helpful for you. You might even want to “save” him the way you wish someone had been able to save you.
Take a step back and remember that one of the awful things about childhood trauma is how powerless children are to set their own boundaries and protect themselves. His healing needs to come from a place where he’s taking back the power to protect and heal himself. Your job is to cheer from the sidelines.
One thing that you can absolutely do to help him deal with the emotional consequences of his childhood trauma is to make sure that you’re dealing with your own baggage. People who were hurt or abused as children often become acutely aware of the people around them. He can’t focus on his own healing if he’s constantly worried about the effect his trauma is having on you.
Find someone confidential to talk to. This might be a support group where you can share your feelings of pain and grief for your partner. You might want access to a helpline sometimes when you’re feeling overwhelmed by sadness about it all. If possible, find yourself a great therapist to help support and guide you through this process.
It might be helpful to let him know that you have support available and that you’re taking care of yourself but be careful how you present it. Don’t say “I have support to help me deal with what happened to you.” That sounds like it’s something you’re struggling with and focuses on your feelings.
Instead, try “I don’t want you to bottle things up to protect me. I have a great support network including a wonderful therapist. I promise that I’m looking after myself properly and I’ll let you know if I’m struggling. Until then, try to focus on you and your healing.”
Our culture often expects men to bottle up their feelings and not to talk about the things that cause them emotional pain. It’s important that he knows that he can talk to you about absolutely anything, including his childhood trauma, and that you’re caring and supportive.
At this point, I’m going to refer you back to points 2 and 3 of this list. You need to be available for him to turn to, but that doesn’t mean you should push him into talking about things if he doesn’t want to. Even if you’re sure that talking about it would help him, it’s not your decision.
Also, you need to be able to handle what he tells you without making your feelings his problem. Draw on that strong support network to make sure that you offer him your support and care without setting yourself up for burnout or vicarious trauma.
Tell him that you’re ready to listen whenever he wants to open up. Let him talk about unrelated things as he tries to feel comfortable opening up. Follow his pace.
If you’re listening to him talk about his childhood trauma, try not to get hung up on the details of “who”, “what”, “when”, or “where”. Those things are important to him, but they don’t matter to your ability to support him. Your focus should usually be on how he felt then and how he’s feeling now.
One thing that we rarely talk about when we’re trying to get someone to open up to us is that we need to be sure that we actually deserve their trust. This is especially true if you’re dating a man with childhood trauma and he’s trying to share his experiences.
What can you do to deserve his trust? There are lots of things:
Lots of people with a traumatic childhood can develop PTSD or other problems around anxiety and depression. These can often come with triggers, which are things that can automatically make their mental health dramatically worse.
Understanding what his triggers are can be really helpful in working to keep him feeling healthy and happy in your relationship. If he hasn’t had much help dealing with his trauma, he might not know what his triggers are. In these cases, you can help him to understand himself far better.
Look out for things that seem to create strong emotional reactions in him. It might be that he seems tense and angry every time you go to the beach together. There might be specific words, sounds, or smells that have a negative impact on him.
If you notice something that he might not have realized, you can gently suggest it to him. Be humble and remember that you’re only ever guessing about what’s going on for him.
Try saying “I’m not certain about this, but I’ve noticed that you love going to the beach but your mood seems to drop really badly on the way home and you’re often depressed for a few days afterward. I’m just wondering whether there’s something about the beach trips that might be linked to a painful memory?”
Remember that someone who has experienced childhood trauma will almost certainly have felt powerless and controlled. They were in a situation that was hurting them and they had no real way to understand it or change it. They need to rebuild their confidence and belief in their own autonomy and ability. That isn’t going to happen overnight.
Don’t expect him to be able to open up and have everything be ok straight away. He’s going to have periods of feeling better and times when he feels much worse. That’s normal. No one can control that timetable.
He might be frustrated with himself about how long it’s taking for him to heal. Lots of survivors of a bad childhood are angry at themselves for how their childhood trauma affects their relationships. They might feel weak for not having “gotten over it” yet.
Loving a childhood trauma survivor is a long-haul process. Be patient and loving and give him the time he needs to heal in his own way.
As I’ve already said, you can’t be responsible for fixing him. You also can’t push him into effective therapy. He’s only going to get as much out of therapy as he puts in. If he’s only seeing a therapist to please you, he’s probably going to decide that it’s not working and quit.
Instead of pushing him, make sure that he can see the benefits therapy is bringing to your life. Reduce the stigma of seeking help, offer it as a suggestion, and then wait to see when he’s ready to accept it.
Therapy isn’t a direct route toward great mental health. It often involves unpicking old coping strategies and opening old wounds. This can leave him feeling much worse before he starts to feel better.
This is an essential process. It’s much like taking the grit out of a cut before you let it heal over. It’s how you allow true healing. Being aware of this and prepared for the challenging times to come is invaluable.
Getting therapy for childhood trauma isn’t something that’s going to lead to true healing within the next 1-2 months. He has deep-rooted problems and it’s going to take time to identify and process them.
Lots of people will give up on therapy after a single unhelpful experience. They might also assume that they know what therapy is based on just one style of therapy.
There are many different types of therapy to try but the most important thing is that he trusts his therapist and feels comfortable opening up to them and working together to fix his issues. This relationship is shown to be the most important aspect of successful therapy (even more important than the type of therapy used).9
Try not to have unrealistic expectations of what he’ll be like after therapy. The purpose of therapy isn’t to radically change who he is as a person. It’s also not going to undo his childhood trauma or make things be the way they would have been if it had never happened.
If he’s estranged from his family, he might still decide to continue that estrangement after therapy. He might still have things that he struggles with. The main difference is that therapy will have given him the tools to handle that struggle successfully.
It’s helpful to suggest therapy to someone with childhood trauma, but you shouldn’t try to pressure or force them into it. Therapy is only effective if people are actively involved and working both during and after their sessions.
Someone who has had a traumatic childhood will always carry those memories, but that doesn’t mean that they have to be controlled by them. Dealing with the past and learning to love and value yourself is key to overcoming the effects of childhood trauma and building healthy relationships.
A man with childhood trauma can absolutely have healthy and loving relationships. Some people with a traumatic past have enormous empathy and value respect and consent above all else. He might have things that he has to deal with, but his traumatic past doesn’t make him a bad partner.
Dating a man with childhood trauma can be challenging. You might need to put your own feelings aside for a while as you help him open up. Being a supportive partner and helping him understand his past can help you build an incredible relationship based on mutual respect and trust.
Have you dated a man with a bad childhood? Let me know how it went in the comments. And send this article to anyone who might benefit from knowing how to help someone they love.