When we’re born, we don’t have any concept of what a healthy relationship looks like. A small child lacks perspective and the ability to critically evaluate their environment. They also lack independence, by the very nature of being a small, helpless, dependent child, and therefore must accept and justify their relationship with their caregivers in order to survive, no matter how bad that relationship is.
Furthermore, our relationships with our primary caregivers, and our early relationships in general, become blueprints for our future relationships. And so whatever model we are raised with, it will likely become what we will consciously or unconsciously seek in later relationships.
Let’s explore five common relationship models or roles that people adopt as a result of adverse childhood relationships and social environments.
People who come from a childhood environment that was chaotic, unpredictable, stressful, or downright abusive often have trust issues later in life. As a result, it is very difficult for them to have fulfilling relationships as an adult.
They tend to think that you can’t trust anyone, that everyone is completely selfish, that nobody would ever care about you, that you can’t rely on anyone and have to do everything yourself, that others will necessarily hurt you, and so on.
They also have difficulties building emotional bonds as it can be very difficult for them to open up, express their feelings, and believe that others have good intentions or are telling the truth.
Another relationship dynamic is when you idealize others, especially romantic partners or authorities, and tend to psychologically depend on others.
People who lacked love and attention as children tend to project their fantasies of an ever-loving parent onto significant people later in life. This is in the hope that they will finally have a caregiver who loves them unconditionally and is everything they want them to be.
Such an adult is likely to have a fantasy of what the other person is instead of actually accepting others for who they really are. Here, you are easily infatuated or enamored with the other person, and then gradually become more and more disgruntled and frustrated when you are forced to accept reality that they are not who you want them to be.
Many people who were overtly abused, neglected, and otherwise traumatized tend to act out their unprocessed traumas onto others as adults. One of the ways to do that is to be controlling and violating of other people’s boundaries.
Controlling people try to be in charge of how others live their lives. They unconsciously seek to compensate for the lack of control they felt as children. Or they may act out what has been done to them when they were small, weak, and helpless.
They can often be unreasonably critical, intrusive, and overbearing. They usually can’t maintain a relationship with others where both parties treat each other as equals, and look for people who are dependent, weaker, lost, or confused.
Dependent people usually have severe problems with low self-esteem. They also suffer from learned helplessness where they feel—or actually are—way less functional than a grown up should be. So they look for a surrogate parent to cling onto.
That’s why they often get into relationships with narcissistic and otherwise controlling types who are happy to take care of your problems and organize your life, which for many can sound very appealing. Here, you accept a role of a person who is submissive and compliant while the other person is dominant, controlling, and quick to make decisions for you.
Sadly, such relationships are doomed to fail and both parties end up feeling miserable.
Self-sacrifice is often a subset of a dependent pattern, although it can be found elsewhere, too.
Here, as a child you were raised to believe that your needs, wants, preferences, feelings, and goals were not important and your role is to serve and please others. And so that’s the pattern that you learned.
In adulthood such a person often feels empty if they don’t have anyone to take care of or validate their life. They have problems with self-care. They also tend to feel unmotivated, passive, and sensitive to other people’s opinions of them.
They can carry an overwhelming sense of unjust responsibility (false shame and guilt) and are consequently easily manipulated by people who like taking advantage of others (e.g., the controlling types).
And yet, such a person doesn’t know how to have social relationships without self-sacrificing and self-erasing.
Summary and final thoughts
Our childhood environment and relationships with the most significant people around us, mainly our primary caregivers, teach us different relationship models and dynamics that we later enact in our adult relationships.
Some general patterns are: distrustful, idealizing, controlling, dependent, and self-sacrificing. Sometimes a person exhibits a few or many different patterns. Sometimes the roles and dynamics vary depending on the social environment they are in. They may even be reversed from what we experienced as children.
And while our childhood programming has an enormous impact on our future, on how we feel, think, and act today, by examining, processing, and working on it we can slowly overcome it and be free from it. Yes, it can be an extremely challenging task, and many choose not to take it on and continue in misery. But you can make a decision to work on it and stick to it even when it seems impossible.
For more on these and other topics, check out the author’s books: Human Development and Trauma: How Childhood Shapes Us into Who We Are as Adults and Self-Work Starter Kit.