The Cycle of Sexual Abuse and Abusive Adult Relationships

Why Sexually Abused Children Grow Up to Have Abusive Relationships

People who were sexually abused in childhood often engage in abusive relationships as adults. They might repeatedly find themselves in adult relationships where they are abused physically, emotionally, or sexually.

If you are a survivor of child abuse or know someone who might be, call or text the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-422-4453 to speak with a professional crisis counselor.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Some even become abusive themselves. It can be hard to understand why someone who has been sexually abused in childhood would engage in an abusive relationship again. Maureen Canning, MA, LMFT, herself a child abuse survivor, recovered sex addict, and relationship therapist, explains the many reasons in her book Lust, Anger, Love: Understanding Sexual Addiction and the Road to Healthy Intimacy. The top ten reasons sexually abused children grow up to have abusive relationships in adulthood include the following.


It Feels Familiar

Girl Hiding in Corner
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If the connection between abuse and "love" is made early in life, the feelings of shame and anger, which naturally happen as a consequence of the abuse, can become mixed up with sexual feelings, leading to confusion in the person who experienced the abuse. These feelings may become interpreted as feelings of love and passion, and can lead to sexual arousal.

People who have been abused may not realize other, healthier, ways of feeling in relationships are possible.

They may believe they are attracted to or feel love for their abuser, sometimes even thinking they have a special connection to the abuser, as it taps into feelings of intimacy associated with the abuse, that were imprinted at a very early age. So when they are later abused in an intimate relationship, they perceive the familiar feelings of shame and anger as love and passion.


It Is an Attempt to Heal

A survivor of childhood sexual abuse may try to undo the abuse by taking back power. By engaging in a relationship with another abuser, they can try to relive the relationship with their original abuser in the hope that they can get it right this time.


They May Feel Inadequate

People who were abused as children may believe, on some deep level, that they are not good enough to deserve a genuinely caring relationship. They may feel in a one-down position to others, making it hard to accept real love. They may have even been convinced by their abuser that they deserved the abuse. This is never true as no-one deserves to be mistreated.


They May Feel Grandiose

Strange as it may seem, people who were abused may counteract the feelings of inadequacy by believing that they are better than others. They may have a hard time respecting other people as equals. They feel in a one-up position to others, making it hard to enter a mutually loving, respectful relationship. They may even feel one-down to some people, and one-up to others, engaging in abusive relationships at the same time they are being abused by others.


It is a Search for Power and Control

By becoming an abuser, someone who has been abused can play the role of the more powerful person in the relationship in an attempt to overcome the powerlessness they felt when they were being abused. Unfortunately, this is not effective, and they may repeatedly dominate others in a futile attempt to get over the weakness they experienced.


They May Be Sexually Aroused by Abusive Behavior

Sexual arousal is a normal human experience, and is often a normal response to sexual contact. In some cases, if early sexual experiences involved abuse, survivors may become sexually aroused by abusive behavior. This does not mean they want or wanted to be abused, or that they genuinely enjoy abuse, and not all survivors of abuse experience this.


They May Feel Very Angry

People who have been abused may carry a lot of anger about what happened to them and abuse can be a way to express that anger. Even if they have pushed the anger out of their conscious awareness, it can come out in subtle or not-so-subtle ways in intimate relationships or parenting style.


They May Try to Hurt Others Before Being Hurt

If abuse and hurt feels inevitable, people who have been abused may view sexual relationships as predatory and react with avoidance or hostility towards partners or suitors.


They May be Searching for Intensity

When children are traumatized through sexual abuse, they may associate or confuse intensity with pleasure. They may be attracted to abusive individuals and high-risk activities in order to feel pleasure, as they need the rush of danger in order to feel aroused or to experience orgasm.


Living a Fantasy Feels Safer Than Reality

Because abuse is so painful, people who have been abused may cope by retreating into a fantasy world. This may include idealizing others to the point where abusive partners are seen as wonderful, or others are abused as a result of the overwhelming disappointment felt when they cannot live up to the fantasy.

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