9 Reasons the Cycle of Abuse Continues

Why Sexually Abused Children Grow Up to Have Abusive Relationships

People who were sexually abused in childhood may have a higher risk of being in adult relationships where they are abused physically, emotionally, or sexually. In some cases, people who were victimized may become abusive themselves. This pattern is known as a cycle of abuse.

It can be hard to understand why someone who has been sexually abused in childhood would engage in an abusive relationship again. This article discusses some of the reasons sexually abused children grow up to have abusive relationships in adulthood.


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 that 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. Their experience taps into feelings of intimacy associated with abuse that were imprinted at a very early age. When they are later abused in an intimate relationship, they perceive the familiar feelings of shame and anger as love and passion.


Early childhood experiences with abuse can create associations that persist into adulthood.


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.

Similarly, 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. Unfortunately, this is not effective, and they may repeatedly dominate others in a futile attempt to get over the weakness they experienced.


The cycle of abuse may be related to an attempt to heal from past trauma or to regain a sense of power and control.


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 submissive 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 that they are in a superior position to others, making it hard to enter a mutually loving, respectful relationship.

They may even feel superior to some people, and inferior to others, engaging in abusive relationships at the same time they are being abused by others.


Abuse may affect a person's ability to feel empathy for others. This can lead to feelings of superiority that make it difficult to form healthy relationships in adulthood.


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. Not all survivors of abuse experience this.


They Feel Angry

People who have been abused may carry a lot of anger about what happened to them. 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 styles.


They Feel Insecure

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

People who experienced abuse early in life may have formed an avoidance attachment style in childhood. This may cause them to avoid forming close relationships in adulthood, which can lead to behaviors such as pushing others away or responding to attempts at closeness with anger.


People who have experienced abuse may struggle with feelings of insecurity that affect their ability to trust others. This can cause them to respond with avoidance or hostility.


They Are 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.


They Want to Avoid 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.


There are many factors that can contribute to the ongoing cycle of abuse. People who experienced sexual abuse as children may struggle with confusing associations between love and abuse. They may also experience problems with anger, trust, control, and insecurity. It is important to remember that every person is different and not everyone who was sexually abused will experience these effects.

A Word From Verywell

The cycle of abuse can cause people who were abused in childhood to either perpetuate abuse in adulthood or become involved in abusive relationships with others.

It is important to recognize that there are also many other factors that can increase a person's risk of becoming abusive or being abused. A history of childhood sexual abuse is one risk factor. Other factors include having a substance use disorder or having another mental health condition. Lack of social support and socioeconomic stress also play a role.

If you are concerned that you might engage in abuse, talk to a healthcare provider or therapist. They can refer you to resources that may help, including psychotherapy and support groups.

If you or a loved one are a victim of domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for confidential assistance from trained advocates.

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

12 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD
Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD is a psychologist, professor, and Director of the Centre for Health Leadership and Research at Royal Roads University, Canada.