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There’s no doubt that the quest for love is universal. The giving and receiving of love are as fundamental to our well-being as the air we breathe. In fact, according to the maternal deprivation hypothesis infants regardless of whether they are puppies, monkeys or humans will not develop normally unless they receive the warm loving attention of a mother figure to who they can become attached.


The maternal deprivation hypothesis is substantiated by the behavioral patterns of foundling home children psychoanalyst Rene Spitz studied. Spitz’s term anaclitic depression describes the apathy, social ineptitude, physical morbid rigidity, and absence of verbal expression prevalent in these children. Similarly, psychologist Harry Harlow’s term, catatonic contracture; a bizarre form of social apathy found in rhesus monkeys raised in isolation, reinforces the premise that maternal bonding is a critical pre-requisite to developing strong or affectionate personal attachments.
Irrespective of one’s attachment template, whether secure, disorganized, avoidant, or ambivalent, the innate need for bonding (John Bowlby) compels us to find another to couple with, to turn to, to grow with, and thrive with.

Unfortunately, this natural pursuit of love is a source of tremendous distress for those afflicted by maternal deprivation, especially when it is further exacerbated by systemic abuse and neglect. As a trauma survivor and an NYC clinician of three decades in the public and private sectors of mental health and addiction, I have come to understand why the attainment of intimacy is fraught with so much anguish for those afflicted with complex trauma rooted in child abuse.


To comprehend the psychological and developmental machinations of how the trauma of child abuse impedes intimacy it is necessary to examine one’s early beginnings.


Scottish psychiatrist and psychoanalyst W. R. D. Fairbairn (1889–1964) assumed that the unconscious develops in childhood and contains dissociated memories of parental neglect, insensitivity, and outright abuse that are impossible for the child to tolerate consciously. In Fairbairn’s model, these dissociated memories protect developing children from recognizing how badly they are being treated and allow them to remain attached even to physically abusive parents.


Attachment is paramount in Fairbairn’s model, as he recognized that children are absolutely and unconditionally dependent on their parents. Emotional abandonment is death to the child. The child’s primary unconditional attachment means that traumatic life events cannot be assimilated with the victim’s inner schemata of the self in relation to the world. This is because traumatic events destroy the victim’s fundamental assumptions about the safety of the world, the positive value of the self, and the meaningful order of creation.


Ultimately the child concludes it is their innate badness that is the cause of the abuse. Paradoxically this tragic conclusion offers the abused child hope that they can change their circumstances by becoming ‘good’. This self-blame is continually reinforced by the perpetuation of abuse. This malignant sense of inner badness is often masked by the abused child’s desperate efforts to be ‘good’. Yet secretly the child believes no one truly knows them, and if their true self were recognized they would be shunned and reviled.


In spite of the corruption, danger, and despair comprising the victimized child’s world, the child must preserve hope and meaning to survive. They must preserve the primary attachment to the parents at any cost. Psychological defenses are employed to do this. The abuse is either denied or walled off, excused, or minimized. This involves dissociative states, which are induced trance states. These dissociative trance states can result in complex amnesias, hallucinations, a high tolerance for pain, or possession states. Severe dissociation can fragment the personality so that multiple alter personalities emerge.


When the authentic self is rejected, a false self adapts by becoming what others need them to be. Accordingly, the abused child grows up with no sense of who they really are. This establishes a futile plight with intimacy, as you cannot be known if you don’t know yourself. Moreover, you can’t define boundaries when a sense of self is lacking. Furthermore, having innate attachment requirements denied and thwarted results in intense and contradictory feelings of need and fear. This inner state of tension characterizes the trauma survivor’s struggle with intimacy.


For adults who were sexually abused as children, an erotic template for sadomasochism, sexual objectification, and sexual fixations is set in motion. The victim reduces oneself and others to objects, thus impeding the possibility of intimacy. Patterns of intense, unstable relationships repeatedly enact dramas of rescue, injustice, and betrayal result. Although there is a desperate longing for nurturance, relational trauma makes it difficult to establish safe and appropriate boundaries with others. Hence, the sexual abuse survivor is at further risk of repeated victimization in adult life.

4 Core Issues: Traumatic Sexualization, Stigmatization, Betrayal, and Powerlessness

Traumatic Sexualization is a result of developmentally inappropriate, premature erotization. Any gratification from the sexual exploitation is proof in the child’s mind that they instigated and bear full responsibility for the abuse. If the child ever experienced sexual pleasure, enjoyed the abuser’s special attention, bargained for favors, or used the sexual relationship to gain privileges, these sins are adduced to evidence of the child’s innate wickedness. Hence, sexual arousal becomes intertwined with shame and guilt. Additionally, the undesired sexual experience, accompanied by feelings of self-loathing and disgust, is projected onto other sexual experiences.


Stigmatization is commonly referred to as damaged goods syndrome. The negative connotations of being broken and sullied by the abuse are incorporated into the victim’s self-image. Guilt, inferiority, shame, and doubt characterize the self. The victim takes on the ‘badness’ of their abuser, thus developing a contaminated, stigmatized identity.


The Betrayal of sexual abuse leads to issues around lack of protection and self-blame. One’s belief in personal invulnerability, perceptions of the world as meaningful, and appreciation of self as positive are derailed by sexual abuse trauma. The pervasive threat of abuse induces Powerlessness, the feeling engendered when a victim’s will, desires, and sense of efficacy have been overcome or assaulted continuously.


All things considered, the traumatized wounded child who has incurred injuries from maternal deprivation, along with systemic neglect, physical, emotional, and sexual abuse will experience the repercussions of complex trauma sabotaging their quest for intimacy in adult life.

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As survivors attempt to negotiate adult relationships, the psychological defenses formed in childhood become increasingly maladaptive. The survivor’s intimate relationships are driven by the hunger for protection and care and are haunted by the fear of abandonment or exploitation.


This constant state of craving compels the traumatized child as an adult to feed their insatiable neediness with whatever is accessible. Codependent behaviors and character traits render one unable to experience appropriate levels of self-esteem, set functional boundaries with others, and own one’s reality. There is difficulty taking care of dependency issues around needing and wanting, and difficulty expressing one’s reality and sense of self.


Having learned to control and manipulate to appease parental abuse and to procure a modicum of attention, the co-dependent adult enacts these same behaviors in their adult relationships. Devoid of a formidable authentic identity, they are compelled to control others’ behavior because they are ill-equipped to handle their own emotional discomfort. The codependent distracts from their tenuous sense of identity and emptiness by compulsively and obsessively ‘fixing’ others. This deflects from their internal suffering. To alleviate the stress of co-dependency addictions may develop.
Alienated from one’s true self and hence others, traumatized people feel utterly abandoned, utterly alone, uncared for, and unprotected. This experience of disconnection induces the need to be guarded and in control. Intensity is confused with intimacy and obsession is confused with care, and control is confused with security.


Emptiness, apathy, and depression reflect the absence of a true self. In fact, the victim’s depression is emblematic of being in perpetual mourning for one’s true self. This imbues life with a feeling of unreality. Magical thinking offers illusory comfort. Holding onto the belief that an extraneous event or person can alter your reality, without having to do anything to alter your behavior is reinforced by romantic notions of ‘happily ever after,’ in which fantastical rescue scenarios afford salvation.


The pinnacle of tragedy is how the absence of unconditional positive regard in childhood contributes to an insatiable need for love, attention and affection which can result in narcissistic disorders. Violence and cruelty may be perpetrated by the victimized child as an adult, thus perpetuating generational trauma. In identifying with the offender, the powerless victimized child creates an illusion of control. In these cases the needs of the deprived child cause the adult to always feel disappointed interpersonally, seek ‘perfection’ to fill their emptiness, regulate with addictions, seek endless adulation and admiration, pursue materialism as a source of worth, and use their children to meet their narcissistic needs.


In summary, it is inevitable that the trauma of child abuse and neglect lends itself to inconceivable suffering and intimacy dysfunctions. Trauma impels people both to withdraw from close relationships and to seek them desperately. Alterations between anxious clinging and isolation occur. The terror of being alone can cause one to stay in a destructive relationship.


Given the enormity of damage incurred, recovery and reclamation of an authentic self and a quality of life for the complex trauma survivor is a demanding task. It entails traversing a grim and heartbreaking history, while carefully regulating a fragile, fragmented psyche exacerbated by flashbacks and somatic memories. The commitment to healing, while fraught with extreme discomfort and difficulty holds the promise of immeasurable rewards. This process can not occur in isolation.


Judith Lewis Herman (author of Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence-From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror) wrote,
“Repeatedly in the testimony of survivors there comes a moment when a sense of connection is restored by another person’s unaffected display of generosity. Something in herself that the victim believes to be irretrievably destroyed — faith, decency, courage — is reawakened by an example of common altruism. Mirrored in the actions of others, the survivor recognizes and reclaims a lost part of herself. At that moment, the survivor begins to rejoin the human commonality…”


Indeed, as Herman conveys, it was inhumanity that took an egregious toll and it is humanity that offers a healing bridge to recovery. Corrective sustaining bonds with a therapist, peers, the solidarity of a group, and ultimately a romantic partner champions the trauma survivor, encouraging them to stay the course and fully face what was done, and what the traumas led the survivor to do under extreme circumstances. The survivor is challenged to mourn the loss of one’s integrity, the loss of trust, the capacity to love, and the belief in a ‘good enough parent’.


With the ego strength to face the profound level of despair that would have shattered the victim in childhood, through the mourning process, the survivor begins to reevaluate their identity as a ‘”bad” person, and in so doing begins to feel worthy of relationships that allow for authenticity and nourishment. It is here that the birthright of which the survivor was robbed can finally be reclaimed.

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