Childhood Sexual Abuse Affects Relationships in Adulthood

By Lang, Susan S. | Human Ecology Forum, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Childhood Sexual Abuse Affects Relationships in Adulthood


Lang, Susan S., Human Ecology Forum


College women who were sexually abused before age eighteen tend to have less secure and trusting relationships with their partners and lower levels of interpersonal functioning and social adjustment than college women who were not abused, according to a new Cornell University study.

College women who were sexually abused as children also show more signs of posttraumatic stress disorder than other college women, particularly if they had less secure and responsive relationships with their mothers or primary caregivers during childhood.

"In other words, our findings suggest that how sexual abuse affects overall mental health in later life depends on the quality of the abused girl's childhood attachment," says Margaret Feerick, a doctoral student in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies, and her adviser, Jeffrey Haugaard, associate professor. "Girls with a secure, responsive relationship in childhood with their mothers or other primary caregivers have some protection against the long-term negative effects that sexual abuse has on other college women who were abused as children."

Although other researchers have looked at the impact of sexual abuse on behavior problems and adjustment difficulties, the researchers believe their study is one of the first to explore the long-term effects of sexual abuse on attachment in later life and to examine the rote of childhood attachment relationships in moderating the effects of sexual abuse.

"We looked at attachment because attachment theory provides a model of individual development in the context of family relationships, whereby the child's sense of self and personality organization are shaped by his or her earliest relationships, particularly the relationship with the primary caregiver," explains Feerick.

Haugaard and Feerick analyzed questionnaires from 313 undergraduate women at Cornell. …

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Childhood Sexual Abuse Affects Relationships in Adulthood
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