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How Childhood Abuse Affects a Man’s Adult Relationships with Women

Jesse James had his own TV show and was known for making customized motorcycles before he married superstar Sandra Bullock. In 2010, he publicly apologized to her after rumors of his infidelity caused a media frenzy. Fans of Bullock could not understand why he would cheat on a beautiful, Academy Award-winning actress for a tattoo model.

After he entered rehabilitation for what he called “personal issues,” James appeared on ABC’s Nightline to explain his behavior. He said that his father had physically and emotionally abused him throughout his childhood and that “I’ve never had a real chance to be a kid. I was always scared.” During rehab, he learned that he self-sabotaged his success and marriage because “I believed I was not good enough.”

Some people took James’ explanation as a way of not “manning up” to what he had done. Yet psychologists who study men who endure abusive childhoods would probably agree that James was not being self-serving but rather that he was telling the truth. The public reaction that he was “whiny” or self-serving is typical and part of the reason why men are very reluctant to be open about their childhood abuse and how it affects their current relationships.

An abused boy has been told over and over again how worthless he is and that he doesn’t deserve anything to make him happy, such as a marriage to a desirable and wholesome woman. When he does enter a good relationship, he feels inadequate and may sabotage it by cheating — especially with someone who does not seem to measure up with his current partner. His abusive parent or caretaker taught him how to be overly critical of himself until self-criticism became a defining part of his personality, ultimately destroying all his relationships in general and his romantic relationships in particular.

Abused men have higher levels of psychopathology and higher rates of depression, both of which are correlated with higher rates of romantic infidelity. If the man was sexually abused as a child, he might have learned how to devalue sex and this, in turn, creates another set of problems in his marriage.

Abused boys also learn to do away with their emotions by a process psychologists call dissociation or numbing. They are unable to trust loved ones enough to open up emotionally and become vulnerable — both of which are necessary for true intimacy.

These men can usually master the beginning stages of love that are about infatuation and excitement, but once the relationship transitions into something more mature, the trouble begins. If a man’s father was unfaithful to his mother, his chances of being unfaithful to his wife particularly increase.

If his father was the abuser, a man could grow up to be an abuser himself. These men have extreme difficulty confronting feelings of helplessness and vulnerability that they felt when they were being abused as children and take the role of the abuser to feel powerful and in control.

On the other hand, an abused man will sometimes pick partners who remind him of his abusive parent or caretaker. The drama, criticism, and emotional intensity of the relationship are at his comfort level because they are so familiar.

If you are a man who cheats because you have unresolved childhood issues, your situation will not improve until you address your painful history. If you are a woman who’s involved with a man who is sabotaging your relationship through infidelity, you may need to seek professional help. Damaged people can do damage to other people. Yet it is also true that damaged people can change and that life always offers a choice to become the person you were meant to become.