Undetected Scars? Self-Criticism, Attachment, and Romantic Relationships Among Otherwise Well-Functioning Childhood Sexual Abuse Survivors

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Background: Studies have consistently demonstrated the negative impact of childhood sexual abuse (CSA) on intimate relationships. The majority of studies have focused on revictimization in at-risk or clinical samples, with very few addressing the impact of CSA on otherwise well-functioning adults and even fewer investigating the psychological mechanisms involved. To fill this gap, this study focuses on the effect of CSA on “normative” (nonviolent) romantic relationships in otherwise well-functioning young women, and the mediating role of personality dimension self-criticism and attachment in this regard. Specifically, we investigate whether self-criticism and attachment avoidance mediate the relationship between CSA and romantic relationship satisfaction, while also examining the potential reciprocal associations between these variables. Method: The hypothesized mediation model was examined in a 2-wave, 6-month, cross-lagged longitudinal design, using structural equation modeling. Participants were 59 well-functioning (psychologically, socially, occupationally) young women drawn from an earlier study that purposefully oversampled for CSA survivors. For the purpose of the current study, data from women who had been either sexually abused by a familiar perpetrator (n = 30) or had no history of sexual trauma (n = 29) were included. Results: Consistent with expectations, self-criticism mediated the association between CSA and romantic relationship satisfaction over time. In addition, a scarring effect of romantic relationship satisfaction on attachment avoidance was demonstrated. Conclusion: Findings suggest that CSA may lead to elevated levels of self-criticism, which in turn may be linked with reduced satisfaction in romantic relationships, setting in motion a vicious cycle involving relationship satisfaction and attachment avoidance.

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