Nav: Home

Childhood family environment linked with relationship quality 60 years later

October 11, 2016

Growing up in a warm family environment in childhood is associated with feeling more secure in romantic relationships in one's 80s, according to new research published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. The findings show that men who grew up in caring homes were more adept at managing stressful emotions when assessed as middle-aged adults, which helps to explain why they had more secure marriages late in life.

"Our study shows that the influences of childhood experiences can be demonstrated even when people reach their 80s, predicting how happy and secure they are in their marriages as octogenarians," says researcher Robert Waldinger of Harvard Medical School. "We found that this link occurs in part because warmer childhoods promote better emotion management and interpersonal skills at midlife, and these skills predict more secure marriages in late life."

The unique longitudinal study, which followed the same individuals for over six decades beginning in adolescence, provides evidence for the life-long effects of childhood experiences.

"With all the things that happen to human beings and influence them between adolescence and the ninth decade of life, it's remarkable that the influence of childhood on late-life marriage can still be seen," notes Marc Schulz, study co-author and professor at Bryn Mawr College.

Waldinger and Schulz examined data collected from 81 men who participated in a 78-year study of adult development, 51 of whom were part of a Harvard College cohort and 30 of whom were part of an inner-city Boston cohort. All of the men completed regular interviews and questionnaires throughout the course of the study.

To gauge the participants' early home environment, the researchers examined data collected when the participants were adolescents, including participants' reports about their home life, interviews with the participants' parents, and developmental histories recorded by a social worker. The researchers used these data to create a composite measure of family environment.

When the participants were 45 to 50 years old, they completed interviews in which they discussed the challenges they encountered in various aspects of their lives, including their relationships, their physical health, and their work. The research team used the original interview notes to rate participants' ability to manage their emotions in response to these challenges.

Finally, when participants were in their late 70s or early 80s, they completed a semistructured interview that focused on their attachment bond with their current partner. In these interviews, they were asked to talk about their marriages, including how comfortable they were depending on their partner and providing support to their partner. The researchers used data from these interviews to establish an overall rating of participants' security of attachment to their partner.

Waldinger and Schulz found that participants who had a nurturing family environment early in life were more likely to have secure attachments to their romantic partners late in life. Further analyses indicated that this association could be explained, in part, by better emotion regulation skills in midlife.

These results add to previous research showing that the quality of people's early home environments can have "far-reaching effects on wellbeing, life achievement, and relationship functioning throughout the lifespan," says Waldinger.

Taken together, these findings highlight the life-long effects of childhood experience, emphasize the importance of prioritizing the wellbeing of children, and suggest that supporting adaptive emotion management skills may help to lessen the impact of early childhood adversity, Waldinger and Schulz conclude.
-end-
This work was supported by grants from the National Institute of Mental Health (R01MH42248) and the National Institutes on Aging (R01AG045230).

For more information about this study, please contact: Robert J. Waldinger at rwaldinger@mgh.harvard.edu, or Marc Schulz at mschulz@brynmawr.edu.

More information about the Harvard Study of Adult Development can be found at http://www.adultdevelopmentstudy.org and Dr. Waldinger's TED talk about the Study can be viewed here.

The article abstract is available online: http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2016/09/13/0956797616661556.abstract

The APS journal Psychological Science is the highest ranked empirical journal in psychology. For a copy of the article "The Long Reach of Nurturing Family Environments: Links With Midlife Emotion-Regulatory Styles and Late-Life Security in Intimate Relationships" and access to other Psychological Science research findings, please contact Anna Mikulak at 202-293-9300 or amikulak@psychologicalscience.org.

Association for Psychological Science

Related Emotions Articles:

Is it ok for parents to be supportive to children's negative emotions?
New research suggests that whereas mothers who are more supportive of their children's negative emotions rate their children as being more socially skilled, these same children appear less socially adjusted when rated by teachers.
Emotions expressed by the dying are unexpectedly positive
Fear of death is a fundamental part of the human experience -- we dread the possibility of pain and suffering and we worry that we'll face the end alone.
Streamlined analysis could help people better manage their emotions
The strategies people use to manage their emotions fall into three core groupings, according to newly published research from the University at Buffalo.
We read emotions based on how the eye sees
We use others' eyes -- whether they're widened or narrowed -- to infer emotional states, and the inferences we make align with the optical function of those expressions, according to new research published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
Emotions are cognitive, not innate, researchers conclude
Emotions are not innately programmed into our brains, but, in fact, are cognitive states resulting from the gathering of information, New York University Professor Joseph LeDoux and Richard Brown, a professor at the City University of New York, conclude.
Well-being linked with when and how people manage emotions
Reframing how we think about a situation is a common strategy for managing our emotions, but a new study suggests that using this reappraisal strategy in situations we actually have control over may be associated with lower well-being.
Oxytocin in the recognition of emotions
Studies have demonstrated that oxytocin plays a role in facilitating the perception of emotions in other people's facial expressions.
How our emotions affect store prices
Why stores should take shoppers' emotions into account when setting prices.
Chronic fatigue patients more likely to suppress emotions
Chronic fatigue syndrome patients report they are more anxious and distressed than people who don't have the condition, and they are also more likely to suppress those emotions.
Emotions in the age of Botox
Botulin injections in the facial muscles, which relax expression lines and make one's skin appear younger as a result of a mild paralysis, have another, not easily predictable effect: they undermine the ability to understand the facial expressions of other people.

Related Emotions Reading:

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Changing The World
What does it take to change the world for the better? This hour, TED speakers explore ideas on activism—what motivates it, why it matters, and how each of us can make a difference. Guests include civil rights activist Ruby Sales, labor leader and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta, author Jeremy Heimans, "craftivist" Sarah Corbett, and designer and futurist Angela Oguntala.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#521 The Curious Life of Krill
Krill may be one of the most abundant forms of life on our planet... but it turns out we don't know that much about them. For a create that underpins a massive ocean ecosystem and lives in our oceans in massive numbers, they're surprisingly difficult to study. We sit down and shine some light on these underappreciated crustaceans with Stephen Nicol, Adjunct Professor at the University of Tasmania, Scientific Advisor to the Association of Responsible Krill Harvesting Companies, and author of the book "The Curious Life of Krill: A Conservation Story from the Bottom of the World".