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 conducted by Bryn Mawr Professor of Psychology Marc Schulz and a colleague from Massachusetts General Hospital.
The findings, published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, 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.
“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 Schulz.
The research uses data from The Study of Adult Development, one of the longest-running and influential longitudinal studies of human development ever undertaken. The unique study, which began in 1938, followed the same individuals for over six decades beginning in adolescence and provides evidence for the life-long effects of childhood experiences.
Schulz’s co-author is Robert J. Waldinger, who heads the Laboratory of Adult Development at Massachusetts General Hospital and directs The Study of Adult Development. Schulz is a senior research scientist on the study and has been working closely with data from the project for nearly 15 years.
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.
Bryn Mawr students are actively involved in the larger Study of Adult Development project. Currently three senior thesis students are examining relationship histories in the study. Students have previously worked with Schulz to identify and code information from digitized files associated with the study that provided researchers with even more relationship relevant data on the more than 700 participants in the study.
Bryn Mawr’s Psychology Department offers courses from among a wide variety of fields in psychology: clinical, cognitive, developmental, physiological and social. Majors can focus on more specialized areas through advanced coursework, seminars, and especially through supervised research. For more, visit the department website.