Boys who are raised in a warm family environment are more likely to feel secure in romantic relationships in their 80s, according to a new study published in the journal Psychological Science.
The findings show that boys who grow up in loving homes tend to be much better at managing stressful emotions when assessed at middle age, which may help explain why they have 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,” said researcher Dr. 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 study, which tracked 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,” said Dr. Marc Schulz, study co-author and professor at Bryn Mawr College.
The researchers looked at 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 participated in regular interviews and questionnaires throughout the course of the study.
To gauge each participant’s family life, the researchers examined data collected when the participants were adolescents. This included reports about their home life, interviews with the participants’ parents, and developmental histories recorded by a social worker. The researchers used this data to create a composite measure of family environment.
When the subjects were 45 to 50 years old, they participated in interviews in which they talked about the challenges they faced in various aspects of their lives, including their relationships, their physical health, and their work. The researchers used the original interview notes to rate participants’ ability to manage their emotions in response to these challenges.
When participants reached 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 discuss their marriage, including how comfortable they were depending on their partner and providing support to their partner.
The researchers used data from these interviews to develop an overall rating of participants’ security of attachment to their partner.
The new study adds to prior research showing that the quality of early family life can have “far-reaching effects on well-being, life achievement, and relationship functioning throughout the lifespan,” Waldinger said.
The findings emphasize the long term effects of childhood experience and the importance of prioritizing the wellbeing of children. The study also suggests that acquiring adaptive emotion management skills may help to lessen the impact of early childhood adversity, the researchers said.