Between 1938 and 1942, while the U.S. was preoccupied with the end of the Great Depression and its entry into World War II, researchers in Boston were busy embarking on a study of adolescent boys and their family relationships. Some 60 years later, different researchers followed up with the participants and found that those raised in warmer family environments were more securely attached to their partners in the later years of life—a testament to the enduring influence of early childhood experiences.
In a study published last week in Psychological Science, co-authors Robert Waldinger, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, and Marc Schulz, a psychologist at Bryn Mawr College, combined many decades of data previously gathered on a group of men with data they recently collected on the same men to offer a unique long-term perspective on the connection between early childhood environment, how men regulate emotions in middle age and the security of their attachments in intimate relationships late in life. Their work is a continuation of Harvard University’s Study of Adult Development, a longitudinal study of adult health and well-being that spans almost seven decades.
Security of attachment, a concept that first emerged in the 1960s, is the idea that because we are helpless for large portions of our childhood and old age we need to be good at forming attachments with others and keeping them around to take care of us. “Each person has certain people who are their main attachment figures,” Waldinger says—in other words, the person you would “call in the middle of the night if you were terrified and needed someone to come over.”
We start forming attachments at a very young age and continue to do so throughout our lives. Previous studies have shown that childhood experiences can affect attachment security into a person’s 20s. Waldinger and Schulz wanted to know, however, if the quality of early childhood environments predicted security of attachment later in life, and whether the strategies one uses to regulate negative emotions might explain this link. “There’s lots of evidence that the way in which we regulate emotion has important implications both for one’s own health [and] for relationship health,” Schulz explains. “If you look at predictors of successful relationships over the long term, you find that regulation of emotions is a pretty important predictor.”
In the original 1938 study, the researchers enrolled 268 sophomores at Harvard and 456 inner-city teenagers from disadvantaged families in low-income Boston neighborhoods. They conducted lengthy interviews with the boys and their parents and observed the families at home, consolidating the information into three scores: A boy’s relationship with his mother, his relationship with his father and the warmth and cohesiveness of his family environment. (Waldinger and Schulz later combined the scores into one quality of family environment rating.)
Several decades later researchers for the Harvard study conducted interviews with the men in their midlife to assess how they managed negative emotions. They categorized the men’s strategies as either “more adaptive” (such as using humor or reframing a situation, which keeps you connected to your partner) or “less-adaptive” (such as lashing out or bottling up emotions, which can distance you from your partner). The researchers rated the men on a scale from 1 to 5 based on how frequently they used less-adaptive strategies (1 being rarely, and 5 being always).
When the men were in their 80s, Waldinger and Schulz conducted in-depth interviews with 81 of them who were in good health and had healthy partners. They used an interview format designed to “get people to say things that they don’t know they’re telling you,” Waldinger explains. For example, each interview started out with the researchers asking the subject to list five words to describe his partner, and then asked him for two vignettes that illustrated each word. The researchers assessed attachment by looking at how well the words matched the vignettes. Based on the interviews, the researchers rated the men’s relationships on a spectrum from “very insecure” to “very secure” attachment.
Waldinger and Schulz determined that regardless of socioeconomic standing the men raised in warmer family environments used more adaptive strategies to manage their negative emotions in midlife, and were also more securely attached to their partners late in life. These results suggest our childhood environment affects our relationships not only into adulthood but for the rest of our lives.
Chris Fraley, a psychologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign who studies attachment but was not involved in the present study, was surprised by the results. “There are so many ways in which people’s lives can evolve across time,” such as financial hardships, illness, divorce or occupational uncertainty, he wrote in an e-mail, adding, “The fact that the authors found such an association is remarkable, and raises a number of questions about the factors that explain why it exists.” Fraley pointed out, however, that the study is small, a limitation the researchers themselves acknowledge (in addition to the fact that it only includes male, Caucasian subjects). He also cautioned that an association between early childhood experiences and attachment later in life doesn’t necessarily mean the former causes the latter.
For Schulz, the findings highlight the need for services such as family leave that support parents and allow them to create better family environments. He also stresses the importance of good social services that can intervene when children end up in poor or unsafe family settings. “I think the take-home [message] is that kids may not remember specific events, particularly early in their lifetimes,” Schulz says, “But the accumulation of loving, nurturing family environments really has an impact over a long period of time.”
Waldinger and Schulz also emphasize that there are many ways to overcome having a less-than-idyllic childhood, such as actively working on developing warmer, healthier relationships as an adult or learning how to use more adaptive strategies to deal with negative emotions.
Still, the best option is to provide kids with a warm family environment early in life, Waldinger says. “The bottom line is that how we take care of children is just so vitally important. And protecting their development is essential for lifelong well-being.”