Do Risky Family Environments Impact Dating Relationships?

A young man offers a bouquet of flowers to his date

Childhood Risky Family Environments and Romantic Relationship Functioning Among Young Adult Dating Couples” (abstract). Sarah Maleck and Lauren M. Papp. Journal of Family Issues, Vol. 36, No. 5 (2015).

What it’s about: Researchers Maleck and Papp wanted to see if and how young people’s family lives during childhood impact their dating relationships. Specifically, they set out to gauge the effects of “risky family environments” marked by conflict, neglect, and other non-nurturing behaviors on young people and their partners.

The researchers recruited 100 heterosexual couples who had been dating exclusively for at least a month and who didn’t have any children. Participants, who were between 20 and 21 years old, on average, answered questions about their family experiences growing up and their satisfaction with their current dating relationship. Each couple also had a short conversation about a stressful topic of their choosing. Those conversations were recorded and observed to capture key themes about each partner’s communication style and personal characteristics.  

Why read it: Past studies show that young people who experience abuse at home are more likely to have unhealthy dating relationships as teens and adults. Other researchers have found that children of parents in happy relationships have higher social competence and better communication skills than their peers.

Despite these findings, few studies have tested whether and how risky family environments set the stage for later relationship outcomes. Helping young people understand how their childhood experiences have shaped the way they communicate and handle conflict, the authors write, can help them make changes that may lead to more positive relationships.

Biggest takeaways from the research: When discussing difficult subjects, female participants showed fewer positive relationship characteristics like support and validation and more negative qualities like conflict when their male partners reported a risky family background. In contrast, females’ family environments did not appear to have a significant effect on the way they or their partner behaved in front of researchers. Both findings take individual personalities into account, the authors note, to make sure results are not impacted by participants’ general communication styles or outlooks on life.  

Approximately 20 percent of participants reported that their parents had divorced during childhood. Researchers hypothesized that living through a divorce would be linked to poorer functioning in young adult relationships than not. However, they found the opposite; youth whose parents had stayed together in spite of conflict demonstrated poorer relationship functioning than those whose parents had divorced.

Interestingly, researchers found more consistent results when they analyzed their own observations versus young people's self-reports of their relationship satisfaction. Youth who come from riskier families may be more likely to view their current relationships in a positive light, they say, compared to their previous experiences at home. The difference may also tie into earlier studies, they add, which show that changes in behavior tend to occur before changes in attitude.

Additional references: Look for more research on parents and healthy relationships in NCFY’s research library.

We’ve also explored how to put relationship education in place for youth in foster care.

Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Clearinghouse on Families and Youth, the Family and Youth Services Bureau, or the Administration for Children and Families.

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