The effects of childhood unpredictability and harshness on emotional control and relationship quality: A life history perspective

Ohad Szepsenwol*, Jeffry A. Simpson, Vladas Griskevicius, Osnat Zamir, Ethan S. Young, Anat Shoshani, Guy Doron

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations

Abstract

Being able to control oneself in emotionally upsetting situations is essential for good relationship functioning. According to life history theory, childhood exposure to harshness and unpredictability should forecast diminished emotional control and lower relationship quality. We examined this in three studies. In Studies 1 and 2, greater childhood unpredictability (frequent financial, residential, and familial changes), but not harshness (low SES), was associated with lower emotional control in adolescents (N = 1041) and adults (N = 327). These effects were stronger during the participants' reproductive years. Moreover, in Study 2, greater childhood unpredictability was indirectly associated with lower relationship quality through lower emotional control. In study 3, we leveraged the Minnesota Longitudinal Study of Risk and Adaptation (N = 160). Greater early-life unpredictability (ages 0-4) prospectively predicted lower relationship quality at age 32 via lower emotional control at the same age. This relation was serially mediated by less supportive observed early maternal care (ages 1.5-3.5) and insecure attachment representations (ages 19 and 26). Early unpredictability also predicted greater observed emotional distress during conflict interactions with romantic partners (ages 19-36). These findings point to the role of emotional control in mediating the effects of unpredictable childhood environments on relationship functioning in adulthood.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)607-620
Number of pages14
JournalDevelopment and Psychopathology
Volume34
Issue number2
DOIs
StatePublished - 20 May 2022

Bibliographical note

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Keywords

  • attachment
  • childhood unpredictability
  • emotion regulation
  • life history theory
  • romantic relationships

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