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For Your Marriage

Marriage Today covers current trends and research pertaining to marriage and family life in today's world.

Does Home Life Prepare Children for Marriage?

I’m sure most parents hope to create a warm, supportive home for their children. Deep down, parents harbor an instinct that growing up in a home like that bodes well for their children’s still-distant adulthood – even for the families they one day may form.

Naturally, this is the stuff of many parental anxieties, since no family is perfect, whatever “perfect” means in family life. Plenty of parents worry that their shortcomings – maybe even their bad-hair days – will adversely affect their children’s lives somehow.

It frequently seemed to me in raising children that I heard more about the kind of home life “not” to provide for them than the kind to set as a goal. So I was happy to hear of a new study accenting the positive.

This study suggests to me that efforts by parents to spend time with their children and be “engaged” with them may well influence their lives for the better on the very long term – may even be linked to happiness in their marriages, if that is what the future holds for them.

Why is that welcome news? Because I am confident that my wife and I did our best to try to create the kind of positive home environment for our now-adult children that this study describes.

The study stops short of saying that a positive family climate actually “causes” positive outcomes in a youth’s future. It speaks of this type of family climate as a predictive factor and sees a link or an association between it and a teenager’s marital happiness 20 years down the road.

An “Interpersonal Legacy”
“Compelling evidence” is provided by the study that children gain an “interpersonal legacy” through growing up in a “positive family climate.”

“At a basic level, our findings highlight the association between a positive family climate during adolescence and the quality of one’s marriage later in life,” the study’s research team explains. It concludes that “the climate in one’s family of origin may have long-term significance for one’s interpersonal relationships.”

Conducted by Robert Ackerman, a psychological scientist on the faculty of the University of Texas at Dallas, and several colleagues, the study is titled “A Positive Family Climate in Adolescence Is Linked to Marriage Quality in Adulthood.” It was published this winter by Psychological Science, a professional journal.

The study notes the findings of earlier research on the impact of growing up in what might be termed a more “negative” environment. “Past research has consistently shown that growing up in a family characterized by an aversive emotional climate is associated with a host of negative interpersonal outcomes later in life,” the study observes.

However, it adds, this new “research provides evidence that growing up in a warm, supportive and interpersonally engaged family is associated with positive marital outcomes for both individuals and their marital partners approximately 20 years later.”

The study team saw that “individuals who grew up in warmer, more supportive and more engaged families expressed more positivity and less negativity toward their spouses, and their spouses expressed more positivity and less negativity toward them.”

A Legacy That Is Shared
But what do the researchers mean in speaking of a home that is “positive” and where family members are “engaged” in their home life together? What “positive interpersonal behaviors” do the researchers have in mind?

“Positive engagement is an interpersonal style characterized by transparent communication, warmth and support,” the study comments. Conflicts are resolved in homes like this through the use of “strategies that emphasize clear communication and cooperative problem solving.”

Signs of the type of communication the researchers have in mind apparently include not only speaking up, but listening well to other family members.

Ackerman said to me that “growing up in a family that resolves conflicts in a constructive and supportive manner may later yield benefits for the adolescent family member and her or his future spouse in marriage.”

He and his colleagues discovered something else rather fascinating about individuals who grow up in positive home environments. Later, after these people marry, their own personal formation may affect their spouses in a positive manner.

“Perhaps one of the most striking results from this work was that the quality of one marital partner’s family climate during adolescence was associated with marital outcomes for the ‘other’ partner,” the study notes.

The researchers do not fully understand the reasons for this. They speculate, “It is possible that family dynamics foster a supportive interpersonal style that later elicits similar behavior from a spouse (an ‘evocative process’)”

Yet, they continue, “individuals who grew up in families with a positive and warm climate may have sought out partners who provided a similar relationship environment.”

Whatever the case, the study affirms that “a positive family climate during adolescence for one marital partner was also associated with positive marital outcomes for both partners.”

About the author 
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.