By: Francis Vergunst
The question of how to find a steady romantic partnership is among the oldest human predicaments. There is consequently considerable interest in what factors might predict partnership success.
Traits like warmth, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and trust all seem to matter. But can behavior in childhood predict your future partnering prospects?
In a new study published with my colleagues in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, we show that children rated by their elementary school teachers as being anxious or inattentive were more likely to remain unpartnered from age 18 to 35 years.
Children rated as aggressive-oppositional — those who fight, bully and disobey — were more likely to separate and return to unpartnered status.
Conversely, prosocial children, who were rated as being kind, helpful, and considerate, showed earlier and more sustained partnerships across early adulthood.
The study suggests that the seeds of future partnering patterns are planted early and are visible even before adolescence. This has important implications for children with behavioral difficulties, who already face many life challenges from unemployment to lower earnings.
If they can be identified by teachers, then it may be possible to flag them for assessment and support and improve their life chances.
Good partnerships offer many advantages. They provide emotional support, co-parenting opportunities, and socioeconomic security, and can lead to developmental maturation including reduced neuroticism and increased extraversion and self-esteem.
Why we conducted the study
Previous research has shown that childhood psychiatric disorders like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and conduct disorder are associated with future partnership difficulties, including intimate partner violence and lower relationship satisfaction.
We were interested in whether common childhood behaviors — including prosocial traits — would predict future partnership stability for children without clinical diagnoses.
Our study was based on an analysis of nearly 3,000 Canadian children who were rated by teachers for behaviors like inattention, hyperactivity, aggression, opposition, anxiety, and prosociality at age 10, 11, and 12 years and then followed up into adulthood so we could examine their anonymized tax return records.
Since Canadian tax regulations require people who are married or cohabiting to report this status in their tax returns, we were able to statistically identify groups of participants who followed common patterns of partnering.
We then linked them with their earlier behavioral ratings. We controlled for participants’ socioeconomic status because some studies show this can influence partnering patterns.
We found that participants who were predominantly unpartnered from age 18 to 35 years were significantly more likely to have been anxious children, while those who separated early (around age 28 years) and returned to unpartnered status were more likely to have been aggressive-oppositional children.
Interestingly, children who were inattentive were more likely to have been in either the unpartnered group or the early separated group.
Participants in the unpartnered and separated groups fared poorly in other ways too: they were more likely to have left high school without a diploma, to have lower earnings, and to be in receipt of welfare support.
This raises important questions about what underlying factors might explain the link between childhood behavior and future partnering patterns.
Why behavior matters for partnership
Childhood behavior could influence future partnering directly and indirectly. Behaviour is relatively stable across development so a direct influence might be the persistence of childhood behaviors — such as aggression or anxiety — into adulthood, which then influences the capacity to form and sustain stable partnerships.
Studies show that adults who are low in agreeableness, conscientiousness, and emotional stability, as measured by the big five personality structures, have less satisfying and more tumultuous relationships, and this could undermine relationship stability.
Indirect influences on partnership involve intermediate events, such as employment status or earnings, which have a knock-on effect on the accumulation of human capital that contributes to the perceived attractiveness of a partner.
For instance, children with disruptive and inattentive behavioral problems typically have fewer friends, underperform at school, are more likely to abuse substances, and have lower earnings and higher welfare receipts as adults — all of which could undermine their capacity to attract and retain romantic partners as adults.
The finding that prosocial children have more stable and sustained partnerships is perhaps unsurprising. They typically have better peer relations and academic attainment in childhood and higher earnings and perceived attractiveness in adulthood, which should enhance their appeal to prospective partners.
Mind the hitch
This study should not be understood as a normative argument for partnership, implying that people should be partnered or that “longer is better.”
Such decisions are highly personal and depend on individual preferences, life goals, financial circumstances, professional ambitions, and so on.
Rather, we note that most people do wish to partner, and that partnership may confer important health and well-being benefits, so the persistence of early untreated behavioral difficulties should not become an obstacle to establishing stable partnerships in adulthood.
One limitation of this study is that we examined only whether participants were partnered, not the quality of those partnerships.
This should be explored in future studies since children with behavioral problems are likely to have both less stable and less satisfying partnerships.
Successful partnerships are determined by a multitude of individual and contextual factors, and early behaviors are just one piece of the puzzle.
Our study shows, once again, that children with behavioral difficulties face many challenges that cascade across their lives, and this includes marginalization from the partnership.
Early monitoring and support are crucial and prevention programs that target children’s disruptive, anxious, and inattentive behaviors — and promote social-emotional skills — can produce lasting effects with benefits for individuals, families, and society. After all, there are many reasons to encourage good behavior.
This article was originally written by Francis Vergunst, Postdoctoral Fellow in Developmental Public Health, Université de Montréal for The Conversation. We The World published the post under a Creative Commons license.