How to find the relationship that will last? This is one of the oldest questions of the human being. Character traits, such as human warmth, the ability to pay attention to others, sociability, and confidence, seem to be important.
But could our behavior, when we were children, predict our chances of meeting the loved one?
A new study that my colleagues and I published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry shows that children identified by their elementary school teachers as suffering from anxiety or attention deficit disorder were more likely to be alone between the ages of 18 and 35. And that oppositional aggressive children – that is, those with a tendency to fight, bully, and disobey – were more likely to break up and end up without a partner.
Conversely, children who are kind, able to help others, and respectful find themselves in lasting relationships from early adulthood.
Our study suggests that the seeds of our future relationships are taking shape and are visible even before adolescence.
There are many advantages to having a good relationship. Emotional support, sharing of parental responsibilities, socio-economic security, all of which can lead to maturity and thus reduce neuroses while improving self-esteem.
Why this study?
We based our analysis on a sample of nearly 3,000 Canadian children who had been assessed by their teachers in terms of attention deficit, hyperactivity, aggression, opposition, anxiety and prosociality. , at the ages of 10, 11 and 12. We then followed them into adulthood so we could review their (anonymised) tax returns.
Since Revenue Canada requires people who are married or living with a partner to disclose their family situation, we were able to statistically identify groups of individuals with specific relationship patterns.
We then cross-checked these results with their previous behavioral assessment. We took into account the socio-economic level of the participants, as some studies have proven their influence on the behavior of couples.
We found that people who were anxious as children were more likely not to be in a relationship between the ages of 18 and 35. And that those who separated early (around age 28) and became single again were more likely to have exhibited signs of aggression and opposition as children.
Interestingly, inattentive children were more likely to end up in groups who were single or who split up early.
This study should not be evaluated as a normative debate on the merits of married life, which would imply that people should be in a relationship, or that “lasting is better”. These are eminently personal decisions that depend above all on individual preferences, goals in life, financial context, professional ambitions, etc.
Support our children
Behaviors are relatively stable over the course of a lifetime: it is therefore likely that the persistence of a child’s behavior – such as aggression or anxiety – persists into adulthood, hence difficulties in forming and maintain lasting relationships.
It is therefore not surprising that prosocial children find themselves in stable and long-lasting relationships. They tend to get along better with their peers, do better in school, and earn more, which increases their desirability with potential mates.
Successful partnerships depend on a multitude of factors, both individual and contextual, and an individual’s behavior during childhood is only one part of a much larger picture. Our study shows that behavioral problems in children represent challenges that reverberate throughout their lives, including couple relationships.
Early follow-up and support are essential. Programs that target children with disruptive, anxious and attention deficit behaviors, and that emphasize socio-emotional skills can be beneficial and lasting for the individual, their family, and society in general. After all, there are many reasons to encourage good behavior!
Postdoctoral researcher in developmental public health, University of Montreal
In collaboration with the academic journalism site La Conversation Canada