When we think about people who behave in toxic ways over the course of a romantic relationship, we often think that they’re carrying some baggage from a previous one. But new research shows that, at least when it comes to coercive behaviors in romantic relationships, like controlling a partner, the roots go back far further than other romantic relationships. In fact, there seems to be a clear link between coercive behaviors — like being overly controlling, isolating a partner from their friends and family, and even pressuring or forcing a partner to have sex — and influences from our peers at a much younger age, as well as our parents.
A study published in Developmental Psychology looked at the long-term effects of family and friends during childhood on adult behaviors, by studying a group of 230 adults over an almost 20-year period. Researchers from the Arizona State University Psychology Department started studying participants around the age of 11 or 12 until they were 28-30, and there was something that happened during their teenage years that stood out.
Participants were asked to bring in a friend of the same sex and were videotaped while talking about different topics like friends, dating, drug use, and life goals. The researchers found that both boys and girls would engage in “deviancy training”, where friends reinforce antisocial ideas or inappropriate behaviors — like talking together and laughing about underage drinking or objectifying people they knew.
Interestingly, those who engaged in more deviancy training at age 16-17 were more likely to behave in a coercive or controlling way in their adult relationships when the researchers looked at the participants when they were in the 28-30 range. This was true of both the male and female participants.
“This has not been found using observational research before and also not across this long time period,” Thao Ha, assistant professor of psychology at ASU and first author on the paper, tells Bustle. “Also, the fact that this happens for males and females. Often we only think about the effects of male coercion and deviancy.”
One of the most important things the study found was that the participants’ relationships with their parents also played a crucial role. When the parents were absent or there was a disrupted relationship — a “parental vacuum” — it was easier for deviancy training to take hold and it was more common to see signs of antisocial behavior in their adult relationships. So although there may not be a way to prevent deviancy training from happening, having a stronger parental influence was shown to help keep these from leading to coercive, controlling, and abusive behavior in romantic relationships later in life.
“You learn how to communicate and resolve conflicts within early relationships with parents,” Ha says. “If coercion or disrupted parenting is the norm within a family then it is more likely that this will transfer to other relationships in life. In other words, it becomes normative to resolve conflicts coercively with anger, manipulation, and control, as we found prediction from early disruptive parenting to later romantic relationships.” When parents are present and have a strong, positive influence, there’s less of an opportunity for negative influences to take hold.
While there’s not one single thing that will lead someone down a path of coercion or abuse, it’s only through researching and understanding how these behaviors grow that we may be able to curb them. As this research shows, strong, positive parental role models can make a difference, when it comes to combatting negative influences — and maybe even stopping toxic and abusive behaviors later in life. Communication about sex and relationships is so important, especially during those formative years.
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