Our relationship with our parents can have a big impact on our life trajectory. Research has found that those of us lied to by caregivers often end up less well-adjusted, that hard workers are more likely to produce children with good work ethics, that cognitive skills can be improved by having talkative parents, and that positive parenting can impact cortisol levels even years later.
But though we might pay less attention to it, how parents relate to one another is also important for children’s long-term development. A new study, published in Demography, has taken a look at affection within parental relationships, finding that loving spousal relationships can have a positive long-term impact on children’s life paths.
The researchers focused on Nepal, which they say provides an interesting backdrop for an investigation into marriage. Marriage has changed significantly in the country over the last few years: marrying for love (as opposed to arranged marriage) is now more common than it used to be, and rates of divorce and premarital cohabitation are also increasing in the country, though remain rare.
Data was gathered from a longitudinal study, where marital relationship quality and the educational and personal progress of children were tracked for twelve years. The first set of data was collected from 151 neighborhoods in the Western Chitwan Valley in 1996. The quality of relationships among married participants was measured by asking partners separately how much they loved their husband or wife on a three-point scale, and participants were also asked whether their spouse had ever beaten them.
To look at how parents’ relationships influenced children’s own marriage behaviour, the researchers then tracked the age at which children married over the next 10 years. In 2008, they also re-interviewed participants, asking mothers whether or not their children had dropped out of school, and if so at what age.
The results suggested that marriage quality was in fact associated with children’s educational prospects. Children with parents who reported greater love for each other were less likely to drop out of school, whilst those whose parents reported less love were more likely to stop education. Children with parents who reported spousal violence were also more likely to drop out.
Educational outcomes were also related to both class and ethnicity: children from ethnic groups with higher social status, from wealthier households, or whose parents had higher educational backgrounds were more likely to remain in education. The relationship between marriage quality and children’s life outcomes was still significant after controlling for these factors.
Children’s own marriage timing was also linked to levels of their parents’ spousal love: the more positive the parental relationship, the later children got married. It’s important to note that in the context of the study, this was considered to be a good thing — in Nepal, later marriage can imply a better match, and that children feel less need to leave the family home at any cost.
So, as expected, the quality of parents’ marriages had a significant impact on their children, both in terms of educational attainment and on their own relationships later in life. However, the findings may not bear out in the rest of the world, where other cultural factors may come into play. There may also have been nuances that were missed in the measures. For instance, participants were asked only about instances of extreme conflict between spouses; conflicts or abuse may have occurred that were more subtle or less extreme than domestic violence, but that had an impact on children nonetheless. Similarly, educational attainment was measured only by when children dropped out of school, failing to take into consideration what students did after leaving school or the grades they achieved.
Limitations aside, the results do pose an interesting question about how spousal relationships impact children. It’s understandable that parents spend much of their time focusing on their interactions with their children — but looking at the way they feel about their partner may be just as useful.