Lifelong peer influences and disrupted parenting are strong predictors of coercive romantic relationships in adulthood, according to a new study by researchers at Arizona State University (ASU). Coercive relationships often use browbeating, fear or intimidation as tactics to control the partner.

The study, published in the journal Developmental Psychology, looked at the long-term impact of family and friends on adults currently in romantic relationships. They discovered that peer influences, in addition to parenting, were associated with antisocial behaviors that led to coercive adult relationships.

“Early relationships with parents and peers are very important for how relationships function in adulthood,” said Dr. Thao Ha, assistant professor of psychology at ASU and first author on the paper.

“Often people only blame their partner for relationship problems, but we have shown that current relationship problems might have roots in your adolescent friendships and relationships with your parents.”

The findings show that rude, vulgar or offensive talk, even among friends in private, can signal the beginning of a pathway leading to antisocial behaviors, substance abuse and romantic relationships dominated by anger, control and fear.

The researchers evaluated 230 adults in committed romantic relationships as part of a large longitudinal study that began almost 20 years ago. The participants were between 28-30 years old and have been followed since they were 11-12 years old.

When the participants were 16-17 years old, they were asked to bring a friend of the same sex to the laboratory. While being videotaped, the friends discussed topics like planning a party or an activity together, a problem of the participant or the friend, goals for the following year, drug and alcohol use, friends and peer groups, and dating.

The researchers reviewed these videos and classified the conversations in terms of their social appropriateness and other communication characteristics.

“The participants knew they were being filmed — they could see the video camera — but some of them discussed inappropriate topics and then the friends reinforced each other,” said Ha.

“One teen might say something that violated social norms and the other would laugh, and they both would end up enjoying talking about deviant acts and objectifying members of the opposite sex.”

This reinforcement of inappropriate behaviors or conversations among peers is called deviancy training. An example of this would be a conversation reinforcing inappropriate or illegal behaviors, or one friend talking about the opposite sex in a disrespectful way and the other friend participating in and encouraging the disparaging talk. Both male and female participants engaged in deviancy training as teenagers.

In the current study, the same participants, now aged 28-30 years, came to the laboratory with their romantic partner. Once again they were videotaped while talking about subjects such as planning an activity, relationship challenges, how they met, jealousy and substance use.

The researchers classified the communication between the couple, exploring the extent to which the behaviors were coercive or showed other features of being unhealthy. Statements such as “I hate you right now,” and threats of violence like “There are certain times I wanted to hit you,” or “There are certain points of time where I wanted to stab you” indicated a coercive relationship.

Aspects of body language, such as laying one’s head on the table, eye rolling, or leaning back in one’s chair instead of answering their partner were indicators of unhealthy relationships.

The results show that participants who engaged in more deviancy training at age 16-17 were more likely to exhibit coercive behavior in their relationship at age 28-30. This effect occurred for both men and women.

A coercive relationship in adulthood can also be problematic because it can affect the mental health of romantic partners and any children, creating cross-generational effects, Ha said. Threatening and controlling behaviors in romantic relationships can also lead to intimate partner violence.

How can one interrupt or prevent the effects of deviancy training? Ha said the first step is to understand the life history of the participants.

The researchers found that while the quality of the parent-child relationship — measured when the child was 11 — predicted relationship coercion almost 20 years later, the impact of early friendships was even stronger.

Importantly, however, the strongest pathway was indirect: Disrupted parenting at age 11 created a “parenting vacuum” that allowed for antisocial behaviors to emerge. Disrupted parenting can occur due to the emotional or physical absence of a parent, often related to parental depression, stress or illness.

The antisocial behaviors contributed to the development of friendships with other teenagers who took part in deviancy training. The deviancy training impacted the level of coercion in adult romantic relationships over a decade later.

Source: Arizona State University