In a study of adult human development, Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant once observed 30 adolescents from a group of 456 inner city youths, “whose childhoods were the most barren and the least conducive to continued adult development.”
When children get a rough start in life, developmental psychologists predict that problems will follow them into adulthood. And this proved to be the case with Vaillant’s 30 troubled youths. By age 25, their lives “continued to be disasters.”
But as the cohort continued to age, Vaillant noticed something interesting. There were 9 of the original 30 who somehow managed to transcend their troubled childhoods. What was the key factor that helped these men, who were destined for failure, to lead lives that were “successful and generative?” These were the men who found a loving spouse.
Having a loving life partner helps in some surprising ways. Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner, for example, found that couples essentially divide and share their memory banks for more effective information processing. Together, they know and remember more than either one of the two could do individually.
In another study, researchers found that biological stress responses to electric shocks were soothed when the participants’ hand was held by a loving partner (but only if the relationship was a healthy one.)
And in A Cry Unheard: The Medical Consequences of Loneliness, psychologist James J. Lynch cites research from the Center for Disease Control showing that for every major cause of death, mortality rates are lower for married men than for their divorced or never-married counterparts.
clinical psychologist Sue Johnson, the author of Hold Me Tight, Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love, says that today, dyad relationships are more important than ever. We don’t have the same kind of tribal support that our ancestors had, and we don’t even have the same close-knit communities that our grandparents may have had. So we really rely on our romantic partners for emotional support.
I was thinking about these ideas last week as I celebrated our 3-year anniversary with my wife Catherine. I appreciate her so much, not only because she is a great wife, friend and mother to our two children, but because I truly believe that having her in my life makes me stronger, healthier and more successful. I not only love who she is as a person, she makes me smarter, she helps me deal with stress, and she strengthens me emotionally.
If you have a loved one in your life, hug them tight and let them know how much you appreciate them. They may be doing much more for you than you realize!
References and Recommended Reading:
Johnson, S. (2008). Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love. Little, Brown and Company.
Lynch, J. J. (2000). A Cry Unheard: New Insights into the Medical Consequences of Loneliness. Bancroft Press.
Vaillant, G. E. (2009). Spiritual Evolution: How We Are Wired for Faith, Hope, and Love. Three Rivers Press.
By Jeremy McCarthy (@jeremymcc)