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The effects of childhood unpredictability and harshness on emotional control and relationship quality: A life history perspective

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 December 2021

Ohad Szepsenwol*
The Max Stern Yezreel Valley College, Emek Yezreel, Israel
Jeffry A. Simpson
University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, USA
Vladas Griskevicius
University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, USA
Osnat Zamir
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Israel
Ethan S. Young
Utrecht University, Utrecht, Netherlands
Anat Shoshani
Reichman University (IDC Herzliya), Herzliya, Israel
Guy Doron
Reichman University (IDC Herzliya), Herzliya, Israel
Corresponding author: Ohad Szepsenwol, email:


Being able to control oneself in emotionally upsetting situations is essential for good relationship functioning. According to life history theory, childhood exposure to harshness and unpredictability should forecast diminished emotional control and lower relationship quality. We examined this in three studies. In Studies 1 and 2, greater childhood unpredictability (frequent financial, residential, and familial changes), but not harshness (low SES), was associated with lower emotional control in adolescents (N = 1041) and adults (N = 327). These effects were stronger during the participants’ reproductive years. Moreover, in Study 2, greater childhood unpredictability was indirectly associated with lower relationship quality through lower emotional control. In study 3, we leveraged the Minnesota Longitudinal Study of Risk and Adaptation (N = 160). Greater early-life unpredictability (ages 0–4) prospectively predicted lower relationship quality at age 32 via lower emotional control at the same age. This relation was serially mediated by less supportive observed early maternal care (ages 1.5–3.5) and insecure attachment representations (ages 19 and 26). Early unpredictability also predicted greater observed emotional distress during conflict interactions with romantic partners (ages 19–36). These findings point to the role of emotional control in mediating the effects of unpredictable childhood environments on relationship functioning in adulthood.

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© The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press

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