The Athlete's Way

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Happiness As a Teen Linked to Better Love Life in Adulthood

Depression in young adulthood can put intimate relationships at risk in midlife.

As a young adult, did you experience symptoms of depression or expressions of anger? If you are in your 30s, how is your perceived stress level now? If you are in your 40s, and struggle with intimate romantic relationships, a new study suggests that untreated depression and anger in earlier chapters of your life can impact the quality of your love life decades later.

In 1985, researchers from Canada began a study to identify how emotional and psychological experiences in high school affected people over the next three decades as they evolved through various stages of life. The University of Alberta study found that depression and anger in early life creates a ripple effect that can impact interpersonal relationships into middle age

The May 2014 study, titled "Depression and Anger Across 25 Years: Changing Vulnerabilities in the VSA model” was published in the Journal of Family Psychology. 

The researchers used the vulnerability-stress adaptation (VSA) model—a framework for understanding how satisfaction in intimate relationships may change or remain stable over time—and a developmental systems perspective.

In total, the researchers surveyed 341 Canadians (178 women and 163 men) through their transition to adulthood from age 18 to 25. Then they looked at their perceived stress levels at age 32, and on the quality of their romantic intimate relationships at age 43.

Data from the 25 year prospective found that depression and expressions of anger in young adulthood predicted perceived life stress and trouble with intimate relationships later in life. The slopes for expressed anger and depressive symptoms at ages 18-25 were associated with higher perceived life stress at age 32 which was then associated with less adaptive social interactions and increased relationship risk at age 43.

University of Alberta researcher Matthew Johnson, an assistant professor of human ecology in the faculty of agricultural, life and environmental sciences, was surprised to find that untreated teenage depression and anger left lasting scars that often overshadowed other major life events such as having children and professional ups and downs.

The fact that symptoms of depression and expressions of anger can endure over huge life events illustrates the importance of being proactive about addressing mental health issues during early life. These findings suggest that having a healthy psychological foundation from young adulthood increases the odds of happiness and close-knit intimate relationships in middle age.

Conclusion: It’s Never Too Late to Address Teenage Emotional Scars

As a teenager, I struggled with untreated depression and repressed expressions of anger. Like most gay teens, when I was coming out in the 1980s, I wrestled with deep psychological pain caused by homophobia and self-loathing.

Personally, this study inspired me to revisit the wounds of my childhood and make a commitment to heal those scars. I took solace in reading the findings from 25 years of data. Seeing these statistics made me realize that I am not alone in still being affected by teenage angst in my mid-40s.

The researchers hope that having statistical proof that depression and anger as a teen can impact life 25 years later will motivate people to address the psychological issues of their past. The ripple effect of depression and anger in early adulthood can have social costs such as domestic violence and divorce later in life.

In a press release, Matthew Johnson said, "It's not only your partner's current behavior or your current behavior shaping your relationship, but the story you bring with you." Johnson believes it's important to recognize "the fact that where they are in their couple relationship now is likely shaped by earlier chapters in their lives."

If you'd like to read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts:

Follow me on Twitter @ckbergland for updates on The Athlete’s Way blog posts.

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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