The power of early attachments on men is once again proven by a Longitudinal research study called the Grant Study from Harvard University that began in 1938. It is a longitudinal study of over 200 male graduates of Harvard compared to a cohort group of non-delinquent men who grew up in inner-city disadvantaged areas of Boston.
Focused on success in life, the study initially looked at qualities such as did the man have a masculine body type (indicative of the thinking of psychology of that era). But as Brooks points out, over time, the power of relationships became clearer as researchers interviewed these men over the years and applied other psychological measurements to gather data. As Brooks notes, “The men who grew up in homes with warm parents were much more likely to become first lieutenants and majors in World War II. The men who grew up in cold, barren homes were much more likely to finish the war as privates.” Body type, birth order, and political affiliation were useless as predictors of overall success and physical well-being over more than 9 decades of the study.
As George Valliant, the study director, said in a recent summary of the research, “It was the capacity for intimate relationships that predicted flourishing in all aspects of these men’s lives.” Brooks notes that it was not that all these men had perfect, trouble free childhoods. He quotes Valliant, “What goes right is more important than what goes wrong.” The Grant Study indicates that the capacity for emotional intimacy, especially when combined with the ability to organize and exercise self-discipline in studies, career and elsewhere, is a powerful elixir. This matches the research on our need for close connection with not only our parents and family, but also with our adult love partners as in marriage. It supports the finding of attachment theory that it is through safe, secure relationships that autonomy occurs and success emerges.
What is most exciting to me about this research that supports what I and my fellow Emotionally Focused Therapy colleagues know is that we can develop our capacity for intimate relationships later in life. David Brooks in his column shares stories of men who learned to become less emotionally inhibited and to become more intimately connected and open. He goes on to note, “The men of the Grant Study frequently became more emotionally attuned as they aged, more adept at recognizing and expressing emotion. Part of the explanation is biological. People, especially men, become more aware of their emotions as they get older.” What exciting news, we can develop emotional attunement. Each of us can learn to pay more attention to our own emotions as well as those of our loved ones. What a hopeful, empowering and intriguing finding!
Brooks also notes that, “Part of this is probably historical. Over the past half-century or so, American culture has become more attuned to the power of relationships. Masculinity has changed, at least a bit.” Good news, our culture is evolving. Emotional vulnerability is more acceptable to men slowly, but steadily over time. The science of emotions and attachment theory support this cultural shift. I see this in my practice as younger couples, gay or straight, come in wanting emotional intimacy. It as if growing up in these times, they received a relational message. These younger couples more often have learned that closeness is to be expected rather than being an exception to a rule.
What does this mean for the average person? Perhaps it simply means that if you find yourself in a relationship lacking that sense of openness, sharing, and emotional connection, do not give up hope. If you yourself have not paid much attention to your own and other’s emotions or you found feelings to be uncomfortable, awkward or threatening, that is o.k. There are resources, like the excellent book for couples, Hold Me Tight, by Dr. Sue Johnson, that provides seven conversations to help you and your partner connect. If that is not enough, there is a growing number of ICEEFT Certified Emotionally Focused Therapists in Canada and the US and therapists working towards that certification ready to assist you. They are dedicated to helping couples and family members gain the emotional intimacy that The Grant Study demonstrates is key to well-being for all of us.
The information in this blog was borrowed from by Jim Thomas, LMFT, EFT Supervisor.