Published May 4, 2021
Congratulations to Professor Laina Bay-Cheng, PhD student Hannah Ginn, PhD alum Nicole Fava, Dr. Eugene Maguin, and PhD student Erin Bascug on the publication of their article, "At risk and in love: A mixed methodexamination of the link between childhood maltreatment and youth relationships" in the Journal of Adolescence.
Bay-Cheng, L. Y., Ginn, H. G., Fava, N. M., Maguin, E., & Bascug, E. W. (2021). At risk and in love: A mixed method examination of the link between childhood maltreatment and youth relationships. Journal of Adolescence.
With a fuller understanding of the link between childhood maltreatment and later relationships, we may more effectively enable the relational and sexual rights of all youth, including those deemed at-risk. Professionals should prioritize helping those who were maltreated as children forge and draw strength from supportive sexual/romantic relationships, especially since these may be vital lifelines if family ties are tenuous. Practice that explicitly addresses youth rights to sexual expression, affiliation, and fulfillment may raise the bar of what young people believe they can expect – and deserve – from their partners and relationships.
The combined quantitative and qualitative results also remind us of the broader contexts in which youth sexual/romantic relationships are situated. The differences that were visible in participants’ open-ended descriptions of their relationships were not detectable in their ratings of stability, intimacy, and pleasure because the differences were located not within their relationships, but in the life circumstances surrounding them (e.g., poverty, housing instability, single parenting). It is imperative that researchers, policymakers, and practitioners who wish to improve youths’ sexual/romantic lives pay attention to youths’ whole lives, including the structural, nonsexual underpinnings of their vulnerability (Schalet et al., 2014). Young people with histories of adversity may be disproportionately vulnerable to negative sexual experiences, but they are no less entitled to or fundamentally capable of positive ones.
Research indicates that sexual and romantic relationships play an important role in youth well-being and development. This strengths-based perspective sits in tension with the documented risks that youth with histories of maltreatment face in sexual/romantic relationships. We conducted a U.S.-based mixed-method study to examine the connection between childhood maltreatment and youth relationships.
We collected retrospective ratings of relationship quality and open-ended comments about those relationships using an online sexual life history calendar. Quantitative analyses drew on data from 98 participants (51 cisgender women, 47 cisgender men) between the ages of 18–25 (Mage = 22.51). Qualitative analyses compared demographically matched subsamples of 19 participants who reported multiple forms of child maltreatment and 20 who reported none.
Quantitative analyses indicated that ratings of relationship stability, intimacy, and pleasure were unrelated to prior abuse or neglect. Qualitative analyses showed the relationships of those with multiple maltreatment histories, compared to those without any maltreatment, to be more often intertwined with and complicated by other hardships (e.g., homelessness).
Quantitatively, childhood maltreatment appeared unrelated to youth sexual/romantic relationship quality, though we regard those findings with due caution. Complementing this was qualitative evidence of differences between participants based on trauma histories, with those who had experienced childhood maltreatment referring more often to surrounding circumstances and hardships in descriptions of their youth sexual/romantic relationships. These mixed method findings reinforce the importance of youth sexuality research, policy, and practice that takes the broader conditions of young people's lives into consideration.