A mother lode of bonding – or a lack thereof – between moms and young children can predict kids' behavior in romantic relationships decades later, a new study suggests.
Adding to evidence that even preverbal memories are firmly imprinted on young psyches, researchers found that children who had been more securely attached to their mothers, now grown, did better at resolving relationship conflicts, recovering from those conflicts and enjoying stable, satisfying ties with their romantic partners in early adulthood.
"It's often very difficult to find the lingering effects of early life being related to adult behavior, because life circumstances change," said study author Jeffry A. Simpson, a professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota. "People change, but there's a kernel of stability from early experience in a lot of people."
Simpson and his colleagues reviewed data from 75 children born in 1976 and 1977 as part of the Minnesota Longitudinal Study of Risk and Adaptation, whose mothers received free prenatal care. These firstborn children were assessed at regular intervals with interviews, questionnaires, teachers' and parents' ratings and other observations, culminating with their relationships with their romantic partners at ages 20 and 21.
Measuring the mother-child bond
When the children were 12 and 18 months old, they were videotaped in a stressful lab procedure called "Strange Situation," in which the children were separated and reunited with their mothers. Those who were deemed to have an insecure attachment with their mothers – meaning they remained distressed throughout the experiment – reported more negative emotions when trying to resolve major relationship conflicts with their romantic partners two decades later.
Simpson noted, however, that these results were affected by factors such as the children's social skills in elementary school (as rated by teachers) and the strength of their relationships with their best friend at age 16, which had also been monitored.
"We also found that if you were insecurely attached to your mother as a child, but had a really committed partner as an adult, that partner basically protected you from showing dysfunctional behavior in your relationship 20 years later," Simpson said. "It's not like you're destined to be insecure your entire life."
For example, those who had been insecurely attached as infants were more likely to still be with their partners two years later, at age 23, if their partners displayed better "conflict recovery" at 20 or 21, the study said.
The finding that certain relationship patterns can be overcome under the right circumstances, such as with a well-adjusted partner, also depends on the degree of trauma suffered by the child, and his or her overall resilience, said Dr. Victor Fornari, director of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry for the North Shore-LIJ Health System in New Hyde Park, N.Y.
"It's not just the quality of caretaking and the child's innate temperament, as well as what his biological predispositions are," Fornari said. "Certainly all of this begins in early childhood, but it's not just the quality of the mother-infant relationship that determines the outcome."
Can patterns be changed?
Adults who remember having a poor relationship with their mothers early in life – whether or not that pattern continued, may want to speak with a therapist to maximize their chances of happy, successful romantic relationships, Simpson suggested.
"Often, identifying the sorts of patterns you may not be able to articulate, can (help) you find someone who is not going to reinforce the way you used to be treated, or the way you used to view the world," Simpson said.
But he added, "It's really important not to blame parents. Usually when there's a negative pattern of behavior with a mother and child, the mother is under financial or emotional stress . . . They're often doing the best they can given their life circumstances."
The study is published in the December issue of the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science.
Pass it on: An infant's bond with mom may affect his relationships later in life, though other factors also have influence.