Why You Can Blame Your Mom If You're Still Single

mother, daughter, mother comforting daughter
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If your adult life seems like a never-ending stream of breakups, your mom might be to blame.

New research finds that mothers and daughters tend to have a similar number of marriages or cohabiting relationships. But the linkage isn't explained by economic factors or by the number of breakups that daughters witness, the study found.

Instead, it seems that mothers may pass on certain characteristics, like poor conflict-management skills, that echo through their daughters' relationships. [13 Scientifically Proven Signs You're in Love]

Following the generations

The research arose because relationships in the United States have changed, said study leader Claire Kamp Dush, a professor of human development and family science at The Ohio State University. One of the major changes is an increase in unmarried cohabitation; the practice has risen 29 percent since 2007 alone, from 14 million people cohabitating in that year to 18 million in 2016, according to the Pew Research Center. Kamp Dush and her colleagues were interested in how people's individual experiences might influence the relationships they enter.

The team used data from two surveys, both demographically representative of the United States, that have been tracking thousands of the same participants for decades. The first was the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979. The second was the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth: Child and Young Adult, which follows all the children of the women in the first survey. Thus, the researchers had data on the relationships of 7,152 people in the second generation of the survey, as well as data on the relationships of those individuals' mothers. 

The study's first finding, Kamp Dush told Live Science, was an association between the number of partners the younger generation had and the number their mothers had. But daughters of serial monogamists can take heart: The association was hardly a one-to-one ratio. Instead, for every additional marriage or cohabitation partner that Mom had, her daughter saw only a 6 percent increase in overall number of partners.  

The link itself was not very surprising, Kamp Dush said, considering that many researchers have found that when parents divorce, their children report less confidence in marriage and long-term commitment. But because of the long-term data available, Kamp Dush and her colleagues were able to delve into the "why" of the link between moms' and daughters' relationship patterns.

The first task, Kamp Dush said, was to find out whether the link was due to economic instability. Money woes due to Mom's breakup could lead to long-term financial instability or poor education for daughters, which could in turn destabilize their future relationships.

Passing on patterns

But economic instability didn't explain the link.

"There was still an association," Kamp Dush said, even after controlling for Mom's rising and falling economic fortunes over time. So, the team tested another idea. Perhaps, Kamp Dush said, daughters witnessing their moms' breakups learned that commitments can be broken, making the daughters more willing to end relationships as adults.

To find out if this was driving the link, the researchers studied the siblings in their sample. If watching breakups explained everything, older siblings who had witnessed more of their mothers' breakups should have had more relationships than younger siblings who had seen fewer breakups. That wasn't the case.

"We don't find that siblings are different," Kamp Dush said.

That leaves one likely culprit, Kamp Dush said: Mom's characteristics and behavior. Though the researchers could not test this hypothesis directly, they suspect that the mothers who went through a lot of breakups may have had issues that they passed on to their children, either by example or genetically. These moms may have had poor conflict-resolution skills or inheritable mental health issues that make staying in a relationship difficult. [5 Facts About Couples Who Live Together]

"We're speculating, but I feel pretty good about the speculation," Kamp Dush said. Future research should test factors like conflict resolution directly, she and her colleagues wrote today (Nov. 13) in the open-access journal PLOS One. Relationship skills can be learned, the researchers added, so these personal factors could be a target for helping people improve their partnerships.

And that matters, Kamp Dush said, because 40 percent of children in the United States are now born outside of marital relationships, and cohabitation tends to be less stable than marriage, particularly when it's driven by a baby on the way— 60 percent of cohabitating parents break up before their first children turn 5. Marriage isn't necessarily crucial for kids' well-being, and some relationships are so toxic that when the parents stay together, it's bad for the kids. But the research does show that kids generally do best when they're living in a stable situation with their biological parents, Kamp Dush said.

"Supporting people in the ways they can have healthy, stable, fulfilling intimate relationships is something that's important," Kamp Dush said.

Originally published on Live Science.

Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.