A common joke about (some) psychologists is that they blame everything on your mother or father. The cartoon below from www.savagechickens.com is just one example of the infinite number of such cartoons that have been, or will be, drawn.
Psychologists have long argued about the impact our childhood has on our adult behavior. Nowadays, we have good evidence that events in our childhood can have a significant impact much later in life. I am not claiming that our childhood is the overriding factor in determining what kind of adult we will be and that there is nothing and we can do to erase it. Rather, it is pretty clear that, in combination with our genes, childhood experiences have effects that linger and influence our adult thoughts, feelings, and behavior.
My previous post, Attachment and Lasting Relationships, is a good example of how early childhood experiences can affect adult relationships. In this post, I want to follow up and identify three specific ways that childhood attachment can influence lasting relationships.
Researchers at the University of Minnesota have been studying a group of 174 people from birth. For each participant, researchers have studied developmental skills at ages 1, 2, 6-8, and 16. Jeff Simpson and his colleagues have been studying a subset of this group, about 75 young adults who are in a romantic relationship. They are interested in how attachment issues early in life (at ages, 1, 2, 6-8, 16) influence the ability of these individuals to deal with three important aspects of relationship conflict when they are in their early-20s: managing emotion during conflict, recovering from conflict, and maintaining commitment and investment in a relationship.
In these studies, the researchers ask couples to engage in a conflict resolution discussion. First, each partner identifies the issues causing the most problems in the relationship. Then partners compare their lists, choose the problem that causes the most conflict for them, and engages in a 10-minute discussion in which they try to find a solution for the problem. Trained observers then rate the videotapes and assess various qualities of the discussion, including the expression of positive and negative emotion and the degree of conflict resolution. Following the discussion the couples engage in a four-minute cool-down task in which they discuss the aspects of their relationships on which they agree the most. This task is meant to help the couples reach a point of agreement, offsetting any negativity resulting from the conflict discussion.
Managing emotion during conflict. Constructive and functional are the key words here. My guess is that each of us can remember moments in discussions (arguments) when we made comments that were constructive, and moments when our emotions or comments were definitely not constructive. In order to interact constructively during conflicts, both partners need to have a certain degree of control over their emotions. That is, they need to be able to participate in a way that facilitates progress toward solving whatever is at the root of the conflict, thereby improving the quality of the relationship. Individuals who are not securely attached are more likely to experience emotions that are not constructive or functional, making it less likely that the couple will move toward a solution.
Recovering from conflict. Not only is it ideal to manage our emotions well during a conflict with our partner, it is also healthy to move on once the disagreement has ended. Once again, we can all think of times when we kept stewing about an argument long after it was over. Securely attached individuals are able to move on and have positive interactions with their partner; those less securely attached give their partner “the cold shoulder,” or continue to bring up additional relationship problems as their emotions fester, unresolved. In the studies I described above, where there was a four minute cool-down phase, those with insecure attachment tended not to cool down very much during that period.
Maintaining a sense of commitment in a relationship. A few years ago my friend Mark was in a relationship with someone he described as being “really in to.” That sounded great until I met his partner, who made it clear from her words and actions that she was not nearly as “in to” him as he was with her. And I immediately thought, “Uh-oh.” Shared levels of commitment predict lasting relationships. Those with insecure attachment styles, however, are more likely to become “weak-link” partners, who are less committed to the relationship than their partners. Weak-link partners are more likely to respond negatively to their partners and to respond in less constructive ways to conflict.
Well, as I tend to ask in these posts, “So What?” If managing emotions poorly, recovering slowly from conflict, and becoming less committed to a relationship are the result of interactions we had in childhood, what can we do about it now? I think there are three take-home points here.
TAKE-HOME POINT 1: Being aware of the influence our early experiences can have is the first step in changing our current and future behavior. If we do not recognize the damage that destructive behavior and dysfunctional emotions can have, we can’t really do much to change them. So, first, pay attention to how well you are managing your emotions, recovering from conflict and maintaining commitment in your relationship. And be ready to discuss these things with your partner.
TAKE-HOME POINT 2: One of the overarching influences of poor early relationships is that they can create a dangerous relationship mindset, that is, my future relationships are going to be like my past relationships. If we figure that the aspects of the relationships that went wrong before are going to go wrong again, we create a self-fulfilling prophecy where we act in such a way as to make the same mistakes again and again. So, second, think of each relationship as coming from its own mold and realize that we continue to change the mold as the relationship progresses.
TAKE-HOME POINT 3: Having a positive and supportive partner can be a big help in overcoming the results of insecure attachment. So, third, talk to your partner about your previous relationships, and how those relationships tend to cause behavior that you regret. Get your partner on board and be on board with your partner’s issues. Being on the lookout for the ways in which these past relationships creep into your current relationship can go a long way toward creating a lasting and satisfying relationship.
In case you are interested…
Simpson, J. A., Collins, W. A., & Salvatore. J. E. (2011). The impact of early interpersonal experience on adult romantic relationship functioning: Recent findings from the Minnesota Longitudinal Study of Risk and Adaptation. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20, 355–359.