Family Matters

Does Your Partner Hold Grudges? Blame It on His Mother

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All couples fight, and how you recover from a tiff has a lot to do with the health of your relationship. It also has a lot to do with Mom: those partners who are able to bounce back quickest are likely to have had more secure relationships with their caregivers as infants, according to new research in the journal Psychological Science.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota zeroed in on a group of people they’ve been tracking since before they were born in the mid-1970s. When they were college-age, they and their partners showed up at the lab to participate in a “conflict discussion.” They were instructed to talk about something they didn’t see eye to eye on, then they were to follow that up with a cooler-headed conversation about an issue upon which they agreed.

Not surprisingly, some couples transitioned easily from a heated discussion to a more leisurely one. Others acted like toddlers and wouldn’t budge; they couldn’t move beyond their disagreement. (More on Mind Reading: How the New Science of Adult Attachment Can Improve Your Love Life)

The researchers dug back into their data from the 1970s and observed a connection between the way the couples recovered from conflict and how securely attached they were to their caregivers — who were mostly their mothers — at 12 and 18 months old. Those babies who were easily soothed by their mothers as infants grew into adults who were better able to regulate their negative emotions after a conflict.

But, as in any relationship, it’s not all about you, and that held true for this study as well. It turns out that even people who weren’t securely attached as babies can have healthy adult relationships. How? Pick a partner who loved his or her mama, and was loved by Mom in return. Then that person can lead the charge when it comes to moving beyond conflict and back to the mundane but necessary details of life — who’s gonna pick up the kids? Buy the groceries? Drop off the dry-cleaning? (More on Time.comCan Your Mate’s Voice Be a Clue to Potential Cheating?)

“We found that people who were insecurely attached as infants but whose adult romantic partners recover well from conflict are likely to stay together,” says Jessica E. Salvatore, lead author and a Ph.D. student in child psychology at the University of Minnesota. “This research shows that romantic relationships may compensate, in specific ways, for vulnerabilities people carry with them early on in development.”

A couple in which one partner has a history of insecure attachment but the other is good at putting an argument to rest and moving on has a 75% chance of staying together over time, but match an insecurely attached partner with one who’s not skilled at rising above the passions of conflict, and it’s a recipe for disaster: they have only a 22% chance of success.

How is insecure attachment in infancy measured anyway? Researchers generally use a series of mildly stressful separations and reunions between baby and caregiver. Mom and baby are put in an unfamiliar room together, then mom leaves and returns several times. When she comes back, researchers look for baby’s reaction and monitor how easy it is for the mother to soothe her baby and how quickly the baby can feel comforted enough to return to “exploratory behavior” — translation: playing. (More on Time.comCharlie Sheen’s Twins Are Taken Away from Him. What Happens Now?)

Some babies cling to mom and are unable to go back to building block towers and munching on board books; they’re considered insecure. According to child psychology, clingy kids come from moms whose caregiving is inconsistent and unreliable (a mom who responds to only some of baby’s signals, for example). But a baby confident that his mother will tend promptly to his needs calms down more quickly upon his mother’s return; that child that can get on with the business of play.

Hence the connection: securely attached babies are able to get over mom’s disappearing act and concentrate on playing; those babies turn into securely attached adults who don’t allow conflict to spill over into other parts of their relationship.

Moral of the study? Pay attention to your babies.