Family Matters

Relationships 101: Having a Supportive Mom Helps You Commit

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Commitment can be a scary word. But if you want to teach your child how to love well, new research suggests being a supportive mom is key.

A team of researchers has found that supportive mothers, those who showed sympathy and understanding toward their toddlers and who fostered in their teens the ability to soldier through angst and successfully problem-solve, raised adults who are more likely to become the “strong link” — the more committed partner — in a relationship. In the absence of those conditions, kids were at greater risk of winding up as the “weak link” — the lover who can’t be counted on to stay put.

“We wondered why some people have one foot out the door,” says Minda Oriña, an assistant professor of psychology at St. Olaf College and lead author of the study. “Is there something in their developmental history that might predispose someone to becoming the weak-link partner?”

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Researchers from St. Olaf College, University of Minnesota and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign looked at 78 young adults aged 20 or 21 and their heterosexual romantic partners. Because the 78 participants were part of a larger longitudinal study, researchers were able to reach back in time and retrieve data from their childhoods. When they were 2 years old, for instance, they were asked to perform a challenging task a bit above their ability level while their moms watched. The mothers were instructed to offer support but not complete the task for them. Some mothers coached the kids; others were unresponsive or even laughed in response to the child’s frustration. Later, at 16, the teens were asked to recall a conflict with a best friend and describe how it was worked out.

The study, published in the June issue of Psychological Science, found that people were much more likely to become the less committed partner if they had moms who weren’t as supportive when they were 2 or if they were unable to resolve conflicts well at 16.

“The takeaway for me is that early relationships set the stage for current relationships,” says Oriña. “If people have been somewhat punitive in the past toward you or you have had relationships where there is always a winner/loser, it’s less likely you will enter a romantic relationship with an attitude of trust and willingness to work through problems.”

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Researchers also asked couples to perform a conflict-resolution exercise in which they were asked to talk about and try to work out the issue that caused them the most stress in their relationship. While they spoke, researchers videotaped their conversations and assessed them for hostility and feelings of hopelessness about the future of the relationship. Not surprisingly, the couples who did not share similar feelings of commitment toward each other were the most hostile.

Bottom line: relationships in which both partners’ levels of commitment are similar have the best shot of making it in the long-term. Two strong links have good prospects for obvious reasons, but a duo of weak links can persevere as well — if both partners have low expectations, at least they’re on the same wavelength. Now, go be nice to your kids.