New research gives a fresh perspective on why some people are more committed to a relationship, how relationship longevity depends on mutual commitment, and how we learn to love.
A team of researchers from St. Olaf College, the University of Minnesota and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign analyzed data from the Minnesota Longitudinal Study of Risk and Adaptation (MLSRA) study, a 30-year review of individual development from birth to adulthood. Investigators then followed up with a lab experiment to learn about relationships.
In the research, scientists discovered the benefit of having a supportive, involved mother in toddlerhood and being able to work through conflict in adolescence. This specific type of background is predictive of an individual being a “strong link” in adult relationships. That is, the person with the bigger stake in the adult relationship.
However, if an individual did not have a caring mother during early childhood and did not have to work through conflict in adolescence, then chances are that person will be the “weak link” in adult relationships — that is, the one with one foot out the door.
Another major factor is having an equally committed partner for a lasting relationship.
Interestingly, it’s not the partners’ individual commitments that make the most difference for staying together through thick or thin. It’s how well their levels of commitment match up. In other words, individuals from similar backgrounds reflective of a “strong link” will be benevolent and tolerant when the going gets rough.
Similarly, two weak links may be lax about working things out, but their expectations are equally low so there’s less friction.
But when a weak link and a strong link pair up, the one with less investment has more influence. This makes for a less stable and predictable relationship.
In the laboratory part of the experiment, researchers recruited 78 MLSRA participants, 20 or 21 years old, and their heterosexual romantic partners.
A questionnaire assessing each participant’s level of commitment was analyzed alongside data from two earlier points in the longitudinal study. First, two-year-olds were observed doing a difficult task while their mothers looked on.
Did their mother laugh, help, or ignore the child? Second, at 16, the subjects recounted dealing with a conflict with a best friend, and were assessed for relational attitudes and skills.
This time, each couple discussed—and tried to resolve—the problem that caused them the most conflict. Then they talked about the things they agreed on most.
Their videotaped interactions were rated for the amount of hostility—coldness, rejection, and remorseless injury—and hopelessness about the relationship that each partner displayed, and how each tried to quell those in the other.
As expected, the couples with disparate commitments were the most hostile.
The study contributes to our understanding of how we learn to love well. When you’re a baby or a teenager, “you are learning to manage your own needs and those of the people you care about,” say the researchers.
“You learn: Can I come forward with a problem? What can I expect of the other person? And how can I do this in a way that everyone wins?”