The same set of skills that we tap to be caring toward our partners is what we use to nurture our children, according to a new study.
Researchers at the University of Bristol set out to examine how caregiving plays out in families — “how one relationship affects another relationship,” said the university’s Abigail Millings, Ph.D., and lead author of the study.
“We wanted to see how romantic relationships between parents might be associated with what kind of parents they are.”
The researchers looked at 125 couples with children aged 7 to 8 years, examining the way the couples are attached toward each other.
They also looked at the parenting styles the parents used with their children, as well as their “caregiving responsiveness,” defined as the “capacity to be ‘tuned in’ to what the other person needs,” according to Millings.
“In romantic relationships and in parenting, this might mean noticing when the other person has had a bad day, knowing how to cheer them up, and whether they even want cheering up,” she said, adding it’s not “just about picking you up when you’re down, it’s also about being able to respond appropriately to the good stuff in life.”
The researchers said they found that a common skill set underpins caregiving across different types of relationships, and for both mothers and fathers.
“If you can do responsive caregiving, it seems that you can do it across different relationships,” Millings said.
However, the researchers also found that how you care toward your partner does not relate to how your partner behaves as a parent.
Millings also notes that the data does not reveal whether our caregiving toward our partners is mirrored in our caregiving for our children, or if it’s the other way around.
“It might be the case that practicing being sensitive and responsive — for example, by really listening and by really thinking about the other person’s perspective — to our partners will also help us to improve these skills with our kids,” she said. “But we need to do more research to see whether the association can actually be used in this way.”
She also pointed out that parents can have great relationships with their children without having a partner. She noted her research team would like to explore how caregiving and parenting relate to one another in other family structures.
If they find that improving caregiving responsiveness in one relationship improves relationship functioning elsewhere, it may be possible to design a self-help program that enables people to improve their relationships.
The study was published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
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