The ability to love starts in earliest infancy, according to a new paper in Current Directions in Psychological Science.
“Your interpersonal experiences with your mother during the first 12 to 18 months of life predict your behavior in romantic relationships 20 years later,” said psychologist Dr. Jeffry A. Simpson, the author, with University of Minnesota colleagues Drs. W. Andrew Collins and Jessica E. Salvatore.
“Before you can remember, before you have language to describe it, and in ways you aren’t aware of, implicit attitudes get encoded into the mind” about how you’ll be treated or how worthy you are of love and affection, he said.
While those attitudes can change with new relationships, introspection, and therapy, in times of stress old patterns often reassert themselves, the researchers note. A mistreated infant becomes a defensive arguer; a baby whose mother was attentive works through problems, secure in the goodwill of the other person.
Simpson said this is an “organizational” view of human social development. “People find a coherent, adaptive way, as best as they can, to respond to their current environments based on what’s happened to them in the past,” he explained.
While what happens to you as a baby affecting the adult you become is not a new idea for psychology, solid evidence has been lacking, the researchers said.
The current researchers suggest they are providing that evidence by investigating the links between mother-infant relationships and later love partnerships as part of the Minnesota Longitudinal Study of Risk and Adaptation.
Their subjects are 75 children of low-income mothers whom they’ve been assessing from birth into their early 30s. When the children were infants, they were put into strange or stressful situations with their mothers to test how securely the pairs were bonded.
Since then, the children — who are now adults — have returned regularly for assessments of their emotional and social development. The authors focused on their skills in working through conflicts with peers, teenage best friends, and finally, love partners.
The research has yielded evidence of that early encoding, confirming earlier theories. But their findings also depart from previous thinking.
“Psychologists started off thinking there was a lot of continuity in a person’s traits and behavior over time,” said Simpson.
“We find a weak but important thread” between the infant in the mother’s arms and the 20-year-old in his lover’s. But “one thing has struck us over the years: It’s often harder to find evidence for stable continuity than for change on many measures.”
The good news: “If you can figure out what those old models are and verbalize them,” and if you get involved with a committed, trustworthy partner,” said Simpson, “you may be able to revise your models and calibrate your behavior differently.”