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The ability to trust, love, and resolve
conflict with loved ones starts in early childhood, during interactions with
your mother. That is one message from a review of the relevant literature
that was published in late 2011 in the Association for Psychological
Science’s journal Current Directions in Psychological Science.
“Your interpersonal experiences with your mother during the first twelve to
eighteen months of life predict your behavior in romantic relationships
twenty years later,” says psychologist Jeffry A. Simpson, a co-author, along
with University of Minnesota colleagues 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
While those attitudes can change with new relationships, introspection, and
therapy, old patterns often reassert themselves in times of stress, note the
study authors. The mistreated infant becomes the defensive arguer; the baby
whose mom was attentive and supportive works through problems, secure in the
goodwill of the other person.
This is an “organizational” view of human social development. Explains
Simpson: “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.” What happens to you as a baby affects the adult you become. It’s
not such a new idea for psychology, but solid evidence for it has been
The mistreated infant becomes the defensive arguer; the baby
whose mom was attentive and supportive works through problems,
secure in the goodwill of the other person.
Simpson, Collins, and Salvatore have been providing that evidence,
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 seventy-five children of low-income mothers
whom they’ve been assessing from birth into their early thirties, including
their close friends and romantic partners.
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 have
focused on their skills and resilience in working through conflicts with
school peers, teenage best friends, and finally, love partners.
Through multiple analyses, the research has yielded evidence of that early
encoding – confirming earlier psychological theories. But their findings
depart from their predecessors’ ideas, too.
“Psychologists started off thinking there was a lot of continuity in a
person’s traits and behavior over time,” says 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
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, says Simpson, “you may be able to revise your models and calibrate
your behavior differently.” Old patterns can be overcome. A betrayed baby
can become loyal. An unloved infant can learn to love.