Melissa Healy, Los Angeles Times
5:31 PM CST, February 18, 2011
The strength of the bond you formed with Mom during the first two years of life strongly affects how efficiently you and your partner will move beyond a fight and join forces to accomplish mutual goals, a new study finds.
But if those first years failed to cement your attachment to Mom, take heart: the same study suggests that finding a mellow mate--someone who "gets over it" quickly in the wake of an argument--can help even the insecurely attached to find happiness in a relationship.
The study, published Friday in the journal Psychological Science, builds on decades of research showing that infants who learn to manage their emotions and communicate their needs in the arms of a reliable, attentive caregiver grow up to be happier, healthier adults than infants who did not form such a sturdy first relationship.
The latest study revisited 73 young adults who had been participants, as infants, in the Minnesota Longitudinal Study of Risk and Adaptation. The quality of each subject's attachment to his or her mother had been assessed several times in the first 18 months of life. Now between 20 and 21 years old, each subject brought in a heterosexual partner with whom they had been in a relationship of a little over two years.
Couples were asked to choose one of their most significant relationship problems and try to resolve it (with a camera rolling for 10 minutes.) Researchers then called a halt to the arguing and declared a four-minute "cool-down" period, during which couples were asked to discuss aspects of their relationships that prompted greatest agreement. Then, couples were asked to work together on a task.
Researchers assessing the couples' post-argument behavior looked for "spillover" of hostility into the period designated for making nice. Spillover was identified when one or both partners continued to press the earlier argument, who raised new points of dispute or who shut down completely and refused to cooperate.
Partners tended most to mirror each other's behavior in persisting in or getting over an argument. But after that effect was taken into account, the partners who were most likely to move on and make nice during the argument-recovery period were--you guessed it--those who had been found to have the most secure attachments to their moms in infancy. Spillover was found to occur most often in relationships that included a (former) baby with an insecure attachment.
Securely attached babies were also more likely to have had more stable relationships than their insecure peers.
The good news: In instances where a subject who had been found to have a poor attachment to his or her mother had entered into a relationship with someone who "got over it" easily, the subject expressed greater happiness in the relationship, and was less likely to continue hostilities after a fight was over.
"Individuals may be able to compensate for the vulnerabilities that their romantic partners carry with them from earlier in their development," the authors wrote.
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