Capacity for Commitment May Start in Early Childhood

WEDNESDAY May 25, 2011 -- The ability of men and women to have staying power and a strong level of commitment in their romantic relationships can be traced back to their early childhood and adolescence, a new study finds.

Researchers asked 78 people aged 20 or 21 and their heterosexual partners about their level of commitment to their relationship.

The researchers already had data on the participants from when they were aged 2 and 16, including how loving and attentive their mothers were when they were toddlers, and how they dealt with a conflict with a friend as teens.

Researchers found that the toddlers who were treated well by their mothers and who were better at resolving conflicts as teenagers tended to be committed in their adult relationships.

People who stick it out, however, may not be successful in single-handedly holding a relationship together, researchers added.

Those who had similar feelings about commitment -- whether those feelings were strong or weak -- may be more likely to stay together over the long haul than two people whose level of commitment didn't match up.

The study is published in the June issue of Psychological Science.

In the study, couples were asked to recount how they attempted to resolve a major conflict in their relationship as well as what they agreed on most. Researchers rated their levels of hostility and feelings of hopelessness about the relationship, and how couples tried to appease each other.

The study found that couples with differing levels of commitments were the most antagonistic. When paired with a weak link, a strong link will lose out and become the underdog with less influence. On the flip side, two weak links in a relationship may tolerate equally low expectations.

The researchers concluded the study's findings open a window into human understanding of how people learn to love. "As children, you are learning to manage your own needs and those of the people you care about," said M. Minda Orina of St. Olaf College in a news release from the Association for Psychological Science. "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?"

More information

The American Academy of Pediatrics provides guidance on signs of an unhealthy relationship.

Posted: May 2011


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