Most of us would probably agree that our early childhood experiences influence who we become as adults. But this is actually a fairly provocative notion. And especially provocative is the idea that our upbringing—the quality of the parenting we get—has long-term implications for how we later interact with other adults, including our intimate partners.
This is not an easy connection to study for a couple of reasons. It takes a lot of time and planning to study people from childhood into adulthood, and what’s more, neither parenting quality nor the quality of romantic relationships is easily and objectively analyzed.
But now a team of psychological scientists has found ways to surmount these obstacles. K. Lee Raby of the University of Delaware, working with several colleagues at the University of Minnesota, has been using adults’ physiological responses—rather than self-reports—to characterize interactions between adult romantic partners. Such measures reflect automatic responses operating outside consciousness, so they are also less susceptible to the biases that limit the usefulness of self-reports. The scientists are able, simply and harmlessly, to measure changes in skin conductance, which is an indicator of changes in nervous system activity, which is in turn an indicator of the quality of interactions with romantic partners.
The scientists wanted to see if children’s experiences with their parents shape their nervous system responses much later on, when they are in romantic relationships. To explore this, they used data from an ongoing 37-year study—called the Minnesota Longitudinal Study of Risk and Adaptation—which has followed subjects from infancy into adulthood. They wanted to see if less supportive caregiving experiences in childhood lead to greater nervous arousal during adult conflicts.
The scientists focused in on maternal insensitivity, since that is what the original Minnesota study measured and recorded. The study began in 1975, with the recruitment of pregnant mothers who were living in poverty and receiving prenatal services through the local health department. About half the mothers were teenagers, 65 percent were single, and 42 percent lacked a high school diploma. Trained observers rated the mother-child interactions from infancy until adolescence—seven assessments in all, which included a home feeding and play situations, plus cooperation on challenging mental tasks. The observers rated each mother’s ability to perceive, accurately interpret and respond appropriately to her infant’s signals. The situations changed as the children got older, and all the ratings were combined into a composite measure to reflect each child’s overall experience of mothering.
These children were then followed into their mid-30s, when a sample of men and women were selected for an assessment of their romantic relationships. These adults answered questions about their current relationship—satisfaction, commitment, intimacy, trust, passion and love. They also identified specific sources of conflict. Then the sensors were attached to the subjects’ hands for a baseline measurement, after which each couple discussed one of their areas of conflict, and tried to resolve it, for eight minutes.
Finally, they crunched all the data together, with results that will appear in the journal Psychological Science. Subjects who had experienced sensitive mothering in childhood showed lower skin reactivity when discussing difficult issues with their adult partners. By contrast, those who had less sensitive, responsive and supportive caregiving as kids had more skin conductance activity—an index of nervous arousal, which is in turn a marker for emotional avoidance and withdrawal. This long-term connection was not attributable to current relationship quality, gender, ethnicity or socioeconomic status. In short, the kids with insensitive mothers grew up to be adults who avoid conflict with their romantic partners, rather than resolving it.
Follow Wray Herbert’s reporting in The Huffington Post and on Twitter at @wrayherbert.