The ability to commit to a romantic partner may be more rooted in childhood and adolescence than previously thought, according to research to be published in the journal Psychological Science next month.
Though previous studies address how differences in commitment levels predict a relationship's failure, little attention has been given to the role of family and friend bonds throughout life.
Researchers found that people with lower quality relationships as toddlers and teens tended to be less committed to their love interests later on.
The study focused on 78 participants between the ages of 20 and 21 who had been studied their entire lives through the Minnesota Longitudinal Study of Risk and Adaptation. Psychologists used data from two previous experiments with participants.
One measured the quality of each participant's relationship with his or her care-giver as a 2-year-old, while another looked at his or her ability to resolve problems with best friends at age 16.
Most recently, scientists surveyed the same participants and their romantic partners of four or more months in order to measure each party's level of commitment to the relationship. Based on their scores, partners were identified as the "strong link" or the "weak link."
After, the couples participated in a videotaped discussion, identifying relationship struggles, how they resolve conflicts and what they have in common. From the video, a coder measured hostility displayed by each partner.
As predicted, participants with lower quality relationships with others in previous experiments were more likely to be the weak link in the relationship, while those with higher quality interactions earlier in life were more committed.
In addition, female weak links were more likely to act hostile during the videotaped discussion. The authors write the trend makes sense because women use language to maintain relationships more often than men.
The findings support the idea that people's interactions throughout life — romantic or not — affect one another. It makes sense for people with lower quality relationships to be afraid to commit, especially if they invested too much trust in someone who didn't reciprocate.
Also, the authors of the study point out that weak links generally hold more power in relationships because they have less to lose if broken up. Along these lines, the strong links are more likely to appease the weak links to avoid conflict.
Consistent with other research, the study found the difference between individuals' romantic commitment matters more than each person's actual commitment level. Researchers think they have a starting point to look at how childhood development affects romantic relationships down the road.
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