If you’re having girl problems I feel bad for you son, there are 99 reasons why and your mother could be one. At least, that’s according to new research from Ohio State University suggesting we could get our relationship skills and behaviors directly from our mothers.
Those of us whose mothers had more partners, whether cohabiting or married, are more likely to also have a higher number of potential partners. In short, our mother’s behavior could interfere with our ability to form stable relationships.
“Our results suggest that mothers may have certain characteristics that make them more or less desirable on the marriage market and better or worse at relationships,” said lead author Claire Kamp Dush in a statement. “Children inherit and learn those skills and behaviors and may take them into their own relationships.”
We’ve known for quite some time that children whose parents are divorced are more likely to separate themselves, but this study goes one step beyond that in studying how children form new relationships after being separated. To do so, researchers analyzed data from two national longitudinal surveys that followed more than 3,200 mothers and their children for 24 years, giving researchers a long-term look at how both generations deal with not only marriage and divorce but also the relationships that follow.
They found that both the number of marriages and the number of a mother’s live-in partners similarly affected how many partners their children had. Interestingly, siblings reported similar levels of partnering even if different from their mothers.
“You may see cohabitation as an attractive, lower-commitment type of relationship if you’ve seen your mother in such a relationship for a longer time,” Kamp Dush said. “That may lead to more partners since cohabitating relationships are more likely to break up.”
Published in the journal PLOS ONE, the study notes that mothers have certain characteristics that make them “more or less desirable on the marriage market and better or worse at relationships.”
Accounting for the economic hardship following a divorce or breakup, as well as the psychological toll a child might experience watching their mother go through one – or many, for that matter – the researchers say relationship patterns are a learned behavior.
“What our results suggest is that mothers may pass on their marriageable characteristics and relationship skills to their children – for better or worse,” explained Kamp Dush. “It could be that mothers who have more partners don’t have great relationship skills, or don’t deal with conflict well, or have mental health problems, each of which can undermine relationships and lead to instability. Whatever the exact mechanisms, they may pass these characteristics on to their children, making their children’s relationships less stable.”
It's useful information as sociologists “describe a merry-go-round of partners in American families.” Half of cohabiting partnerships will break it off within three years, while half of first marriages dissolve within 20.
But the findings come with many limitations. For starters, US demographics have “changed dramatically” since the survey first began. Even so, cohabitation is difficult to measure and only became an option to report later in the survey. Furthermore, the data set lacked an ability to measure things in the relationship like quality, stress, commitment, and mental health, particularly given the circumstances that single mothers can have more trouble getting into relationships. Most importantly, the study only looked at mothers and their children – paternal data was not available.