When it comes to romance, it seems we all agree — mother knows best.
A national study found that we often follow our mothers’ relationship patterns. People whose mother had a greater number of partners (be them in a marriage or cohabiting relationship) were more likely to have more partners than their peers. The authors say it’s likely that the personality traits and social skill set mothers pass on to children make them more or less likely 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 Claire Kamp Dush, lead author of the study and associate professor of human sciences at The Ohio State University.
“Children inherit and learn those skills and behaviors and may take them into their own relationships.”
Dush says that the study expands on previous findings regarding the link between family dynamics and relationship patterns. For example, a lot of prior research found that children from divorced couples are more likely to divorce themselves — but the current study broadens the picture. “It’s not just divorce now,” Dush explains.
“Many children are seeing their parents divorce, start new cohabiting relationships, and having those end as well,” she said. “All of these relationships can influence children’s outcomes, as we see in this study.”
The study drew on data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 (NLSY79) and the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth Child and Young Adult (NLSY79 CYA), run by the Ohio State’s Center for Human Resource Research. The (7,152) people in the NSL79 CYA survey were the biological children of women in the NLSY79, allowing researchers to analyze long-term relationship patterns and the number of partners over both generations — the surveys included information on marriage, divorce, cohabiting relationships, and their break-ups. Both studies tracked each participant for at least 24 years.
The team reports that a mother’s number of marriages and cohabiting partners both had similar effects on how many partners their children had. One key difference between the two was that older siblings, who were exposed to their mother’s cohabiting relationships for longer, went on to have more partners than younger siblings — who were less exposed to the relationships, the team explains.
“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.”
The paper also treats three theories about why children tend to follow their mothers’ relationship patterns:
When parents break up, the family or household loses one source of income. Economic hardship associated with divorce can lead to poorer child outcomes and a more difficult transition to adulthood. These kids are then more likely to have more unstable relationships as adults. However; while the team did find a relationship between economic instability and one’s number of partners, controlling for economic background didn’t have any significant effect on the mother-child link in the number of partners. This suggests that while money mattered, it wasn’t the main reason why so many people follow the same relationship patterns as their mothers.
The second theory proposes that people simply learn by example. Actually witnessing your mother going through one or more divorces or break-ups leads you to have more partners yourself. Should this be true, older half-siblings who saw their mother going through multiple relationships should be more at risk of engaging with multiple partners — but they’re not, the researchers say. The team didn’t find a statistically greater number of partners for these kids compared to younger siblings who did not experience instability.
“What our results suggest is that mothers may pass on their marriageable characteristics and relationship skills to their children — for better or worse,” Kamp Dush said. “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.”
The paper “The intergenerational transmission of partnering” has been published in the journal PLOS ONE.