Most of my patients are pushed into therapy by what they see as a problem – maybe it’s an eating disorder or a specific relationship issue like mistrust or infidelity. Many of these patients simply want the problem to go away. But a study recently published in the journal Advances in Life Course Research reinforces the idea that it’s rarely that easy. Many of your current problems aren’t the result of your current circumstances and instead require looking deeper into the transformative experiences of your childhood for anything that might resemble a long term fix.
Specifically, researchers Eva-Maria Merz and Suzanne Jak used results from the 3,980-person Netherlands Kinship Panel Study to show that the quality of your childhood relationships with your parents affects the quality of your romantic relationships as an adult. That might not be a newsflash, but the study also shows exactly what it is in your early patterns of attachment to your parents that predicts good and bad relationships now.
They started with a soup of factors that included a person’s childhood attachment to mother and father, childhood stressful relationship with mother and father, quality of the current romantic relationship, current family ties, and current loneliness. And, basically, they asked what was related to what, in other words, which – if any! – things in your past lead to which things in your present?
As you might expect, everything was related to loneliness. That is, everything except having a stressful relationship with your mother! It turns out that as long as you had the background of attachment to your mother – reliability, closeness, and supportiveness – you could also have fought with her, without these fights hurting your chances for healthy adult relationships or increasing your chance of loneliness. The same wasn’t true of fathers: fighting with dad was bad. In fact, it was this positive side of mom – how attached you were to her – that was the study’s best overall predictor of your current relationship quality, strength of family ties and loneliness. Really: kids who were attached to mom tend to experience good things as adults.
The aspects of attachment to mom that were most important in this study were “experiences and memories of the mother as a reliable resource in problem solving, as supportive, a close relationship partner, and understanding,” the authors write.
What’s especially interesting, if not especially surprising is that these early attachments matter at all. Your adult life including romantic relationships and feelings of loneliness may be the products of patterns created long ago. You do not ping and pong through life simply in the moment of your present experiences and instead interpret and react to these experiences as interpreted through the lens of your past.
As you look for current solutions, I suggest you first look to the problems of your past instead of simply focusing on the problems in front of you.
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