What Your Mother Has To Do With Your Lover

"They fuck you up, your mum and dad.   

    They may not mean to, but they do.   

They fill you with the faults they had

    And add some extra, just for you."

-Philip Larkin, “This Be The Verse”

The poem has the structure and simplicity of a nursery rhyme, which makes its tragic message that much harder to take. In three short verses, Larkin paints the bleakest possible view of human nature, insisting that our flaws are predestined by our birth, for children are ruined by their parents. “Man hands on misery to man,” Larkin writes; the only escape is to “get out as early as you can, and don’t have any kids yourself.” 

Larkin, of course, was exaggerating for effect - not every parent-child relationship is a story of decay. Not every family is a litany of inherited faults. In most cases, the people who love us first don’t just fuck us up - they also fix us. They cure us of the faults we’d have if left alone.

And yet, Larkin’s short verse does describe a difficult truth, which is that poor parenting can leave lasting scars. And so the terrible cycle repeats and repeats, as we inflict upon others the same sins and errors that were inflicted upon us. The sadness, Larkin writes, “deepens like a coastal shelf.”

But why? What are the mechanics of this process? A bad mum and dad might fuck us up, but what, exactly, are they fucking up?

A new paper in Psychological Science by the psychologists Lee Raby, Glenn Roisman, Jeffry Simpson, Andrew Collins and Ryan Steele gives us a glimpse of some possible answers.* By drawing on the epic Minnesota Longitudinal Study of Risk and Adaptation, Raby, et. al. were able to show how a particular kind of poor parenting - insensitivity to the child’s signals - can have lasting effects. If we don’t feel close to our caregivers, then we struggle to stay close to other people later in life. In this sense, learning to love is like learning anything else: it requires a good teacher. 

First, a little history about the Minnesota Longitudinal Study. In the mid-1970s, Alan Sroufe and Byron Egeland began recruiting 267 pregnant women living in poverty in the Minneapolis area. What makes the Minnesota study is so unique is its time-scale: the researchers have been tracking and testing the children born to these women for nearly 40 years. They made home visits during infancy and tested them in the lab when they were toddlers. They set up a preschool and a summer camp. They watched them interact with their mothers as teenagers and kept track of their grades and test scores. They were interviewed at length, repeatedly, about nearly everything in their life.

The point of all this data - and it’s a staggering amount of data - is to reveal the stark correlations between the quality of the early parent-child relationship and the ensuing trajectory of the child. Because the correlations are everywhere. According to the Minnesota study, children who are more securely attached to their mother exhibit more self-control and independence in preschool. They score higher on intelligence tests, get better grades and are far more likely to graduate from high-school. As adults, those who experienced more supportive parenting are more supportive with their own children; they also have better romantic relationships. In their masterful summary of the study, The Development of the Person, Sroufe, Egeland and Elizabeth Carlson compare our early attachment experiences to the foundation of a house. While the foundation itself is not sufficient for shelter - you also need solid beams and sturdy roof – the psychologists note that “a house cannot be stronger than its foundation.That’s what we get as young children: the beginnings of a structure on which everything else is built.

And this brings us back to the latest follow-up study, conducted when the Minnesota subjects were between 33 and 37 years old. Raby, et. al began by asking the subjects and their long-term romantic partners a series of questions about their relationship, including the top three sources of conflict. Then, the couples were instructed to seek a resolution to one of these major disagreements.    

While the subjects were having these difficult conversations, the scientists were measuring the “electrodermal reactivity” of their hands. It’s long been known that certain types of emotional experiences, such as fear and nervous arousal, trigger increased skin reactivity, opening up the glands of the palm. (Lie detectors depend on this principle; suppressing our true feelings makes us sweat.) Not surprisingly, the couples experienced higher electrodermal reactivity when talking about their relationship problems than when doing a simple breathing exercise. These were not fun conversations.

Here’s where the longitudinal data proved essential. By comparing the changes in skin response triggered by the conflict discussion to the early childhood experiences of the subjects, the scientists were able to document a troubling correlation. In general, those who “experienced less sensitive, responsive and supportive caregiving” during childhood and adolescence displayed a significantly higher skin conductivity response when talking to their partners about their relationship problems as thirtysomethings. This correlation held even after correcting for a bevy of other variables, including the quality of the current romantic relationship, gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.

What explains this finding? Why does a less sensitive parent lead to sweatier palms in middle-age? One possibility - and it’s only a possibility - is that the elevated skin conductance is a marker of “behavioral inhibition,” a sign that the subjects are holding their feelings back. Because these adults had parents who struggled to respond to their emotional needs, they learned to hide their worries away.  (Why express yourself if nobody’s listening?) This might explain why these same individuals also seem to have a tougher time discussing relationship problems with their adult partner, at least based on the spike in skin reactivity. 

As the years pass, this inability to discuss relationship issues can itself become a serious issue. For instance, research by John Gottmann and colleagues at the University of Washington found that, once the honeymoon period was over, couples who experienced more “verbal conflict” were actually more likely to stay together. “For a marriage to have real staying power, couples need to air their differences,” Gottmann writes. “Rather than being destructive, occasional anger can be a resource that helps the marriage improve over time.” Intimacy requires candor and vulnerability, not inhibition and nerves.

This new study from the Minnesota subjects comes with all the usual caveats. It has a relatively small sample size - only 37 couples participated - and correlation does not prove causation. Nevertheless, it’s powerful proof that the shadow of that first loving relationship - the one we have with our parents - follows us through life, shaping every love thereafter.

Raby, K. Lee, et al. "Greater Maternal Insensitivity in Childhood Predicts Greater Electrodermal Reactivity During Conflict Discussions With Romantic Partners in Adulthood." Psychological Science (2015)

Raby, K. Lee, et al. "The interpersonal antecedents of supportive parenting: A prospective, longitudinal study from infancy to adulthood." Developmental Psychology 51.1 (2015)

Sroufe, L. A., Egeland, B., Carlson, E. A., & Collins, W. A. (2009). The Development of the Person: The Minnesota Study of Risk and Adaptation from Birth to Adulthood. Guilford Press.

*Just a reminder that this research on poor parenting has massive public policy implications. According to a 2013 report from the Center on Children and Families by Richard Reeves and Kimberly Howard, if the “emotional support skills” of the weakest parents are merely boosted to an average level, the result would be a 12.5 percent decrease in teen pregnancy, a 9 percent increase in high-school graduation rates and an 8.3 percent decrease in criminal convictions before the age of 19.