If you’re searching for the keys to a happy relationship this Valentine’s Day, new research suggests you should search back into your own childhood—way back.
The research, summarized in a recent paper in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, suggests that the love and care we receive as infants—before we can even form conscious memories—can very closely predict the quality of our romantic relationships as adults.
The authors studied first-born children participating in a long-term research project, in which researchers regularly assessed the social and emotional development of these children throughout their lives.
When the participants were between 12 and 18 months old, researchers brought them into a lab and separated and reunited them with their mothers several times, looking to see how the babies reacted to this stressful exercise.
Those infants who explored their new environment more freely, without seeming anxious or uncertain, were said to have “secure attachments” to their mothers; infants with “insecure attachments,” on the other hand, remained distressed throughout the experiment.
Flash forward 20 years. The researchers identified the 75 participants from the original group, now in their early 20s, who were in a romantic relationship. The researchers observed them again, this time asking them to discuss a conflict with their romantic partner—eliciting a negative interaction—then shift focus to a topic on which the couple agreed.
Those partners who were securely attached to their mothers as infants were able to shift more quickly from their negative interaction to the positive one: It didn’t take long for their mood to improve and for them to shift their attention to the new topic. They were also better able to regulate their feelings than those who had been insecurely attached.
Those who had had an insecure attachment to their mothers as infants seemed to experience more difficulty dealing with conflict and emotion as adults.
What’s more, if someone grew up with a secure attachment, that wasn’t just good for them but for their partner as well: Partners recovered better from conflicts if they were romantically involved with someone who had been securely attached to their mother as an infant. And having a partner who recovered better from conflict was linked to greater relationship satisfaction and more positive emotions about their relationship overall.
However, the researchers point out that our romantic destinies aren’t entirely determined by the time we’re toddlers. Among participants who had had an insecure attachment as a child, those who had found an emotionally stable and committed romantic partner as a young adult were more likely to still be in their relationship two years later, at age 23.
According to the researchers, it seems that a healthy relationship can help turn things around for “developmentally vulnerable” people who grew up with less support or less consistent caregiving as children.
“Emotionally well-regulated romantic partners,” they write, “can protect individuals who have insecure attachment histories from certain romantic relationship difficulties in adulthood.”