Skip to content

Can't Hold a Relationship? Science Says Blame Your Mom

A new study sheds light on all of our mommy issues.

If you're having a hard time making a relationship stick, it might not just be today's commitment-phobic culture to blame.

A new study of 7,152 people published in PLOS ONE suggests that our relationship patterns are strongly influenced by how successful our mothers were at maintaining stable relationships.

Researchers surveyed data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 and the Longitudinal Survey of Youth Child and Young Adult—both of which followed participants for at least 24 years—and found that men and women often had roughly the same number of serious romantic partners that their mother had.

While it's long been known that people whose parents divorced have a greater likelihood of getting divorced themselves—and the same goes for people whose parents cheated—these results showed that the same effect seemed to be true for cohabitation.

"It's not just divorce now. Many children are seeing their parents divorce, start new cohabiting relationships, and having those end as well," Claire Kamp Dush, an associate professor of human sciences at The Ohio State University and lead author of the study, said. "All of these relationships can influence children's outcomes, as we see in this study."

The researchers aren't sure why this is the case. One theory proposes that the economic hardship generally associated with single parenting may create a more difficult transition into adulthood and, subsequently, a harder time forming stable bonds. Another theory proposes that seeing your mother go through a variety of breakups might lead to intimacy issues that make it harder to fully attach.

Kamp Dush, however, believes in a third theory, and if she's right, it's a bit depressing.

"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. Children inherit and learn those skills and behaviors and may take them into their own relationships," she 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."

Setting aside the awkward use of the term "marriage market", it seems a bit hasty to conclude that just because a person has several partners within their lives that means they don't possess "great relationship" skills—especially given that most happily married couples agree that there's a fair bit of luck involved in finding The One.

The study is also somewhat limited in its decision to focus solely on mothers, given that plenty of research has indicated that your father's behavior has a strong influence in the kind of men you choose, your self-esteem levels, and your sense of self-worth. Not to mention that it's fairly widely accepted in psychiatric circles that your relationship with both of your parents is a strong indicator of whether your have an anxious, avoidant, or secure attachment style, which is one of the determining factors in how we navigate our love lives.

So if your mom got married and divorced seven times, don't worry, you're not necessarily doomed to the same fate. But if you happen to find yourself on the same relationship path as one or more of your parents, this new study might give you something to think about. And possibly bring up in therapy.

And if you are struggling in the search for love, check out these science-backed tips on how to make the most of being single.

To discover more amazing secrets about living your best life, click here to follow us on Instagram!    

Diana Bruk
Diana is a senior editor who writes about sex and relationships, modern dating trends, and health and wellness. Read more