February 12, 2007

Early Social Experiences Can Influence Adult Behavior in Romantic Relationships, Says Study

Secure infants are likely to be competent children who are likely to form healthy attachments as adults

WASHINGTON--The way in which individuals think, feel, and behave in their adult romantic relationships is governed not only by factors in their immediate surroundings, but is also a direct result of their past relationships and personal attachment extending all the way back to childhood, according to a study reported in the recent issue of Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association (APA). At the time of year when many reflect on their romantic experiences--Valentine's Day, this study sheds light on how relationships are shaped by early experiences.

In a longitudinal study that has spanned more than 25 years (and is still being conducted), 78 individuals were studied at four pivotal points in their lives--infancy, early childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. At the first checkpoint when the participants were 12-months old, caregivers reported on the children's attachment and exploratory behavior. At the second checkpoint when the participants were 6-8 years old, the participant's teachers were asked to rate how well the children interacted with their peers. At the third checkpoint the16 years old, participants were asked to describe their close friendships.

At the most recent reporting, the participants' romantic partners (of at least 4 months) were asked to describe their experiences and their partner's expressions of emotion during their relationship. Interactions of the couples were also observed and coded to evaluate the expression of emotion and their interpersonal dynamics.

The findings of this study supported previous attachment theories. Expression of emotions in adult romantic relationships can be related back to a person's attachment experiences during earlier social development. Those participants who were secure and attached as infants were rated with higher social competence as children. Children who were socially competent amongst peers were found to be more secure and closer to their friends at age 16. Participants who were closer to friends as a teen were more expressive and emotionally attached to their romantic partners in early adulthood.

"The current findings highlight one developmental pathway through which significant relationship experiences during the early years of life are tied to the daily experiences in romantic relationships during early adulthood," said W. Andrew Collins, lead author and University of Minnesota psychology professor.

"One encouraging finding, however, is that the study does not suggest that an individual's past unalterably determines the future course of his/her relationships."

Article: "Attachment and the Experience and Expression of Emotion in Romantic Relationships: A Developmental Perspective," Jeffry Simpson, W. Andrew Collins, Sisi Tran, and Katherine Haydon, University of Minnesota; Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 92, No. 2.

W. Andrew Collins can be reached by telephone at 612-624-1551 or by e-mail.

The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 145,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 54 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting health, education and human welfare.