You Have Your Mother's Relationship History


Some people have their mother’s eyes. And some, it turns out, grow up to have their mother’s romantic history.

People whose mothers have been married multiple times or have lived with multiple romantic partners are more likely to do so themselves, according to a new study published Tuesday in the journal PLoSOne. The longer people are exposed to their mother’s cohabitation, the more sexual partners they tend to have.

The authors looked at data from surveys of thousands of Americans followed for 24 years. Data on the fathers’ marriages wasn’t available.

The study authors write that, rather than economics or socialization, the most likely explanation was genetic. That is, some people have personality traits that make them better or worse at maintaining relationships. They might be depressed, have trust issues, or not regulate their emotions well. They then pass those traits on to their children, who go on to have similarly short-lived relationships.

Past research has already suggested that personality traits we inherit can influence our romantic relationships. People who are more depressed, for example, have been shown to have less stable relationships, while those who are more extroverted and agreeable tend to be more sought-after spouses.

“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,” Claire Kamp Dush, the lead author of the study and an associate professor of human sciences at Ohio State University, said in a statement. “Whatever the exact mechanisms, they may pass these characteristics on to their children, making their children’s relationships less stable.”

Of course, some mothers with multiple partners are perfectly well adjusted and happy. They simply like having lots of different partners and have no desire to marry. Still, past studies have shown that children of divorce are also more likely to get divorced themselves, in part because they tend to enter into marriage with lower levels of commitment. This new study—and others like it—suggests we mimic other elements of our parents’ romantic lives, beyond divorce.

“It’s not just divorce now,” Kamp Dush said. “Many children are seeing their parents divorce, start new cohabiting relationships, and having those end as well.”

On the plus side, if you do find your serious relationships ending, having your mother’s eyes might help you when you try to find a new one.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.

Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

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