We don’t typically begin serious, romantic relationships until adulthood, but a newly published study in Current Directions in Psychological Science discovered that the foundations for a person’s ability to love begin to form much earlier than that.

“Your interpersonal experiences with your mother during the first 12 to 18 months of life predict your behavior in romantic relationships 20 years later,” said study author Jeffry A. Simpson. “Before you can remember, before you have language to describe it, and in ways you aren’t aware of, implicit attitudes get encoded into the mind,” about how you’ll be treated or how worthy you are of love and affection.

This is defined as an “organizational” view of human social development.

“People find a coherent, adaptive way, as best as they can,” Simpson said, “to respond to their current environments based on what’s happened to them in the past.”

The researchers profiled 75 participants from the time they were children until their early 30s and assessed their close friends and romantic partners. The participants, who came from low-income families, were put into strange or stressful situations as infants while in their mother’s care as a way to test the bond between them. They focused their research on how well the participants could work through conflicts with those closest to them.

The analyses found that while it is always possible for people to change the way they treat their romantic partners, “in times of stress old patterns often reassert themselves. The mistreated infant becomes the defensive arguer; the baby whose mom was attentive and supportive works through problems, secure in the goodwill of the other person.”

“Psychologists started off thinking there was a lot of continuity in a person’s traits and behavior over time,” Simpson said. “We find a weak but important thread [between the participants as infants and when they become older].” However, he said, “one thing has struck us over the years: It’s often harder to find evidence for stable continuity than for change on many measures.”

And even if you started out with a distrustful model, said Simpson, “you may be able to revise your models and calibrate your behavior differently.”

Source: Association for Psychological Science

Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Email her at hrudow@counseling.org.

Follow Counseling Today on Twitter.