A new study published in the journal PLOS ONE suggests that people whose mothers had more live-in romantic partners — either married or cohabiting — often follow the same path.

While previous research has shown that children of divorce are also more likely to divorce, the new study broadens the picture.

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

The findings suggest that mothers may pass on personality traits and relationship skills that make their children more or less likely to form stable relationships.

“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,” said Kamp Dush.

Data for the study came from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 (NLSY79) and the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth Child and Young Adult (NLSY79 CYA). Both surveys tracked the same participants for at least 24 years.

All participants in the NSL79 CYA survey were the biological children of women in the NLSY79 (7,152 people). This allowed the researchers to get a long-term look at the number of partners for people in both generations. The surveys included information on marriage and divorce as well as cohabiting relationships and dissolutions.

The findings show that both the number of marriages and the number of cohabiting partners by mothers had similar effects on how many partners their children had.

“You may see cohabitation as an attractive, lower-commitment type of relationship if you’ve seen your mother in such a relationship for a longer time,” Kamp Dush said. “That may lead to more partners since cohabitating relationships are more likely to break up.”

The study discussed three theories which could potentially explain why children often follow their mothers in terms of the number of relationships.

One theory revolves around economic instability, as one partner’s income is usually lost in a divorce or relationship ending. Economic hardship can lead to poorer child outcomes and a more difficult transition to adulthood, resulting in more unstable partnerships in adulthood.

But while economic instability was indeed linked to the number of partners a person had, controlling for economic factors in the study did not significantly reduce the mother-child link in the number of partners. In other words, money problems were likely not the main reason why many people follow their mother’s relationship patterns.

A second theory suggests that the actual experience of seeing your mother going through a divorce or breaking up a cohabitation — or multiple breakups — leads children to have more partners themselves. According to this theory, an older half-sibling who watched his or her mother go through multiple partners should be more at risk than a younger half-sibling who wasn’t exposed to as many partners.

But this wasn’t the case, Kamp Dush said. A sibling who experienced his or her mother have several relationships did not have a statistically greater number of partners compared to a sibling who did not experience instability.

So why do mothers and their children often share partnering trends?

“What our results suggest is that mothers may pass on their marriageable characteristics and relationship skills to their children — for better or worse,” Kamp Dush 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.”

Source: Ohio State University