Participants surveyed for a new study were more apt to report that the most difficult people in their lives were female family members such as wives, mothers, and sisters, researchers report.
“With female relatives, it can be a two-sided thing. They may be the people you most depend on, but also the people who nag you the most.”
Close female kin may be disproportionately named as difficult because they’re more likely to be actively and emotionally involved in people’s lives, researchers say.
“The message here is that, with female relatives, it can be a two-sided thing. They may be the people you most depend on, but also the people who nag you the most,” says senior author Claude Fischer, a sociology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “It’s a testament to their deeper engagement in social ties.”
Family, not friends
Overall, the findings show that, on average, about 15 percent of the relationships that survey takers talked about were categorized as difficult, and that their conflicts were most often with close kin such as parents, siblings, and spouses.
Friends were least likely to be difficult, representing about 6 or 7 percent of the annoying members of social circles for both younger and older adults.
“Social ties can be as much a source of stress as a source of joy…”
“The results suggest that difficult people are likely to be found in contexts where people have less freedom to pick and choose their associates,” says Shira Offer, a professor of sociology at Bar-Ilan University and lead author of the study, which appears in American Sociological Review.
Researchers analyzed relationship data from more than 1,100 younger and older adults in the San Francisco Bay Area, more than half of whom are female, using the University of California Social Networks Study (UCNets), of which Fischer is the principle investigator.
Launched in 2015, the multiyear UCNets survey uses face-to-face and online interviews to assess how people’s social connections affect their health and happiness.
“It’s commonly agreed that maintaining strong social ties is healthy,” Fischer says. “But social ties can be as much a source of stress as a source of joy, and so it’s important to understand how different relationships affect our health and well-being.”
Who do we find most difficult?
Offer and Fischer studied more than 12,000 relationships that included casual friendships, work relations, and close family bonds.
The researchers asked participants to name the people with whom they engaged in different social activities and, of those, identify the ones they found difficult or burdensome.
The relationship categories were divided into “difficult only,” meaning ties that participants mentioned solely as difficult, and “difficult engaged in exchange ties,” meaning relationships that are considered difficult but that also include confiding in, and giving and/or receiving emotional and practical support.
Younger people aged 21 to 30 named more “difficult engaged” people in their lives (16 percent) than the older cohort. They most frequently described sisters (30 percent), wives (27 percent), and mothers (24 percent) as being burdensome, and to a lesser degree fathers, brothers, boyfriends, and roommates.
Older people in their 50s, 60s, and 70s identified about 8 percent of the people in their social networks as “difficult engaged.” Topping their list were mothers (29 percent), female romantic partners (28 percent), and fathers and housemates tied at 24 percent.
As for relationships with coworkers and other acquaintances, younger people named a little over 11 percent of those connections as difficult only. For older people, that number was slightly higher, amounting to 15.5 percent of acquaintances and 11.7 percent of coworkers. Overall, workplaces were hotbeds of trouble, but not of the “difficult engaged” kind.
So, why don’t we get rid of the difficult people in our lives? Fischer has an answer.
“Whether it’s an alcoholic father whom you want to cut ties with, an annoying friend with whom you have a long history, or an overbearing boss, relationships are complicated and in many cases unavoidable.”