Family Ties: Our Most Toxic Relationships
When it comes to putting up with obnoxious or toxic people, blood really is thicker than water, researchers say. Most of us endure whiners, naggers, control freaks and other annoying people in our lives for good reason – we’re related to them.
Investigators at the University of California, Berkeley, and Bar-Ilan University in Israel sought to understand the reason people don’t just ditch the difficult or demanding people in their families and wider social networks.
The researchers published their findings in the American Sociological Review.
Participants surveyed for the study were more apt to report that the most difficult people in their lives were female family members such as wives, mothers, and sisters.
That said, close female kin may be disproportionately named as difficult because they are more likely to be actively and emotionally involved in people’s lives, researchers said.
“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,” said study senior author Claude Fischer, a sociology professor at UC Berkeley. “It’s a testament to their deeper engagement in social ties.”
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.
“The results suggest that difficult people are likely to be found in contexts where people have less freedom to pick and choose their associates,” said study lead author Shira Offer, a professor of sociology at Bar-Ilan University.
The 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 principal 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 said. “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.”
Overall, workplaces were hotbeds of trouble, but not of the “difficult engaged” kind. And as for why we don’t rid our lives of difficult people, Fischer said, “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.”