We tend to find our mothers, wives, and sisters some of the most difficult people to deal with in our lives, a new study has found. Why is that, and why don't we simply cut ties?

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What relationships do we find 'difficult' and why don't we just sever ties with the troublesome people in our lives?

Chances are, we all have a nag in our lives – unless we are that nag ourselves, that is! This person may often be well-meaning, but the truth is that being around them can become tiring and emotionally draining.

A new study from the University of California, Berkeley and Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel, indicates that, in most cases, that "difficult" person is a woman we're closely related to: our mother, wife, or sister.

Why is it, though, that we seem to overwhelmingly perceive our female kin as exasperating? "The message here is that, with female relatives, it can be a two-sided thing," suggests Claude Fischer, senior author of the study.

"They may be the people you most depend on, but also the people who nag you the most. It's a testament to their deeper engagement in social ties."

Claude Fischer

The researchers' findings were recently published in the American Sociological Review.

'A source of stress and of joy'

Fischer and team used data from approximately 1,150 adults from the San Francisco Bay area, sourced through the University of California Social Networks Study – a project started in 2015 that "seeks to improve our understanding about our social lives."

Over half of the study participants are women, and the information in the study is gathered through both online based and face-to-face interviews.

"It's commonly agreed that maintaining strong social ties is healthy," says Fischer, speaking of the motivation driving the current study.

He adds that "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."

The researchers ended up analyzing data about more than 12,000 relationships developed on different levels, from acquaintanceships and friendships, to relationships with romantic partners and close family members.

As part of the study, the participants were required to point out persons with whom they "usually [got] together and [did] social activities," and then determine which ones they found most "difficult" to interact with.

The researchers placed difficult relationships in two different categories:

  • "difficult-only," referring to relationships with no perceptibly valuable exchange, in which the interviewed participants found it hard to engage
  • "difficult-engaged-in-exchange," where the difficult relationship nevertheless involved some kind of payoff

Approximately 15 percent of the relationships addressed in the study — from work relationships to family ties — were described as "difficult." In most cases, these were close relationships, with parents, romantic partners, and siblings.

Both in the case of younger adults and in that of seniors, only approximately 6–7 percent of friendships wee seen as troublesome.

"The results suggest that difficult people are likely to be found in contexts where people have less freedom to pick and choose their associates," explains Shira Offer, lead author of the study. Another suggestion is that many of these close, but difficult ties, are based on a mutual exchange – of advice, support, finance, or services.

'Difficult' ties 'complicated,' 'unavoidable'

While overall results were somewhat mixed, pointing the finger at both men and women as being overbearing, younger adults — aged between 21 and 30 — more often indicated strained ties with women.

For this age group, relationships with sisters were indicated as "difficult" in 30 percent of cases, while those with wives came second, at 27 percent, and at a close third came those with mothers, at 24 percent.

Younger adults also reported more "difficult-engaged-in-exchange" ties (16 percent) than adults aged 50 or over, who indicated fewer such relationships (only about 8 percent).

In contrast to their younger counterparts, older participants singled out relationships with mothers (29 percent), and wives or female partners (28 percent), as the most difficult. Difficult relationships with fathers and housemates were tied, at 24 percent.

Some work ties and casual acquaintanceships also made the "troublesome" list. Young adults said that approximately 11 percent of relationships with co-workers and acquaintances qualified as "difficult."

Older adults were even less satisfied by those connections, defining 15.5 percent of acquaintances and 11.7 percent of co-workers as "difficult-only."

Neither younger nor older adults found much quality of exchange in those types of ties.

But, if we have so many toxic or potentially toxic relationship in our lives, why don't we simply leave them behind and move on, we may well ask? According to the senior researcher of the study, that's likely because there is seldom a "black or white" situation in the context of relationships.

"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," explains Fischer.