Is there anyone who consistently annoys or upsets you? Someone with whom you just can’t get along? If so, why are they still in your life? Those are the questions that two researchers asked in an unusual study recently published in American Sociological Review. Scientists (and journalists for that matter) who think about social networks usually focus on the positive side of our social bonds: the close friends and family who sustain us and keep us healthy. But most people are also connected to individuals who are a burden or add stress.
The new study found that the people we find most difficult and the people we put up with in spite of their demands have one thing in common: We’re related to them. Family members—especially female kin and aging parents—were far more likely than friends to be a source of strain. Among non-kin relationships, workmates presented the most frequent problems, followed by acquaintances. The prediction that neighbors would be difficult was not borne out. Friends were most consistently listed as positive.
We generally choose our friends, of course, while both relatives and colleagues are hard to ditch or disengage from. That’s a constraint the researchers explored in depth. “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 lead author Shira Offer, a professor of sociology at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.
The data was based on a survey of over 1100 adults (half between 21 and 30, the other half between 50 and 70) who described more than 12,000 relationships. It’s standard in social network research to ask questions that generate names. For example: “With whom do you discuss important matters?” This study extended previous work by eliciting names with seven distinct questions. Six were potentially positive: Name people you socialize with, confide in, turn to for advice, seek practical help from, can rely on in an emergency, and to whom you provide support. The seventh question asked respondents to name those whom they “sometimes find difficult or demanding.” Names could fall into multiple categories. The vast majority of those surveyed—two-thirds of the older adults and three-quarters of the younger group—named at least one person in their network as “difficult” or “demanding.” Difficult relationships made up about 15% of the total.
Of those named as difficult, only about five percent were nothing but trouble, meaning that their names only popped up in the “difficult and demanding” question. A slightly bigger group, 8 percent for the older adults and 12 percent for the twentysomethings, contributed both positively and negatively to the participants’ lives. Isn’t that often the case? You love your mother, but she also drives you crazy. Or your brother can be fun, but he can also be selfish.
Mothers, adult daughters, and sisters were over twice as likely as more distant relatives to be named as difficult-only ties. (Brothers did top the list at 13 percent among younger adults.) Of those who were a mixed-bag of positive and negative, the younger study participants named sisters (30 percent), wives (27 percent) and mothers (24 percent) as their top three categories. The sense of burden was more pronounced among the older participants, many of whom are either coping with aging parents or are aging themselves.
Why do female kin get singled out for complaint? Offer and her fellow author Claude Fischer, a sociology professor at University California, Berkeley, write that these results highlight the central role women play in families. “Women’s more intensive contact and interaction with kin, and greater sense of obligation to kin, may make them more vulnerable to criticism and stress and provide fodder for tension and conflict.”
The Give and Take of Relationships
In addition to looking at role-based relationships, such as mother or boss, the researchers looked at how interactions govern relationships. They were interested in whether lopsided relationships, all give and no take, led to the receiver of support being seen as difficult or demanding. It did. But interestingly, their prediction that the burden of providing support would be lessened where there was more reciprocity did not hold true. That will be studied further.
This research is part of a larger effort to understand how people build and maintain personal networks. There have traditionally been two ways of approaching the question. One emphasizes that we are the agents of our own social lives, able to approach them with purpose and deliberation and form ties with people we choose. The second approach focuses on context and circumstances—on where we live, work or play and who else is there doing it with us. It stresses that we often connect to people who are accessible and available.
Until now, no one had looked specifically at negative relationships from either perspective. If we are the agents of our social lives, it follows that we can avoid or drop people if we want to. But Offer and Fischer argue that social constraints—e.g., family obligation or workplace hierarchy—make that difficult and govern more of our lives than we sometimes realize. “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,” Fischer says, “relationships are complicated and in many cases unavoidable.”