Strained Relationships with Family More Harmful to Health Than with Significant Other: Study
Mon, April 19, 2021

Strained Relationships with Family More Harmful to Health Than with Significant Other: Study

The study found that “family emotional climate” has a big effect on a person’s overall health. / Photo by: Brian A Jackson via Shutterstock


Strained relationships with siblings, parents, or extended family members are found to be more harmful to health than having a troubled relationship with a significant other, a 20-year longitudinal study found out.

Family Emotional Climate and Overall Health

The study, which appeared in the American Psychological Association and Journal of Family Psychology, found that “family emotional climate” has a big effect on a person’s overall health. Strained family relations can even develop or worsen a chronic physical condition such as headaches or stroke over a 20-year midlife span. Lead author and UT Southwestern Medical Center’s assistant professor of family and community medicine Sarah B. Woods, Ph.D., said that contrary to previous studies, which said that intimate relationships had a large effect on a person’s physical health, their research had different results.

Family and Romantic Partners

Woods added that most often, studies focused on romantic relationships, particularly marriage, and they presumed that trouble in such a relationship has a “more powerful effect on health.” Yet, the strength of associations between an intimate partner and family and health changes over time. For example, there are changes in how people are partnering and some are waiting longer before they marry.

To come up with their conclusion, the researchers utilized the data of 2,802 participants from the US-based survey Midlife Development. Such included a nationwide sample of adults from the year 1995 to 2014. The data gathered came in three rounds:1995 to 1996, 2004 to 2006, and 2013 to 2014. In the first round of the survey, the average study participant was 45 years old.

Questions asked to the subjects were about the family strain that does not include their partner or spouse. For example, “How often do members of your family criticize you?” They were also asked about family support and a separate survey for a romantic partner relationship strain they encountered. Questions like how often their partner or spouse appreciates them or how often they argue with them were included.


The team found no significant link or effects to health on strained relationships with an intimate partner. / Photo by: fizkes via Shutterstock


Measuring the Health Status of the Participants

To measure the health status of the participants, researchers considered the number of chronic conditions they experienced in the last 12 months before the three data collection periods. Chronic conditions included stomach trouble, headaches, and stroke. The result showed that the greater the family strains the participant experienced, the greater the number of chronic conditions and the worse their “health appraisal” were a decade later.

On the other hand, great family support in the second round (2004-2006) of the survey was linked with better health appraisal a decade later. Surprisingly, the team found no significant link or effects to health on strained relationships with an intimate partner. Woods said that even their team was “honestly stunned” by the results because there were “zero” associations between health, emotional climate, and romantic partner.

Emotional Intensity and Health

The authors theorized that the lack of significant connections between later health and an intimate partner may be due to a possible breakup. This means an end to the relationship, whereas family members have "longer" associations. The University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s assistant professor of nursing and co-author of the research Patricia N.E. Roberson, Ph.D. opined that the emotional intensity of the family relationship is greater, so much so that it has effects on people’s well-being and health.

Woods added that for adults who already have a chronic health condition, having a negative emotional climate because of strained family relationships may increase their poor health. In the same way, the same family members can help the person improve their health if they are supportive of the members like during their hospital visit or they can have an open dialogue about their concerns and health conditions.

Social Relations, Health, and Well-Being

Former surgeon general of the United States and vice admiral in the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps Dr. Vivek Murthy, who was not a part of the study, recently shared that weak social connections and loneliness are associated with a reduction of lifespan the same way smoking “15 cigarettes a day" can cause.

Scientific online publication Our World in Data shared the percentage of older adults who report feeling lonely at least some of the time. For all countries they surveyed, their estimates corresponded to population ages who were 65 years old and above, except in Finland (75+), UK (65-74), and US (72+). Greece (62 percent in 2015), Israel (48 percent in 2015), Italy (47 percent in 2015), Austria (46 percent in 2015), France (45 percent in 2015), Belgium (42 percent in 2015), Spain (40 percent in 2015), Finland (39 percent in 2015), Germany (37 percent in 2015), Netherlands (35 percent in 2015), England (33 percent in 2018), Sweden (30 percent in 2015), United States (30 percent in 2018), Switzerland (26 percent in 2005), and Denmark (25 percent in 2005).

World Happiness Report 2019 highlighted worldwide self-reported life satisfaction ranging from 0 to 10, with zero being the worst possible life and 10 as the best possible life. Some countries with high life satisfaction are Norway (7.44), Australia (7.18), Germany (7.12), Colombia (5.98), and Bolivia (5.92).