Having a strained relationship with a family member may be tougher on your mental health than a troubled romantic relationship, according to a new study in the Journal of Family Psychology.
UT Southwestern's Sarah Woods, the lead author of the study published by the American Psychological Association, talks through the findings with KERA's Justin Martin as a part of KERA's mental health project, "On Our Minds."
"Most often, researchers focus on romantic relationships, especially marriage, presuming they likely have more of a powerful effect on heath," Woods said. "Given changes in how Americans are partnering, waiting longer to marry, if at all, and the lengthier, and possibly more emotion-laden trajectories of family-of-origin relationships, we wanted to compare the strength of associations between family and intimate partners and health over time."
On what makes a relationship "troubled:"
Arguing is a normal part of all relationships; it's usually a red flag if people say, "We never fight."
So in this project, specifically, what was included in "family strain" or these "intimate partner strain" -- these problematic relationships -- were things like "Do they let you down when you are trying to rely on them?" "Is there a lot of conflict?"
So that strain included other pieces, not just arguing.
On how these findings go against the grain:
We're not exactly sure why it's the case, but it's definitely been the assumption in the research to date, and it's part of why we were interested in doing this project ... to see if we included a broader scope of what relationships include.
So we built in intimate partner relationships as well as other family members. Could we tease out any differences in those effects.
On how these relationships can hurt physical health:
There are a few hypotheses about how that happens, mechanisms that can include stress so that if our family relationships are stressful and not very supportive over time, that stress reactivity that we experience as individual family members can wear and tear on our physical health and our body, as well as health behaviors being a second mechanism.
Meaning that if our family members are not very supportive and if our relationships with them are very demanding or critical, that we might be therefore less likely to take good care of ourselves.
On the mental health aspect:
So we didn't specifically focus on mental health other than the quality of these family relationships, meaning that that's another possible mechanism through which these associations could be occurring.
That if my family relationships are stressful over time, I may feel depressed and anxious and that that stress, that distress that I feel, wears and tears on my body over time, such that then we start to see these physical health outcomes and worse, aging over time.
Our previous research has built in measures of things like depression symptoms and anxiety symptoms and internal stress reactivity as the pathway that links negative family emotional climate and physical health. So I think to build that mediator, that pathway, in over time, I would guess that we would see that replicated with this sample.
On how to deal with negative family experiences:
So we've gotten this question several times now since the study has been out, and a lot of those questions sound like, "Should we cut off our family then if they're if they're problematic?" and we would say absolutely not.
Cutting off family is usually a measure of a relationship that's really emotional and probably stressful and something that needs to be worked on. What we suggest is that a lot of the literature that focuses on family interventions, like family therapy, focuses on that intervention at the extreme bookends of life.
So for kids, when we know that their parents or siblings might be affecting their health or for older adults when they're involved in caregiving or have cognitive limitations, but we're suggesting that it would seem really important to address family relationships and it might be possible that outside support could be beneficial in in the form of family therapy for midlife adults.
Sarah Woods is a professor of family and community medicine at UT Southwestern Medical Center
Interview highlights were lightly edited for clarity.