How many difficult people are in your life?
Unless you live alone in a mountain cave or on your own private island, you probably have at least one difficult person in your life, someone who causes anxiety and conflict for others. But is there a reason we keep these hard cases in our lives? New university research says yes.
Two researchers, Doctor Shira Offer and Professor Claude Fischer recently published an article in the American Sociological Review on this subject, based on research from a recent University of California Network Study. This study gathered information about the social ties of over 1,100 adults in the San Francisco Bay Area. The conclusion they reached: we keep difficult people in our lives because we have to—we need them for some reason or we can’t ignore them socially.
The difficult people we can’t avoid having in our lives
Family and co-workers top the list of people we don’t get to choose to include in our lives—they’re part of the set, so to speak—and it’s hard to cut off relationships with these people, even when the relationships are stressful, dishonest, or just crazy-making. Doctor Shira Offer: “The results suggest that difficult people are likely to be found in contexts where people have less freedom to pick and choose their associates.”
The study asked people to offer names of people to whom they were connected in different ways (in whom they kept a confidence, to whom they’d go to in an emergency) along with names and descriptions of people in their world they found to be difficult. Difficult people made up about 15% of all the people the study’s respondents listed.
You can’t choose your family
And leading the list of “difficult” people were close relations, especially female kin and elderly parents. Doctor Offer, the other lead scientist, said of these results: “Many are close family whom we need and even love; others we just can’t escape. Social norms do not allow us to simply walk away from them, however much this might be tempting to do sometimes.”
Women are disproportionately represented on the difficult side for a few reasons; this study explained it as a reflection of women’s more engaged roles in families, which makes for more drama, more raw edges. Co-workers were also more likely to be named as difficult people; friends outside of the family were less likely to make the “bad” list.
The study also looked at what kinds of interactions make a relationship difficult, and concluded it’s an old human behavioural norm—give and take. When you support another person but they don’t support you back, the relationship becomes strained and difficult. This is why caring for an aging parent came up repeatedly as a hard relationship (unresolved childhood issues aside).
If you have a difficult person in your life and the relationship is causing you pain, think about stepping back from it, at least emotionally, for a while. Meditation or a mindfulness practice is an excellent way to remove drama from a situation, and a skilled therapist is another source of help.
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Clinton Power is a relationship counsellor and Gestalt therapist. Since 2003 he has helped individuals and couples move out of relationship pain and create great relationships. Get Clinton’s FREE report: 10 Tips for Moving Out of Relationship Pain, by clicking the button below.
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Since 2003, Clinton Power has helped thousands of couples and individuals as a counsellor and psychotherapist in private practice in Sydney and online in Australia. Clinton regularly comments in the media on issues of relationships and has appeared on Channel 7, The Sydney Morning Herald, and ABC Radio. Clinton’s eBook, 31 Days to Build a Better Relationship is available through his website or Amazon. Click here to take Clinton’s relationship checkup quiz to find out how well you know your partner.