Study: Female family members the most difficult people in our lives — But for good reason

BERKELEY, Calif. — Tired of your mother or sister prying into your personal life? You’re not alone. While the women in our lives often prove to be the most caring and helpful in times of need, a new study finds that female family members also tend to be the most difficult.

Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley and Bar-Ilan University in Israel used surveys focusing on the relationships of more than 1,100 adults young and old from the San Francisco Bay Area. Of the 12,000-some personal relationships — including close and casual friends, family members, or colleagues — described in their responses, the research team honed in on individuals whom the respondents flagged as people they “sometimes find demanding or difficult.”

Woman shaking her finger angrily
While the women in our lives often prove to be the most caring and helpful in times of need, a new study finds that female family members also tend to be the most difficult.

While about 15 percent of relationships were dubbed as difficult, the authors found that close female relatives — mothers, sisters, and wives — led the way in that category. It’s very likely, however, that women ranked more prominently because they tend to be the ones who involve themselves more deeply in a person’s life, while men tend to be more passive.

“The message here is that, with female relatives, it can be a two-sided thing. They may be the people you most depend on, but also the people who nag you the most,” says study senior author Claude Fischer, a sociology professor at Berkeley, in a news release. “It’s a testament to their deeper engagement in social ties.”

Generally speaking, parents, siblings and spouses were named most frequently as difficult individuals. As for who was the least frustrating, participants agreed that friends led the pack, only representing about 7 percent of the bothersome bunch.

In the survey, respondents were asked to categorize strained relationships as “difficult only,” or “difficult engaged in exchange ties,” which would represent people who they found difficult, but still someone they could confide in or turn to for support when in need. Younger adults tended to have twice as many “difficult engaged” relationships than older adults, with sisters being listed most frequently in that category (30 percent) followed by wives (27 percent) and mothers (24 percent).

Fathers, brothers, boyfriends, and roommates rounded out the rest of the list.

When it came to adults over 50, the most demanding relationships were with mothers (29 percent), female romantic partners (28 percent), and fathers and housemates (tied at 24 percent).

“The results suggest that difficult people are likely to be found in contexts where people have less freedom to pick and choose their associates,” says lead author Shira Offer, a professor of sociology at Bar-Ilan.

Coworkers also proved to be among the more frequent folks who respondents had beef with, with about 1 in 10 listing colleagues as the “difficult only” type.

So why do we still keep around those who stress us out the most? Well, sometimes we simply have no choice.

“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,” says Fischer.

The study’s findings were published in the journal American Sociological Review.


  1. As a long long time married man with Five(Yes Five) daughters I can attest to this article. I now have just Granddaughters & no Grandsons. All I can figure is I am serving a penitence here on earth for something I must have done. We had dogs and cats during the entire time all those girls were still at home. Yes, all female animal pets. We had some goldfish as well and I assume they were female as well. I have to admit I enjoyed flushing many of those fish, right after I got back from the Pet shop after buying one to replace the dead one before the girls knew one died.
    The only thing I got to control was my(our) livestock which required some Bulls, Boar Hogs and Roosters to keep the farm working. I did finally get to have a male Dog of my own but my wife even turned him into a Wussy!

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