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. This is one of those “duh!” studies. The old proverb that “nobody is happy if mom isn’t happy” is clear evidence of this. What’s worse is that the antiquated legal system fosters and promotes such behavior in its grossly unfair treatment of men.

  2. .
    I hope the “Researchers” from UC Berkeley are outed for their obvious misogyny and bigotry!
    Women are perfect, it’s only men that are scum. Especially white men!

    1. Well, they did have to abide by the ‘Althouse rule’ and portray the findings as women being better. It’s a hard rule in the social sciences now. That is, the root cause shows woman as better “…deeper engagement in social ties…”, “tend to be the ones who involve themselves more deeply in a person’s life, while men tend to be more passive.”
      Had the results been reversed, they’d have been portrayed as men being more controlling, and women being more respectful of the person’s autonomy.

  3. Bar-Ilan University in Israel” I had a Jewish girlfriend. One rapidly discovers that where it goes and how often is not nearly as important as getting out and never coming back. Here are two adjectives for those mumble factories: “lethal” and “protracted.”

  4. “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.”

    Uh-huh. Yeah, sure. Nice cover, there, buddy. Blame gals’ bitchiness on the guys’ passivity.

    1. Althouse rule. The results of all social science studies must state their results in a way favorable to women.

    2. We aren’t ‘passive’ we just don’t speak our mind unless it’s really important. Saying something back to your spouse, daughter, sister in law, etc. will get the response that “you’re just being mean”.
      It’s easier to be ‘passive’.

  5. Men are not “passive” just because we don’t meddle in other peopl’s affairs. IT is that we respect choices that other’s make and tend to keep our objections to ourselves. WOmen are more vocal in that reagrd.

  6. so men are more likely to mind their own business and women are more likely to pry, shocker i tell you. next they are going to tell us water is wet

    1. Well, behind nearly every serial killer there tends to be a belligerent, domineering mother and an absentee (or doormat) father, so there’s that…

  7. “relationships are complicated and in many cases unavoidable.”

    Thanks a lot, genius. I hope you were well compensated for that “Eureka!”-level insight.

  8. Notice how there are no Father-in-law jokes, it is always the Mother-in-law that is the problem?

      1. I would be really shocked if you didn’t! We all have had similar experiences. Whether Male or Female, the Mother-in-law is always a problem.

      2. I got my wife’s parents in the divorce, they’re good folks. Even the now ex-mom-in-law. Taken the kids to see them and gone on vacation with them. The only time they’ve spoken to their daughter since the divorce was our oldest daughter’s wedding.

      3. A Jewish man was leaving a convenience store with his espresso when he noticed a most unusual Italian funeral procession approaching the nearby cemetery. A black hearse was followed by a second black hearse about 50 feet behind the first one. Behind the second hearse was a solitary Italian man walking a dog on a leash. Behind him, a short distance back, were about 200 men walking single file.

        The man couldn’t stand the curiosity. He respectfully approached the Italian man walking the dog and said:
        “I am so sorry for your loss, and this may be a bad time to disturb you, but I’ve never seen an Italian funeral like this. Whose funeral is it?”

        “My wife’s.”

        “What happened to her?”

        “She yelled at me and my dog attacked and killed her.”

        He inquired further,
        “But who is in the second hearse?”

        The Italian man answered,
        “My mother-in-law. She was trying to help my wife when the dog turned on her.”

        A very poignant and touching moment of Jewish and Italian brotherhood and silence passed between the two men.

        The Jewish man then asked
        “Can I borrow the dog?”

        The Italian man replied,
        “Get in line.”

  9. I guess I’m lucky in that I have a wonderful mum in New Zealand, no sisters, a sister-in-law that lives on the other side of the world and I like my GF’s mum. My GF’s sister on the other hand I just simply ignore. Common sense could have saved a lot of money that might have been better used doing actual scientific research. You probably could have paid for several rounds of directed molecular evolution or mutagenesis to come up with less immunogenic gene-editing enzyme candidates. The “While the women in our lives often prove to be the most caring and helpful in times of need…” is just sophistry. If things are going to hell it is usually another bloke that will help you out. I’m sure a significant number of those who partook in this “research” play for the pink team anyway and so their support networks probably consist of homely women that give emotional support and not meaningful/practical/functional support.

      1. Hooters, Tilted Kilt or Twin Peaks? That would be a hell of a lot more gainful for sure.

    1. My friend has a new girl friend who told him she is a house keeper. She’s been divorced three times and kept three houses.

      1. “She’s another CON I miss,” is what you intended to say, perhaps?

        1. “I’m an excellent housekeeper. Every time I get a divorce, I keep the house.”

        2. “There is nothing wrong with a woman encouraging a man’s advances, as long as they are in cash.”

        3. “I know nothing about sex, because I was always married.”

        4. “I want a man who’s kind and understanding. Is that too much to ask of a millionaire?”

        5. “I never hated a man enough to give him his diamonds back.”

        6. “A man in love is incomplete until he has married. Then he’s finished.”

        7. “Husbands are like fires. They go out when unattended.”

        Sources: Dictionary of Quotations (Wordsworth Collection, 1998), USA TODAY research

  10. If a man speaks in the forest, and there is no woman around to hear him, is he still wrong?

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