Study: Family is more important than friendships in one surprising area

Strained family relationships could literally be making you sick. 

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The family you are raised in may have a more lasting impact on your health than the family you choose, according to a new study.

Strained family bonds led to the development or worsening of chronic conditions like strokes and headaches over a 20-year period in mid life, the researchers found.

Conversely, the findings suggest that family ties can boost an individual’s life expectancy and health. The new results contradict previous research into the area that indicated romantic partnerships were more important to one’s physical and mental health than family.

Sarah Woods, Ph.D., lead author on the study and professor at the University of Texas, tells Inverse that people often don’t realize the sheer stress family relationships can cause.

“It’s important to know that the quality of your family relationships matter for your health and if they’re negative, don’t leave them unchecked.”

The study was published Thursday in the Journal of Family Psychology.

‘Emotional climate’ and physical health

To assess how relationships can impact well-being, the team focused on how a relationship’s ‘emotional climate’ — whether it be positive or negative — affected an individual’s health over time. Using data from the Midlife Development in the United States survey, researchers looked at 2,802 participants’ answers on questions assessing the quality of both family and romantic relationships.

To measure health outcomes, the researchers rounded up the total number of chronic health problems each person reported in the year leading up to each survey. Participants also graded their general health on a scale of poor to excellent.

People with strained family ties have more and worse chronic health conditions and report worse health, the researchers found. Supportive relationships were associated with better health over the long-term.

Difficult family relationships can seriously affect health -- therapy may help tackle the problems, experts say.

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The association was reciprocal: Worse family bonds led to worse health over time, but worse health also strained family relationships.

“For adults who already have a chronic condition, a negative family emotional climate may increase their poor health and conversely, supportive family members may help improve their health outcomes,” Woods said in a statement.

Relationships may also shape how individuals take care of themselves, Woods says. How people eat and exercise is often influenced by loved ones’ habits — choices that can impact a person’s risk of developing health conditions later in life.

Love and marriage

Interestingly, romantic partnerships — whether they be good or bad — didn’t have any association with health outcomes, according to the study.

“There’s a bit of a presumption that marriage is the most important relationship for adults and therefore has the strongest association with health,” Woods tells Inverse. “But no one had necessarily tested that before, so we didn’t have good scientific evidence that that was actually the case.”

The new findings contradict previous research that showed romantic partnerships, especially marriage, were the number one relationship-related health factor. A 2018 study, for example, found unhappily married people are more likely to report worse health and die sooner than their happily married counterparts. A large-scale meta-analysis published in 2014 also linked marriage quality to better health and lower mortality.

"We are embedded in our families."

More research exploring the way different kinds of relationships — between spouses, parents and children, friends, and siblings — affect our bodies is needed to tease apart the different dynamics, says Woods. Understanding how they affect health could lead to better and more effective treatment, she says.

“A lot of times in midlife, adults think about individual therapy or couples therapy if something’s not going right. Family therapy is an approach that shouldn’t be ignored,” Woods says.

Shared history, shared future

The power of family bonds is rooted in shared history, which may heighten emotional intensity, Woods explains. Emotional intensity describes how much a relationship impacts the people in it — in other words, how demanding or stress-relieving it is.

Emotional intensity may also be tied to how deep a relationship goes. Family members, especially siblings, often share both a past and future, with relationships enduring longer than some friendships or romantic relationships.

“We are embedded in our families — with our parents, our siblings, our children — for a longer time in a lot of cases than we are with our intimate partner relationships. So when those relationships are stressful, there’s just more potential for that stress to have negative impacts,” Woods says.

For certain people, especially the elderly and those who choose not to marry, family relationships could be especially critical, as social networks may be smaller, the study suggests.

Woods cautions that the results shouldn’t be taken as a sign that poor family dynamics doom people to bad health. Instead, people can seek out therapy to help them work on their struggles with their family themselves, Woods says.

It’s important to invest and focus on supportive relationships, says Woods — they may not only improve your emotional health, but they could also help you stay out of the hospital and live longer.

This study tested the extent to which the emotional climate (positive and negative relationship quality) in family relationships and intimate partnerships are each uniquely linked to specific domains of aging health outcomes, over and above the impact of earlier health. Data included partnered participants who completed all three waves of the Midlife Development in the United States (MIDUS). We used measures of family and intimate partner strain and support, at MIDUS 1, 2, and 3, and estimated the effects of each on subsequent morbidity and health appraisal (i.e., 10 and 20 years later). Autoregressive cross-lagged paths were modeled using maximum likelihood estimation with robust standard errors. Family strain was associated with later health in both the morbidity, 2 (35) 411.01, p .001; root mean square error of approximation (RMSEA) .062, comparative fit index (CFI) .952; standardized root-mean-square residual (SRMR) .034 and health appraisal, 2 (35) 376.80, p .001; RMSEA .058, CFI .956; SRMR .032 models. Morbidity and health appraisal also predicted later family emotional climate, reciprocally. Intimate partner emotional climate-health pathways were nonsignificant at each wave, in both models. Results are novel and may be the first to indicate the quality of family relationships are a more powerful predictor of aging health than the quality of intimate partnerships. Findings implicate the health of adults should be considered in the systemic context of families.

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