Family Drama Is Bad for Your Health

Keep this in mind over the holiday season: A new study reveals family tension takes a toll on health over time

Tom Jacobs
Elemental
Published in
5 min readNov 26, 2019

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Illustration: Matija Medved

TThanksgiving dinners are frequently fraught affairs. The yearly family gatherings start out politely enough, but a few glasses of wine later, exchanges can turn nasty as buried resentments rise to the surface or conversation turns to politics.

New research suggests those dustups over dessert can take a toll. A study that followed 2,800 American adults over two decades found stressful family relationships were associated with poorer self-reported health years later.

Surprisingly, this association was absent for tension within marriages or other intimate partnerships. These first-of-their-kind results suggest acrimony among parents, children, and siblings may be more hazardous to your long-term health than squabbles with your spouse.

“It is very important not to ignore these strained family relationships,” says lead author Sarah Woods, director of behavioral health at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. “They might have robust ramifications for your physical health.”

The study, published in the Journal of Family Psychology, was designed to expand the research on relationships and health beyond the role of domestic partners.

“We were worried that, as researchers, our focus was too narrow,” Woods explained in an interview. “There’s no evidence that once we turn 18 or get married, our other family relationships become less powerful or important.”

In an attempt to widen their lens, Woods and colleagues Jacob Priest and Patricia Roberson analyzed data from the Midlife Development in the U.S. project. It tracks a nationally representative sample of American adults as they pass through their middle years.

People in the study completed extensive surveys upon enrollment (when their average age was 45), a decade later, and again a decade after that.

“It’s a beautiful dataset to test exactly these questions,” says Woods, who noted that much research tends to focus on the beginning or end of life as opposed to the middle. “The purpose of this study is specifically to capture…

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Tom Jacobs
Elemental

Tom Jacobs is a California-based journalist who focuses on psychology, behavior, creativity, and the arts. He was the senior staff writer of Pacific Standard.