Family relations matter more than love when it comes to health

Strained family relations may lead to the development or worsening of chronic health conditions.


Relationship quality is an impactful and meaningful predictor of physical health, whether it is family relation or romantic relation. But, family relations have more impact on your health than a romantic one.

A new study by the UT Southwestern Medical Center has suggested that negative family relationships are linked to poor self-rated health, morbidity, and mortality. Strained relations with parents, siblings, or extended family members may be more harmful to people’s health than a troubled relationship with a significant other.

On the other hand, positive and supportive relationships are associated with longevity, quality of life, and improved health outcomes.

Sarah B. Woods, Ph.D., assistant professor of family and community medicine at UT Southwestern Medical Center and lead author of the study said, “Scientists infrequently capture the positivity and negativity of close relationships, and often examine the impacts of individual relationships at the expense of comprehensively estimating the quality of multiple relationship types.”

“Given changes in how Americans are partnering, waiting longer to marry, if at all, and the lengthier, and possibly more emotion-laden trajectories of family-of-origin relationships, we wanted to compare the strength of associations between family and intimate partners and health over time.”

Scientists gathered the data from 2,802 participants in the Midlife Development in the U.S. survey that included a nationally representative sample of adults from 1995 to 2014. Three rounds of data were collected – from 1995 to 1996, 2004 to 2006, and 2013 to 2014. The average participant was 45 years old during the first round.

During the survey, participants were asked questions about family strain (e.g., “Not including your spouse or partner, how often do members of your family criticize you?”) and family support (e.g., “How much can you rely on [your family] for help if you have a serious problem?”) as well as intimate partner strain (e.g., “How often does your spouse or partner argue with you?”) and support (e.g., “How much does your spouse or partner appreciate you?”)

Participant’s health was measured based on participants’ total number of chronic conditions, such as stroke, headaches, and stomach trouble, experienced in the 12 months before each of the three data collection times.

Scientists noticed that greater family relationship strain was associated with a higher number of chronic conditions and worse health appraisal ten years later, during the second and third rounds of data collection.

Scientists noted that the lack of significant associations between intimate partner relationships and later health could be because those relationships can break up, while individuals are bound to have long associations with family members who aren’t a spouse.

Patricia N.E. Roberson, Ph.D., assistant professor of nursing of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville said, “The vast majority of the people in the study had living parents or siblings, and thus, their relationship with a spouse or intimate partner was less likely to be as long as that of their family members. Therefore, the emotional intensity of these relationships may be greater, so much so that people experience more of an effect on their health and well-being.”

The study shows the importance of why physical and mental health care providers should consider family relationships when assessing and treating patients.

Woods said, “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. This is why I encourage patients to bring supportive family members with them to their doctors’ visits and to create an open dialogue about their health conditions and concerns. Having that support has a significant effect on the quality of life and well-being.”

The study was published in the Journal of Family Psychology.


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