Why We Keep Difficult People in Our Lives

You’re not the only one with that annoying mother-in-law.

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When their name comes up on your phone, you just freeze — you can’t bear to put up with their annoying stuff right now. But you also know you can’t hit “ignore” because it will only cause a bigger problem later. Barely suppressing an, “Ugghhhh,” you answer: “What’s up…”

This kind of relationship is depressingly common. A recent study conducted by sociology professors Shira Offer and Claude Fischer examined 1,100 people, and more than 12,000 relationships, over a diverse group of people in the Bay Area: They found that, on average, around 15 percent of the people in your orbit will get on your nerves. Worse still, for the most part, these people will stick around in our lives because we really don’t have any other choice.

Interestingly, though, the vast majority of these “difficult” relationships — about 95 percent — weren’t just difficult: They also provided some kind of benefit. The mother that drives you nuts, for example, will probably still be there for you in a pinch. “What our study nicely shows is that relationships are complex, and that many, most in fact, of the people we find difficult, are also engaged in our lives in positive ways,” Offer says.

As for that remaining five percent, these were people who were deemed exclusively difficult, like that jerk at work who somehow always finds a way to take credit for your work (if you’re reading this, screw you, Nick).

One stereotype the study found to actually be true was that the majority of those deemed “difficult” by the participants — whatever their gender — were women (think the cliché nagging mother, or the interfering sister-in-law). “Both men and women named more women than men as difficult,” says Offer.

But before the MGTOWs start gleefully rubbing their hands together, it’s important to understand why women were perceived as difficult: The study notes, “This gendered pattern may be explained by women’s greater involvement in kinship networks. Women typically assume the role of household managers and kin-keepers who bear the major responsibility for maintaining relationships with relatives.” In other words, women can be perceived as more difficult because they tend to be the ones shouldering the burden of maintaining the family relationships — a task that will inevitably end up rubbing someone the wrong way.

This idea is supported by the fact that the study only found the gender imbalance within family ties. “For non-kin ties, the gender of the tie, or of the respondent, didn’t matter,” Offer explains. When the difficult person wasn’t in some way related — say, a coworker — there was an equal chance of them being a man or a woman.

Friends, meanwhile, were rarely deemed as difficult, implying the old adage is true: You can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your family. Additionally, neighbors weren’t generally seen as difficult, especially for younger adults, which was a surprise to the study’s authors. Offer suggests that this may be because of “the high mobility of younger people, who can also relatively easily move away from annoying neighbors.”

As for what to do about the difficult people in our lives, Offer tells us that, despite the fact that she’s gotten this question a lot, she’d rather not attempt an answer, saying, “That’s a question for another study.”

So if the difficult person isn’t someone you can realistically ditch, you’d better get used to answering those phone calls.

Ugh.