There's a new reason to keep the peace this holiday season: Strained relationships with family may be worse for your health than trouble with a spouse or significant other, new research suggests.
Parents, siblings and extended family members appear to affect your well-being, even into middle age and beyond, the study found.
From headaches to stroke
"Family relationships matter for health," said lead author Sarah Woods, director of behavioural health at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
"Family strain was far and away the most significant factor associated with chronic conditions from headaches to stroke," she added.
Surprisingly, relationships with a spouse or partner didn't seem to affect health outcomes. These findings run counter to previous studies, and Woods said even the researchers were astonished.
"That doesn't mean intimate partnerships don't matter," she said. "Our hypothesis is that relationships with family members are longer than relationships with intimate partners. You come from that family of origin, and you can't divorce your parents or siblings."
About 2 800 people participated in the study. Their average age at the start was 45, and 91% were white.
During the study, which ran from 1995 to 2014, participants answered questions three times about family and intimate partner strain and support.
Chronic health conditions
Examples of questions included, "Not including your spouse or partner, how often do members of your family criticise you?" and "How much can you rely on [your family] for help if you have a serious problem?"
Some examples of questions asked about spouses or partners were, "How often does your spouse or partner argue with you?" and "How much does your spouse or partner appreciate you?"
Participants were asked to rate their overall health from excellent to poor at each phase of the study.
They were also asked about their chronic health conditions and common concerns, such as stomach troubles, headaches, backaches and stroke.
The more strain people had in their family relationships, the greater the number of chronic conditions they reported, Woods and colleagues found. Overall health was also rated poorer when people had more family strain.
Conversely, the more family support someone had, the better their health 10 and 20 years after the study started. The findings only reflect an association, not a cause-and-effect link.
Don't cut off family
Does this mean it's time to cut off that uncle who stresses you out by picking political fights at family get-togethers, or that you shouldn't spend time with Mom if she's not very supportive?
"We would not recommend cutting off family," Woods said, suggesting people consider family therapy instead.
"Family support is very important, but we would recommend that people don't leave strained, unhealthy relationships with family unchecked," she said. "Get some outside support if needed, because a supportive relationship can potentially improve later health outcomes."
Jessy Warner-Cohen is a senior psychologist with Northwell Health in Lake Success, New York., who reviewed the findings.
"The present study seems to show that with the changing nature of relationships, one's adult relationships have less of an impact than the family from which one was raised," she said.
Warner-Cohen said this finding is novel. "Research has long indicated that there are health outcomes related to the quality of one's marriage," she said.
Further research needed
She pointed out, however, that the study has limitations. The majority of participants were white, were more likely to be married and more likely than the general population to have been raised in a two-parent household, Warner-Cohen noted.
Further research in a more diverse group is needed, she said.
The study was published online in the Journal of Family Psychology.
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