This Is Why It’s So Hard To End A Toxic Relationship, According To Science

by JR Thorpe
BDG Media, Inc.

Why do we keep difficult people around? It can be one of the oddest social questions about human relationships: When people are toxic, miserable, negative, or psychologically bad for us, what motivates us to maintain our ties with them rather than jettisoning our links? New research published in the American Sociological Review reveals part of the reasoning behind why it's so difficult to leave a toxic relationship — and it doesn't have anything to do with the non-toxic partner. Difficult people, the new study theorizes, often maintain their positions in our lives because of the particular ways in which adult human social networks are structured.

The new study, which was a collaboration between University of California Berkeley and Bar-Ilan University researchers, used data from 1,150 adults in the San Francisco area who detailed the state of their personal relationships with over 11,000 other people, from family members to friends and acquaintances — and talked about whether they found these ties "demanding or difficult." The researchers were very interested in trying to figure out why people kept those connections in their lives, and found that one of the biggest problems is something that we've all experienced: the social pressures and power constraints surrounding certain kinds of relationships that make them very, very difficult to sever.

People who were named "demanding and difficult" were most often those in networks and relationships that were socially tricky to escape from, for various reasons: families, bosses and coworkers. "Difficult ties," wrote the researchers, "are more likely to be present in contexts where individuals have limited ability to exercise choice in selecting their associates or they are pressured to socially engage with them." While we can break up with friends and reorient our Friday nights to avoid seeing them, it's much harder to break up with family or coworkers without incurring big costs, either socially or financially. Very few people — between 2 and 4 percent — reported having friends who were just difficult, with no redeeming features, according to the study. If friends offer nothing in response, they get dumped. Families and colleagues, however, offer much fewer options.

Families were particularly prone to this kind of issue. Among 21 to 30 year olds, brothers were one of the groups most likely to be seen just as difficult, with no redeeming features in the relationship; among 50 to 70 year olds, mothers and sisters tended to get the "just difficult" label. As anybody with toxic family dynamics will recognize, cultural values around the sanctity of the family unit make breaking it up or cutting off a problematic relationship with a family member very taboo, and might let people in for years of recrimination and guilt. You're meant to be stuck with families for your entire life; "close family ties may, due to their nature and long duration, generate more multifaceted and intensive interactions," say the researchers. In the circumstances, putting up with "difficult" family relationships often seems like a better deal.

The fact that mothers, sisters and other female relations were far more likely to be seen as "difficult" than male relatives isn't, the researchers say, a signal of ingrained sexist bias. It's more likely to do with the fact that, societally, women are expected to take on more caregiving roles in family circles, and hence to be more involved with the lives of others — and, consequently, aggravate them.

You might be surprised to find that it was pretty rare for husbands and wives to be referred to solely as "difficult or demanding." Part of this, the researchers think, is that it may not be societally acceptable to say that about your husband or wife — but they also think there's another explanation. Breaking up, these days, is easier than ever; "intimate relationships that become highly strained," they write, "are often terminated. Unlike other close kin relations, most notably parents and adult children, ties to spouses and intimate partners are more voluntary in nature and, despite the stress involved, may be easier to dissolve." People did say their partners could be difficult, but they also emphasized other aspects of their relationships too.

There were other interesting discoveries, too. People whose relationship to the surveyed subjects was related to assistance — say, as emergency contacts who'd be there to pick up pieces if things went badly wrong — were also pretty likely to be called "difficult", particularly if the subjects were older. This implies that being pushed together by need and circumstance, say in needing to care for an ailing relative together, can make relationships a bit fractious. And the more that subjects had to support others, the more they generally found those people difficult — though that was sometimes mediated if the supported person gave help and advice in return.

So what's the lesson to be taken from this? If you're finding it exceptionally difficult to deal with a toxic coworker or family member and feel you can't use any of the advice that says "just cut them off," this research validates your feelings. It seems that humans keep difficult people around for many varied reasons: we need them, they give us some valuable things, and, sometimes, it's just too darn difficult to get rid of them.