Dean Drobot/Shutterstock
Source: Dean Drobot/Shutterstock

Most of us have at least one person in our lives who is difficult or demanding. Who are these people? Some are nothing but trouble: They don’t give us help or support, and we don’t socialize with them, confide in them, or give them help or support. So why are they still in our lives? These are the questions addressed in a new study in the American Sociological Review called “Difficult people: Who is perceived to be demanding in personal networks and why are they there?”

Sociologists Shira Offer, of Bar-Ilan University, and Claude S. Fischer, of the University of California at Berkeley, analyzed data from 480 young adults (21 to 30 years old) and 666 older adults (between 50 and 70) from the greater San Francisco area. The participants were asked to name the people they socialized with, confided in, sought advice from, received practical help from, and gave support or help to, in addition to those they would seek help from if they were sick or injured and needed help for weeks.

Then, in the key question, participants were asked to name the people whom they “sometimes find difficult or demanding.”

Professors Offer and Fischer separated the difficult people into two categories:

1. Nothing but trouble. (This is my name for them. The authors called them “difficult-only.”)

These people were named as difficult or demanding, but they were not named in response to any of the other questions. That means they were not people that the participants socialized with, confided in, got help from, or gave help to.

2. Difficult but involved. (Again, this is my name for them. The authors called them “difficult engaged-in-exchange ties.”)

These people were named as difficult or demanding, but were also named in response to at least one of the other questions. That means they were people the participants socialized with, confided in, got help from, or gave help to.

Most of us have difficult people in our lives, but not too many. Three-quarters of the young adults (75 percent) and two-thirds of the older adults (67 percent) named at least one person in their life who was difficult or demanding.

Counting everyone, not just the difficult people, the 480 young adults named a total of 5,064 people in response to all the questions about socializing, helping, and getting help, and about the people they found difficult. That’s a personal network of 10.55 people on average. The 666 older adults named 6,689 people, for an average personal network of 10 people.

But for the young adults, 16 percent of the people they named were difficult people. That means that, on average, 21 to 30-year-olds have about 1.7 difficult people in their lives. For the older adults, 13 percent were difficult. That’s about 1.3 difficult people.

In both groups, 5 percent of the people in their personal networks were nothing but trouble. Those people were difficult, but were not involved in giving or receiving help, confiding, or socializing. Just over 30 percent of the people in both groups had no one in their lives who were nothing but trouble.

Who are the people who are difficult, but involved in our lives in meaningful ways?

Some of the difficult people in our lives are people with whom we socialize, confide, and receive or give help. Who are those difficult people who are involved in our lives in some way?

For young adults, they are wives and husbands, sisters and mothers (and, to a lesser extent, brothers and fathers), romantic partners and housemates. Overall, about 12 percent of the people in the personal networks of young adults are difficult, but involved in their lives in some way. For these categories of people (below), for young adults, the percentage of them who are difficult, but involved is greater than 12 percent.

For young adults (21 to 30 years old), here is the percent in each category of those who are difficult, but involved:

  • 27 percent of wives
  • 20 percent of husbands
  • 14 percent of female romantic partners
  • 19 percent of male romantic partners
  • 24 percent of mothers
  • 13 percent of fathers
  • 30 percent of sisters
  • 13 percent of brothers
  • 18 percent of housemates

For older adults, only about 8 percent of all the people in their personal networks are difficult, but involved in their lives. Some of the same categories of people are “difficult, but involved” for the older adults as for the younger ones, but there are also some differences: For example, for both groups, spouses and parents include disproportionate numbers of difficult, but involved people, but for the younger adults, relatively more spouses than parents fit that description, whereas, for the older adults, the reverse is true — the difficult people who are involved in their lives are more often their parents.

Older people describe average or lower than average proportions of difficult, but involved people among their sisters (8 percent) and brothers (5 percent), unlike the younger people. But they have greater proportions of children who are difficult, but involved in their lives. (None of the young adults describe their children as difficult, but involved in their lives as helpers, etc., maybe because their children are so young.)

For older adults (50 to 70 years old), here is the percent in each category of those who are difficult, but involved:

  • 13 percent of wives
  • 15 percent of husbands
  • 28 percent of female romantic partners
  • 14 percent of male romantic partners
  • 29 percent of mothers
  • 24 percent of fathers
  • 16 percent of daughters
  • 19 percent of sons
  • 24 percent of housemates

Who are the people who are nothing but trouble?

For both the younger and the older adults, 5 percent of the people in their personal networks are nothing but trouble. They are difficult and challenging, and not involved in giving or receiving help, socializing, or confiding.

Among the younger adults, in only three categories were there 6 percent or more people who were nothing but trouble:

  • 11.7 percent of the acquaintances
  • 11.6 percent of the workmates
  • 13.1 percent of brothers

Among older adults, 6 percent or more of the people in these four categories were nothing but trouble:

  • 15.5 percent of acquaintances
  • 12.7 percent of mothers
  • 11.7 percent of workmates
  • 10.2 percent of sisters

Who are the people who are especially unlikely to be difficult?

Professors Offer and Fischer identified 19 different categories of people in the personal networks, from wives and husbands and mothers and fathers to housemates and neighbors and friends and acquaintances. By far, more of the people in our personal networks fit in the “friends” category than any other. Across both groups, about 56 percent of the people in their personal networks were friends. (For comparison, about 4 percent were siblings.)

Friends are especially unlikely to be difficult people. They are unlikely to be difficult, but involved (7 percent for young adults, 6 percent for the older adults) and unlikely to be nothing but trouble (2 percent for both groups). Also unlikely to be difficult people are neighbors, churchmates, and schoolmates. And although romantic partners are disproportionately named as “difficult, but involved,” they are, logically, never named as “nothing but trouble.”

The psychology of difficult people

This study is about the sociology of difficult people, not their psychology. The research does not tell us about the personalities of people who are difficult, or about the ways they behave or what it is about them that other people find difficult. (There is research on what makes people boring, but that’s not the same thing.)

There are, though, a few hints in the study as to what might be happening psychologically. First, when the authors looked at the different ways people interact with those in their personal networks — socializing, confiding, giving advice, giving practical help, seeking long-term help from them, or giving help to them — they found that difficult people were not evenly distributed across these different kinds of interactions. Instead, the people to whom the participants gave help were especially likely to be difficult: For the young adults, 17 percent of the people they helped were difficult people; for older adults, it was 15 percent.

A disproportionate number of the people participants said they would approach for long-term help were also considered difficult: 15 percent of them for the young adults and 11 percent for the older adults.

The participants in the study were asked how emotionally close they felt to each of the persons in their networks. The people to whom they felt especially close were especially unlikely to be seen as difficult. That was true of both the younger and the older adults, and it was true of the difficult but involved people, as well as the people who were nothing but trouble.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that emotional closeness protects people from being regarded as difficult. Over time, it is probably the emotionally close people who are most likely to turn into difficult people — as happens, for example, with people who marry and later divorce. This study was also conducted at just one point in time, so we don’t know how perceptions of difficulty change over time.

One final hint about the psychology of difficult people concerns their political opinions: People whose political opinions were different than the participants’ were especially likely to be regarded as difficult. The results were especially strong for the younger adults. (The research was conducted in 2015 and 2016.)

Why don't we just ditch them?

The people I’ve been describing as “nothing but trouble” were people the participants didn’t socialize with, didn’t confide in, didn’t seek advice or help from, and didn’t give help to, yet they were named as people in their lives who were difficult or challenging. Why were they in their lives at all? The results offer some answers.

For both groups, people from the workplace were especially likely to be regarded as nothing but trouble. Basically, the participants were stuck with them. They came with the job. Both groups also named a disproportionate number of acquaintances as nothing but trouble. Acquaintances have a place in our lives, but just barely. Perhaps the ones who are difficult never make it to friend status.

More interesting are the family members who were regarded as nothing but trouble. Among the younger adults, 13 percent of brothers made the list, and among the older adults, 13 percent of mothers and 10 percent of sisters qualified. The participants had nothing to do with these relatives (or nothing that the researchers asked about), maybe because they found them so difficult. But these people are their brothers and mothers and sisters, so they still get named when researchers ask them about the difficult people in their lives.

It is a bit easier to understand why some difficult people stay in our personal networks if they are involved in our lives in some way — for example, by giving us help or receiving help from us. It is interesting that even with divorce as a readily available option, a greater than average number of wives and husbands, in both groups, are described as difficult people. Female and male romantic partners are also disproportionately likely to be described as difficult, but involved.  

A greater than average number of mothers and fathers are also regarded as difficult people. This was especially true for the participants between 50 and 70 years old. Their parents may have needed a lot of help, which was probably difficult for the parents as well as for the older adults trying to care for them.

The people identified as difficult, yet involved in our lives are overwhelmingly relatives or romantic partners. Only one category of non-kin was disproportionately named as difficult, but involved — housemates.

With difficult relatives, perhaps people stay involved with them because they feel obligated to do so, or because they see them as people they can turn to if they ever need long-term help themselves.

The bottom line about difficult people is that they continue to have a place in our lives, because we are stuck with them. They are workmates, so we don’t have a choice. Or they are relatives, and we feel obligated to consider them part of our lives.

When we feel like we have a choice, difficulty matters more. That’s probably why our friends are so unlikely to be described as difficult people. If they were difficult, we would not become friends with them, and if they became difficult after the friendship began, we would not stay friends with them.

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