Why Some People Just Have Difficult Relationships

New research shows what causes difficult people to have difficult relationships.

Posted Jun 06, 2017

Alexander Lukatskiy/Shutterstock
Source: Alexander Lukatskiy/Shutterstock

When you think about all of the people in your extended family, your circle of friends, or your workplace, you can probably identify quickly those to whom you feel closest. You can probably also just as quickly identify the individuals with whom it is most difficult to get along. Try as you might, it seems impossible to have pleasant interactions with these people. And since you have plenty of good friends and relationships, it must be something about them. Almost everyone who knows these people regards them as just plain “difficult.”

From new research, we can now find out what’s really going on with such individuals and, by extension, how we may be able to get through to them.

Perhaps the most apparent way, psychologically, to think about difficult people and their difficult relationships is provided by the attachment style framework. From this perspective, you relate to the people in your adult life in ways largely determined by the so-called “working model” that you developed about your own parents or other caregivers you had as an infant. If you felt you could rely on your parents to watch over you, then as an adult you would similarly feel that you can depend on the people you’re closest to. This secure attachment style contrasts to the insecure styles, in which individuals felt that their parents might abandon or neglect them. Within the insecure attachment style, one might become the dismissive or the avoidant variety – in which you avoid disappointment by steering clear of close relationships altogether. Alternatively, you might develop the anxious attachment style, in which you’re constantly seeking reassurance.

The difficult individual would, according to this framework, most likely have a dismissive or avoidant attachment style. You can never get close to such individuals because they constantly put up barriers that prohibit you from becoming close to them. Attachment style theory assumes that the models we have of relationships are largely unconscious; difficult individuals don’t necessarily recognize that they’re putting up barriers, but do so out of a long-standing need to protect themselves from abandonment. And you can’t see through the crusty exterior they’ve created because they’ve learned not to let their inner, vulnerable selves show through.

Using attachment style as a theoretical base, California State San Bernardino’s Robert Ricco and Anthony Sierra (2017) investigated the role of “argument beliefs” in understanding how the securely and insecurely attached navigate conflict. Presumably, more "difficult" people would also be the most likely to steer clear of conflict but, once in conflict, they would use less constructive methods of resolution. Ricco and Sierra were particularly interested in contrasting anxious and avoidant attachment styles as predictors of the type of tactic individuals would be most likely to use in conflict. Further, conflict beliefs were predicted to influence this predictive relationship.

The four conflict tactics investigated were the options of dominating, avoiding, integrating, and obliging. The only one of these that involves working with your partner to achieve resolution is integrating, in which you both try to meet the other person’s needs equally, as you would your own. 

According to Ricco and Sierra, avoidantly-attached individuals should be less able to handle conflict for several reasons: First, they have a distrustful view of others, figuring that they’re not really all that loyal or caring. Second, they’re not as good at gauging how other people feel. And finally, avoidant individuals stay away from situations that involve conflict because on an unconscious level they don’t want to be seen as in need of relationships. Using self-report measures to examine attachment style, conflict tactics, and argument beliefs, the team obtained data from a sample of 449 students whose ages ranged from 18 to 56, with an average age of 24. Most were in a relationship; 14 percent were married.

Compared to people with the anxious attachment style, the avoidantly attached in the sample were indeed likely to regard conflict as devoid of benefit. People in the avoidant attachment style cohort were more likely to avoid conflict, as might be expected, and when they became involved in conflict, they were more likely to use domination as a conflict management style. This is what really distinguishes difficult people. Allergic to close relationships of any sort, they push you away and when they do interact with you, they are argumentative and insist on having their own way. As the authors concluded, “Avoidant attachment may be more problematic than anxious attachment when it comes to managing conflict in romantic relationships” (p. 163). In general, people who perceive arguments as having a potential benefit are more likely to use integrating and obliging tactics which tend to lead to more positive outcomes.

Let’s return to the problem of the difficult individuals you must deal with in your daily life: Say you have an in-law who seems to reject you every time you make friendly overtures to her. As often as you’ve tried to be flexible and agreeable, it seems to make no difference at all. This person is not willing to engage in the kind of casual chats that people who see each other frequently can enjoy, and when she does, you often feel like you’ve said something wrong. Or perhaps there is a person at work who sits discontentedly at his desk, complaining to anyone who will listen, and refuses to cooperate on any joint project. As with the surly in-law, you frequently feel like you’ve said something wrong or offensive, and it doesn’t seem possible ever to exchange a friendly word.

It’s not only the people you know well who can make your life miserable by being cranky or unapproachable. You might pick up the phone to call a physician’s office and be put off immediately by the receptionist's curt tone of voice. Although you’ve got no choice but to talk to this person, you would prefer to be treated with more civility. You’re also afraid that if you somehow annoy this person, you’ll never get the appointment or prescription refill you need.

In the case of difficult people we deal with on a regular basis, the Ricco and Sierra study suggests that you try to think about why they are so cold, or mean. It might take some effort, but you could consider responding to this person with consistent patience and a friendly tone. Eventually, you may be able to break through and have a surprisingly pleasant set of interactions. Fulfillment in our personal relationships is more likely to be attained when everyone behaves nicely, but even difficult people can show their softer side if you know how to reach them.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2017


Ricco, R. B., & Sierra, A. (2017). Argument beliefs mediate relations between attachment style and conflict tactics. Journal Of Counseling and Development, 95(2), 156-167. doi:10.1002/jcad.12128