Family is forever, and for some people, that means a lifetime of emotional wear and tear.

By Meghan Overdeep
November 10, 2019
Credit: kali9/Getty Images

The quality of your relationships with your extended family could impact your health more than your spouse as you age.

A new study published by the American Psychological Association in the Journal of Family Psychology found that people who feel unsupported by their extended family—parents, siblings, grandparents, etc.—are more likely to suffer chronic illness than those who are unhappy with their spouse or partner.

"We found that family emotional climate had a big effect on overall health, including the development or worsening of chronic conditions such as stroke and headaches over the 20-year span of midlife," Sarah B. Woods, PhD, assistant professor of family and community medicine at UT Southwestern Medical Center and lead author of the study, said in a news release. "Contrary to previous research, which found that intimate relationships had a large effect on physical health, we did not get the same results."

The study looked at data collected on nearly 3,000 people between 1995 and 2014. At three points during those years, people were asked to rate the strain in both their romantic and family relationships. That information was then compared to their total number of chronic conditions, ranging from stroke to headaches.

Researchers found that greater family relationship strain was associated with a greater number of chronic conditions and worse health appraisal during the second and third rounds of data collection. Surprisingly, there were no significant effects of intimate partner relationships on health outcomes.

"We were honestly stunned that there were zero associations between intimate partner emotional climate and later health," Woods said.

They theorize that it's related to the fact that partner relationships can break up, whereas family members tend to stick around for life. Family is forever, and for some people, that means a lifetime of emotional wear and tear.

"The vast majority of the people in the study had living parents or siblings and thus, their relationship with a spouse or intimate partner was less likely to be as long as that of their family members," Patricia N.E. Roberson, PhD, assistant professor of nursing of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and co-author of the study, said in a release. "Therefore, the emotional intensity of these relationships may be greater, so much so that people experience more of an effect on their health and well-being."

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Although more research is needed, Woods told CNN that the study's results should be a "wakeup call" for dysfunctional families and health care practitioners.

"It's our takeaway that if your family or relationship are conflictual or unhealthy in adulthood, it could be very important to work to improve them, perhaps by therapy," Woods said. "Until now that's not something we would typically consider for somebody in the middle of their life."