Midlife blues? Tension with mothers, siblings may be reason

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When it comes to our well-being, particularly during midlife, the quality of relationships with our mothers and siblings matters, according to a recent study.

The study led by Iowa State University researcher Megan Gilligan found that tension with our mothers and siblings, similar to our spouses, is associated with symptoms of depression. The research found all three relationships have a similar effect and one is not stronger than the other.

“Family scholars have focused a lot on the relationship we have with our spouse,” said Gilligan. “There is this assumption that as you go through your life course, you leave these other relationships with your parents and siblings behind, but you don’t. You carry those with you.”

The relationship between mothers and daughters is even more significant. The research showed tension between mothers and adult children was a stronger predictor of depression for daughters than it was for sons. However, gender did not make a difference in relationships with spouses and siblings. Gilligan said that this makes sense based on her previous research.

“We know that mothers and daughters in adulthood have the closest relationships and also the most conflictual. These are really intense relationships,” she said. “Later in life, adult children start providing more care to their parents, and daughters in particular are often caregivers for their mothers.”

“Midlife is a time when siblings are often coming back together as they prepare and navigate care for parents,” she said. “For that reason, it’s a pivotal time when these family relationships might be experiencing more tension, more strain, more discord.”

The research team used data collected through the Within-Family Differences Study. Their analysis included 495 adult children within 254 families. For a majority of families, multiple siblings participated in the study. Researchers measured depressive symptoms and tension among family members through survey questions. They controlled for race, gender and education.

In the paper, Gilligan and her colleagues explained that they expected all three relationships would predict depressive symptoms, but the effect would vary depending on the salience of the relationship. The fact that they found no significant difference between spouses, mothers and siblings is important to note, especially for practitioners. Gilligan says instead of focusing solely on a romantic partner or spouse, marriage and family therapists should ask about other sources of family stress. The study is published in the journal Social Sciences.

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