Loneliest numbers are going up

Emotional isolation grows as more people say they lack friends

July 16, 2006|By SUSAN CAMPBELL | SUSAN CAMPBELL,THE HARTFORD (CONN.) COURANT

In slightly more than a year, Ginny Robitaille of Marlborough, Conn. lost her best friend to cancer, her mother and a beloved aunt. They were her confidantes, the people to whom she could turn, no matter what.

"I miss being able to pick up the phone and chat with them or go places with them, and since I took an early retirement from work, my circle of friends has shrunk," Robitaille says.

A daughter and two grandsons are close by, but Robitaille considers herself -- as do so many other Americans -- lacking in friends.

In fact, it would appear that Americans everywhere are looking for a few good friends. A study published last month in the American Sociological Review says that in 19 years -- the last time the topic was studied -- Americans' "core group of confidants" shrank from three to two, and the number of Americans who say they have no confidants at all nearly tripled, to one-fourth of the people surveyed.

The General Social Survey compared data from 1985 and 2004. The original study shocked social observers, and the recent change was so drastic, says Lynn Smith-Lovin, a Duke University sociology professor and co-author of the study, that the researchers doubted their results. Other recent studies have said Americans are becoming more isolated, but to lose a third of the available confidants seemed surprising.

The authors -- including Smith-Lovin's husband, Miller McPherson, and Matthew E. Brashears of the University of Arizona -- were skeptical, but similar studies in places as far-flung as the Netherlands and Hungary reflect a similar drop in connectedness among their subjects.

Social connectedness ties a society together. It is the foundation on which we build a culture. The closer the tie a person enjoys with another, says the study, the broader the support. As Smith-Lovin says, the people standing on their roofs after Hurricane Katrina were there, in part, because they knew no one who could help them get out of the way of the storm.

Beyond impeding physical survival in the face of a catastrophe, isolation has other less noticeable but equally insidious effects. "I have two lifelong friends," says Kelly Klein of Madison, Conn. "We don't talk daily or even weekly, but when we do talk it's like we haven't missed a beat. But on the flip side, as a mom of two little kids, I'm surprised at the lack of real connections I've made with other local moms. We certainly have friends and playmates, but nobody really tight. Everybody's busy -- especially with older children. Plus weekends are usually family time. It all adds up."

Smith-Lovin's study didn't address the reason for the downward shift, but she speculates the change at least partly comes from Americans working more hours and traveling greater distances to and from work.

"You can't stay around to socialize with your co-workers when you have to get back home," says Smith-Lovin. "You're not going to be able to go out and see your neighbors and become involved in face-to-face voluntary groups. And so what are you going to do? You're going to talk to that spouse or partner, somebody at home."

And that's the bright spot in the study, says Smith-Lovin. "If anything, spouses and partners are getting closer. ... Really close family ties are surviving and even strengthening."

But relying on one person -- even a partner -- for so much emotional support doesn't always work, says Rebecca Kiki Weingarten, a New York life and career coach. "This issue comes up at some point with just about every one of my clients," says Weingarten. "Amazing, isn't it? We seem so connected, and yet people are talking about feeling isolated, alone and with no one to talk with. Adults don't know why they've lost friendships and are finding it so hard to make new ones. Couples aren't sure how to talk with each other. People in new relationships don't know how to get to know each other. And that's just the beginning."

Expecting a spouse to be both spouse and best friend may be asking too much, says Jan Yager, a Connecticut sociologist and author of Friendshifts: The Power of Friendship and How It Shapes Our Lives.

"Putting too many emotional demands on one's spouse to be everything and anything for each other -- the only friend, plus all the spouse considerations including physical intimacy, co-parenting, shared financial decisions, running the household, etc. -- can take the 'fun' factor out of the marriage," she says.

The study's authors defined confidants as people with whom you discuss important personal topics.

People in long-time friendships say there's no good way to predict who will remain for the long haul. Sometimes, the people you hang onto are, on the surface, the unlikeliest pals.

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