A recent survey out of the U.K. shows that women—at least most women—have a pretty good grasp on the important relationships in their lives: Four out of five have a good bond with their partner, 81 percent say they have good or very good friendships, and 59 percent get along with their bosses. But two stats jumped out at us as cause for concern: One in 10 women reported that they don't have a close friend, and a very lonely 3 percent reported having no friends at all.
Sure, it's normal for friendships to come and go, especially as we get older and swept up in work, family matters, and personal issues. And these days, we probably all have many more casual acquaintances (think of all your Facebook "friends") than true BFFs. But what kind of an effect can this have on a person's health and wellbeing?
Judith Akin, M.D., a psychiatrist in the Faculty and Physician Wellness Program of Work/Life Connections at Vanderbilt University, says that when people can't name a single close friend, it's often because of an underlying emotional or social disorder, like anxiety or trust issues. It also puts them at risk for further health problems.
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"Having at least a few close relationships is a part of a balanced life," Akin says. "People who are socially isolated or lacking in social support are much more vulnerable to depression, self-medicating with alcohol, and emotional eating." Studies also show that people with large circles of friends live longer than those without, and that strong social ties can reduce the risk of dementia later in life.
The nearly 6,000-person survey conducted by Relate (a British organization that provides relationship support and counseling) also found that having poor-quality or non-existent social connections is correlated to lower self esteem. Among people who described their friendships as good or very good, 87 percent said they felt good about themselves sometimes, often, or always. Among people in average or bad friendships, that number dropped to 63 percent; and among those who reported having no friends, 62 percent.
Although forming new friendships can be difficult, Akin says it's important for people to try—especially if they're feeling isolated after a move across the country, a falling-out with former pals, or another major life change that leaves them physically or emotionally alone.
"To have friends you have to be a good friend, so I always ask people what they are doing to try to cultivate relationships support," she says. "You have to make a deliberate effort to spend time together—or, if you don't live near each other, to call or write or visit." (In fact, half of survey respondents reported having weekly contact with their close friends, and nearly a fifth reported daily contact.)
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Nervous about making a new-friend date? Start with asking a colleague to grab lunch or check out a movie after work. "If you're worried about not knowing what to say, these structured situations can help take the pressure off," Akin says.
Common-interest groups are great ways to meet a variety of people who share your hobbies, as well, she says. In a way, men seem to do this better than women: The survey found that guys tend to be members of groups of close friends while women are more likely to form close connections with individuals.
And one final note for the ladies in relationships: It's great if your partner is your best friend, says Akin, but it's no excuse to let your other close ties don't fall by the wayside. "Too much time spent with one person can potentially make you both bored," she says. "You need to make a deliberate effort to get together regularly with other people in your life. Put a girls' night on the calendar; don't wait for someone else to do it."