Science Says We're Lonely and Lying About It

by ParentCo. March 12, 2017

lonely young girl

I’m really lonely.

There. It’s out there. In public. For everyone to see.

It's taken me a while to admit this but, I think if more moms said it out loud, if we admitted it, we’d be all be a lot better for it. See, the thing is, research shows that the number of Americans who report zero “close” friends has tripled in recent decades.

So, while junior naps, and you scroll through your Facebook feed reading endless articles about the top ten types of mom friends you need in your “tribe,” and editorial spreads about "ladies who lunch," it’s really easy to get a general sense that there’s some kind of cool table that you aren’t sitting at. But the reality is that no one is at that table. In fact, there’s rarely anyone at lunch at all, at least not as often as they're letting on.

I’m lonely and I have no friends.

It was about six months ago that I really started to think about this topic. I'd been through a bad episode of adult bullying. Yes, it’s a thing. I’m a grown-up woman, who was bullied by other grown-up women. I thought this wasn’t supposed to happen after high school, or even grade school.

As it turns out, I’m not alone. Google “women bullies,” or “mom bullies,” and you’ll find thousands of results about how to deal with women bullying other women in the workplace or, moms bullying other moms or even, moms bullying other children, of all things.

Experts suggest that, often, women who bully other women do so because they feel threatened. We’ve all seen it. In a group of women, everything seems fine, and then, as if overnight, one woman is singled out as a target of the group’s ire. Whatever is different about her makes her a target for dismissal from the group, through gossip, backbiting, and even open hostility.

Of course, women know that quiet, subtle insults are the bread and butter of a female bully. “Indirect relational aggression” is what Jill Webber, a psychologist who writes about mean girls, calls it.

For me, I wondered why play-dates were cancelled, why my everyone was always busy, and why my friends actually thought I couldn’t see them roll their eyes when I was speaking. I cried, and asked my husband why I went through not just one, but two, brain surgeries, without a phone call, a card, or even a text.

As it turned out, according to my bullies, I was no longer qualified to be their friend because I don’t go to church. Apparently, they still prayed for me.

In my family’s life of military moves and constant relocations, making – and keeping – friends is a premium. So, losing friendships that we’d held onto for over a decade was a blow that I took especially hard. But, my being sad, or even my standing up for myself, was viewed as either mental illness or drama. Dr. Webber says that, when women become overwhelmed with sorting through the painful feelings that come with rejection and worthlessness, “drama” is like a scarlet letter, worn like a brand that makes us fearful of ever expressing future emotion.

The bullying episode was one of the worst experiences of my life. It made me question my entire sense of self. Because we place such a premium on our relationships with other women, we become “painfully self-critical when feel unwanted by others,” says Dr. Webber. We see this premium reflected in sites like Scary Mommy, with an entire section devoted just to keeping, celebrating, and maintaining lady-friendships.

The whole thing made acutely aware that the size of our family's social circle was was getting smaller just as he was getting bigger. Gone were the gaggles of giggling women sharing cheese crackers and laughs at the playground. Those days were being replaced by long, lonely, isolated afternoons on the couch, waiting for the carpool line, wondering how I could possibly be the only person who feels this way.

You’re lonely, and you don’t have any friends either.

It turns out that I'm not the only person who feels that way.

According to a 2003 Gallup study, Americans reported an average number of 8.6 friends. Additionally, more recent research shows that, because of the explosion of social media, our relationships have changed, and our methods for determining what constitutes a “relationship,” are vastly different.

A 2006 Cornell study of over 2,000 participants showed that roughly half indicated only one “close” relationship. One. Even more importantly, those participants who indicated that they had “no” close relationships were primarily women.

Social media has changed our definition of “friend.” A 2006 study reported that fully 25% of Americans report having no one – that’s right, no one – to confide in. That’s down from three people in 1985, and two in 2004. Our friends are dropping like flies.

If, at best, we report having 8.6 friends, why do we have, on average, 338 Facebook friends? Remember when we chatted with other parents at our kids’ soccer games, instead of playing on our phones? Or, when we joined leagues and clubs? That’s how we used to make friends. We’ve lost that.

Corynn, a marketing professional, represents a category of moms (and dads) that are almost exclusively dependent on their spouse for social interaction, a group that's grown from 5% to nearly 10% over a period of 15 years, and is likely bigger now. The same study found that those who depend exclusively on family is up from 57% to 80%.

Corynn says she socializes with her husband because, frankly, he’s her best friend. Furthermore, she says that she’s, “trying to do better and be more social,” because she, “knows it’s important. But between volunteering and trying to spend every second with my kid, who refuses to stay little, I can’t seem to find the time, or a reason.”

Duke University sociologist, Lynn Smith-Lovin, warns that despite the deep bond in these marital relationships, “if something happens to that spouse or partner, you may have lost your safety net.”

Sam wood carved moon

Virtual friends and online bullies.

In today’s technology-driven world, it’s impossible to deny the idea that moms turn to their phones and laptops when they're home, when the baby is sleeping, when they're bored, lonely, or just need someone to talk to. Moms find friendship in message boards, in reading groups, in chat rooms, and in Facebook friendships.

Virtual friends, and even analog friendships that were once lost but have been rekindled as a new (albeit less tangible) cyber version, offer solace and keep us company. Online friendships can be a positive force in a person's life, and people certainly find acceptance and peace in the friendships cultivated online, possibly even beyond real-life connections.

Holly, a single mom raising a teen daughter, says that her online friendships have kept her grounded, reminding her of who she is, and giving her the confidence to be the parent she wants to be, despite outside pressures to be someone else. She says that, for her, “the Internet is truly magical,” and that her online girlfriends are “more supportive, more available, and less judgmental” than her real-life friends.

Even despite our online friendships, when we see a thousand images of laughing women at lunch, laughing women on girls’ getaway weekends, laughing women getting manicures, laughing women going shopping, we get the drift: we aren’t a laughing woman, and we're definitely not at the spa.

It can be painful to bear witness to all that apparent fun. And it can make us feel as though we're screwing up. Again. Not only are we screwing up the formula vs. breastfeeding thing, the gluten thing, and the red dye #5 thing, but we're also screwing up our social lives by being the only mom with, what feels like, no real friends.

While chatrooms and message boards can be useful sources of information and virtual friendships, the can also be easily dominated by a few strong voices, drowning out those that are less vocal, but still have something to say. And being nameless, often faceless, voices gives people license to hide behind their screens and be cruel, vindictive, or even threatening.

The unscientific research.

I asked a small sample of five moms with vastly different characters, jobs, and backgrounds, how many “close,” friends they have. The answers I got ranged from zero to seven. I also asked how often they socialize with their friends. Their responses varied but for one factor: all of the women I asked gave an excuse, and apologized, for not socializing more, including the woman who claimed to socialize every weekend.

Everyone felt that they weren’t socializing enough. One woman, a stay-at-home mom of four, said, “Ack! I don't like to admit how infrequently I get together with friends!” While another mom said she didn’t see a “reason” to socialize outside of her family, though she still thought she should. The mom who was least apologetic for her social life explained, “As a natural ambivert, I enjoy seeing people, but I can't see them too much. Taking too much time to socialize can be draining on my personality...and on my paycheck.”

That’s not to say that these women are completely uncomfortable with their choices, just that they all seemed to think that they should be socializing more. And, they are right. According to research done by Dr. Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Oxford, people need approximately three to five friends for overall wellbeing. And, the feeling of isolation, created from not cultivating friendships, left fallow in a lack of socializing, can be as deadly to our health as smoking, alcoholism, never exercising, and obesity, according to a meta-study that combined nearly 150 other studies, with over 300,000 participants.


We think that we know what defines “friend,” based on greeting card sentiment, and on what we teach our preschoolers. But, somewhere along the way, we forget about having playdates for ourselves. We forget about sharing, sending cards, giving presents, and about making phone calls. We forget to say hello to our neighbors, or to stop by on our way home from work, just to drop off a note. We’ve gotten lost. We’re a nation of hibernators, of hiders, of spouses and kids. Despite outward appearances, the data suggests that we aren’t a nation of ladies who lunch, we're not a nation of people who are happy to be alone, we're not even a nation of people who are just always happy. In fact, just over one in ten Americans has a prescription for anti-depressants.

A few things are certain, based on current research and trends: we are losing our friends, we don’t know what to do about it, and we wish it wasn’t happening.

I've made an active effort to socialize with friends, to reinvigorate old relationships, and to make new ones. I’ve been inserting myself into my community, putting myself out there, and edging my way into conversations or situations that are a little outside my comfort zone. It’s been paying off and, it turns out, being friendly is a little like riding a bike, you never really forget how.



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