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Isolation Nation

Research confirms the benefits of friendship. So why are so many women lonely?

It was one of those rare academic statistics that caught the eye of the nation: Nearly 25 percent of Americans surveyed said they had no one in whom to confide.

The statistic was from the "Social Isolation in America" study, published in the June 2006 American Sociological Review. On average, the study found American adults have only two close friends—down from an average of three in 1985. The study also revealed 80 percent of us confide only in family.

All the major news sources pondered these startling statistics for months. How could it be that one out of every four of us doesn't have a single friend to turn to in times of need? Why do so many of us have no friends outside our family? And does it really matter whether we maintain close friendships?

Research indicates friendship offers big benefits to our physical and emotional health. A 2000 study showed loneliness can cause high blood pressure and sleep disruptions. Data published in 2007 shows lonely people may be at greater risk for developing Alzheimer's later in life. Still another 2000 study found the closer a friend feels to us, the more likely she'll provide major help in a crisis.

When Rosie Sieber's husband, Gordon, was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer, the Los Angeles resident had to share the sad news via telephone with her mom and relatives who live in Venezuela. Rosie, 35, knew she'd need more than long-distance encouragement, so she turned to another "family": her neighbors and church. These friends cleaned her house, made her meals, and babysat her toddler son. When Gordon died, Rosie felt so overwhelmed she thought about taking her life. But the continued support of friends kept her going.

Throughout Scripture, the value of relationship is clear: "Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ" (Galatians 6:2); "If you fall, your friend can help you up. But if you fall without having a friend nearby, you are really in trouble" (Ecclesiastes 4:10, CEV); and, "There are many of us, but we each are part of the body of Christ, as well as part of one another" (Romans 12:5, CEV).

In light of these statistics and Scriptures, why are so many women going it alone?

Mobile Homes

The "Social Isolation in America" study gave credence to Harvard professor Robert Putnam's 2000 book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. The book details how we've become a less social society since the 1950s: Americans know our neighbors less, meet with friends less frequently, and even socialize with our families less often.

That decline is partly caused by our increasingly mobile society. We live in one neighborhood, work in another city, and attend church in a third locale. Consequently, we're not fully connected to any single community. Additionally, people are more likely to move far away from extended family and not stay put in any one location.

Before Peggy Wilkinson married, she spent her entire life in the same part of Oregon. A preacher's kid, she grew up in a church where she knew everyone. Then Peggy's husband, Paul, received an opportunity to study and work in California. It was tough to move away from everything she'd ever known. So Peggy was thankful to find a welcoming church and close friendships in their new neighborhood. Eventually, the couple hopes to settle back in Oregon. But Peggy knows there will be more moves ahead—and more sad good-byes to friends and church families—as her husband establishes his career.

Another factor that may affect friendships is our reliance on technology. "These days, television and video games make tough competition for real engagement with each other," says Elizabeth Lewis Hall, associate professor of psychology at Biola University. As Bowling Alone author Robert Putnam famously stated in a radio interview: "People watch Friends rather than having friends." While the Internet allows friends and family to stay connected across the miles, a 1998 study found increased Internet use led to depression and loneliness because those in the study substituted weak online friendships for stronger real-life relationships.

Women at Risk

While it can be difficult for any woman to find friends, singles and stay-at-home moms are particularly susceptible to loneliness.

A 1998 study, which included data from 17 countries, found loneliness affects singles far more than married couples. "When we're younger, we tend to live in more communal environments, such as living at home, in a college dorm, or with housemates," says Margaret Nagib, a clinical psychologist and never-married single woman. "As we get older and more accomplished, it seems the trend is to live alone. Plus, there's a tendency for singles to pull out of community with friends and family who get married or have kids—we can feel we have little in common with them."

Meanwhile, a Dutch study showed singles are less at risk for loneliness when they have close friendships. "Being deliberate about spending time with others is a must," says Margaret. "When I find myself getting lonely, I resist the urge to stay home and veg out in front of the TV. I have a list of people to call instead."

One recent study reports that while marriage is associated with lower levels of loneliness, parenthood isn't. Stay-at-home mothers may never have a moment alone, but their opportunities to develop meaningful adult relationships can be extremely limited.

Yvonne Peralta deeply wants some girl time, but with six children and a home-based business, finding time to socialize seems nearly impossible. She often thinks about calling women from her church, but figures others are too busy to chat.

Yvonne's schedule doesn't synch up well with her friends who work outside the home during the day. "Ninety-nine percent of my friends have full-time day jobs. For me, a good time to have conversations with friends is during my kids' nap time. But most of my friends are working then," she says.

Many first-time moms lose friends if they leave a workplace community to stay home with their children. "Losing that community can be an unforeseen beginning to the loneliness cycle," says Liz Selzer, director of leadership development for Mothers of Preschoolers (MOPS) International. "Even if women continue to work, their available free time is often spent at home trying to compensate for being gone all day, which leaves little time to develop relationships".

No Woman Is an Island

Openness and authenticity help combat the loneliness trend. "Emotional vulnerability is a risky proposition," explains Kevin Downing, co-founder and executive clinical director of Turning Point Counseling, a network of Christian therapists. "We fear rejection. So we project something fake, but then people aren't relating to who we really are—and we hate that, too."

Kevin Robertson, a Los Angeles pastor with a visible body tremor and a speech disorder, regularly discusses his limitations during his sermons. "People are attracted to my openness," he says, "but they're scared to be open themselves because they see it as being totally vulnerable. But I view openness as total empowerment because it's the real you."

Besides being our real selves, we can ask each other for assistance. We all need help at times, but we're often too proud to admit it. Or perhaps we think others won't want to help us. But don't we love it when someone asks us for a favor, advice, or our expertise? We all need to be needed, and admitting we need others brings us closer. When Peggy heard Rosie's husband had cancer, she immediately offered to scrub Rosie's dishes and pick up her prescriptions. Both women benefited from time spent together. "God showed me I need others," Rosie says. "I can't do it all on my own."

Romans 12 urges us to value others and their God-given gifts. As a body of believers, none of us is self-sustaining. When we try to live on our own, we communicate I don't need you to the rest of the body—essentially proclaiming others don't have any value. Part of building communities and friendships is offering our help, and an equally important part is asking others for help. So ask a friend to help you paint your dining room, or to use her talents to help you complete a church or community project.

In reaching out to others, remember the stay-at-home mom at your PTA meetings and your single gal pal at church. But don't forget your coworker with the hubby and two kids. She may be deeply longing for a friend too.

Holly Vicente Robaina is a Kyria regular contributor who lives in California.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

Holly Vicente Robaina
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