Body Odd

No best friend? You're not alone out there

Aug. 18, 2014 at 4:17 PM ET

After a bad day, many people turn to a friend. A buddy who may offer a sympathetic ear or come up with some distracting activity to share. But what if you had no bestie? A recent study from the United Kingdom reveals some surprising info—one person in 10 people has no close friends. 

That may also be true for Americans, but it might not be as bleak as it sounds. 

“Ten percent [without a best friend], that’s a fairly safe bet,” says Geoffrey Greif, a professor of social work at the University of Maryland. That doesn't mean the "friendless" are completely lonely — couples often think of their partner as a best friend, says Greif.

“In the past 50 years … men are more apt to say that [their wives] are their best friends,” he says.

Greif has studied friendships in the United States, looking at how adult males form and maintain friendships as well as how couples pursue couple friendships. In the 2012 book, “Two Plus Two: Couples and Their Couple Friendships,”  he wrote with Katherine Deal, he found that most adult couples have friends, but the number varies significantly.

“About the median number of couples friends was five, but the range was one to 30,” says Deal, a professor emerita at the University of Maryland. 

The British data came from Relate, a nonprofit group dedicated to relationship counseling, which surveyed 5,000 people across the United Kingdom about the state of their relationships. While it found that most people report good relationships with families, friends and colleagues and four of five couples experienced a happy relationship, the study also revealed that as many as 5 million people in the U.K. might be friendless.

Greif says there could be many explanations for reporting no close pals. It's possible relocation to a new area means people are struggling to find friends. Or perhaps the type of friendships they have don’t allow for platonic intimacy. Or a marriage or love relationship dominates time.

“Every couple has the same struggle, how much time do I spend by myself as an individual, how much time do I spend with my partner,” Greif says. “How do we balance these issues around time? It’s usually the couple's friendships that go.”

Friendships also change throughout people's lives. When couples have young children and are jostling for security at work, they tend to have fewer friends.

As children age, couples often turn back to pre-family "couple" friends, which, in turn, can help stabilize a relationship.

“The people we talked to really felt that having friends, and particularly friends in common, really helped them a lot. What was interesting to us was that it helped their relationship with one another,” Deal says.

When couples go out with other couples, partners are able to see each other in their element. Maybe a husband sees his wife telling jokes and he remembers how funny she is. Or, the couple sees their friends acting badly and vow to not treat each other that way. In any case, friendships remain important for healthy romantic relationships.

“I think it can be really important, especially when you have couple friends you both like,” says Greif.

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