Why are Relationships so Difficult?

The pandemic has highlighted how important relationships are in our lives. Being stuck at home, unable to travel to family, visit friends or have them over, has created loneliness and estrangement from those whom we love and need. Phone calls and Zoom have not replaced the closeness that personal contact provides.

Relationships are crucial for our very existence. In his seminal work, Together, Vivek Murthy points out that strong emotional ties play a significant role in our mental and physical health. People who have several deep connections suffer less from depression and  other ailments, and they live longer. We obviously need others for a wide array of activities.  Going to shows is a richer experience when we can discuss reactions.  Sharing our personal issues and gaining different perspectives can help to clarify and resolve our difficulties. And just having others we can turn to in times of need provides us with invaluable support.

Yet so many people have difficulty building meaningful relationships. When Murthy took over as the US Surgeon General in 2014, he expected that obesity or the opiate crisis would be the major medical challenge. Instead, he discovered that it was loneliness. 17% of Americans today report that they have no close relationships. A survey was conducted in the fall of 2015, before the Covid-19 pandemic, of a random sample of US adults who were asked, “In the last two years, how hard has it been for you to make new platonic friends?”. Over a third said “Hard” or “Very Hard”. Another third said “So-So”, and only a quarter said, “Easy” or “Very Easy”. (About 5% said, “Never Tried”.) Interestingly, these percentages were unrelated to the respondent’s age; similar results were found for those in their 20s as well as their 60s, and all ages in between.  As the Beetles sing in Eleanor Rigby, “All the lonely people – where do they all come from?”.