“I have no idea what my friendships look like now,” says 32-year-old Janelle*. “Since the pandemic, one of my closest friends, who I used to message every day, has totally disappeared. I know she’s anxious and easily overwhelmed but it hurts.” In the same period, Janelle has been through a lot of upheaval: changing jobs twice and moving from her rented shared house in London back to her mum’s in Sheffield to save money.
Life has always been prone to changing fast. Even before coronavirus, you could wake up to find everything you know turned on its head: people we love die, relationships end, companies fold. But the last 12 months have exposed more people than ever to the inherent uncertainty of human existence. Some of our friendships have changed and we feel it for better and for worse; but the true extent of any long-term changes to our relationships are still revealing themselves.
During the first lockdown of 2020, social scientists in France carried out a large-scale study of 16,000 people to assess the impact of the highly restrictive lockdown there. The participants skewed towards women who had attended higher education. A key impact of lockdown on their friendships, the researchers found, was what they called “relationship funnelling“. This was a process whereby some friendships were prioritised and even strengthened through care and increased communication, while others just “fizzled out”.
In a (hopefully) long life of many decades, the pandemic will one day seem like a blip for friendships that had already lasted longer than any lockdown. Nonetheless, those who responded to the survey said that this period had severely tested and, in some cases, transformed their friendships.
Janelle is feeling this. “I know lockdown has shrunk all of our worlds but it feels hard not to take it personally that my friend is now basically uncontactable. She rarely replies to my messages now, it feels like we have really drifted. It feels like such a loss.”
I know lockdown has shrunk all of our worlds but it feels hard not to take it personally that my friend is now basically uncontactable.
Twenty-six-year-old Emma* from Leeds has had a similar experience. “My best friend and I have always been like sisters but in the first lockdown she started a new relationship and ended up moving in with him due to the restrictions. She now lives really far away from me and I feel like we have completely drifted apart. I’m single and, honestly, I feel like we have been growing apart because she stopped checking in and went into her own bubble with her boyfriend.”
This has caused Emma to feel left out and left behind. “She seems settled in her new life now and I’m not a huge part of it anymore.”
For young women in particular – a demographic which has been sold the idea that while lovers come and go, our friendships are forever – these shifts and drifts can be particularly painful and difficult to navigate. The seed of this expectation was planted when, in Sex and the City, Carrie and co. suggested that they, rather than men, could be each other’s soulmates. But just as romantic relationships let us down, so too can friendships. This is particularly true at a time when we – all of us – have been changed in some way by the experience of living through a pandemic. The distances between us as we come out of this lockdown are not only geographical. Some people have had children, changed their career, lost their career. And while some have started relationships, others have ended them.
If our friendships have changed perhaps it is because we, too, have completely changed. Clinical psychologist and author of The Key To Calm, Linda Blair, says it’s important to realise that you might not be coming out of this as the same person who went into it.
“Whether we enjoyed the experience or not, we have been forced to rethink our lives,” Linda explains. “That has, for some people, been a wonderful thing but, for others, it has been horrible. I really caution people to take their time with their friends as we emerge; what you think about your friendships as you’ve experienced them in such pressurised circumstances is not necessarily a reflection of your normal relationship with those people.”
We must try to keep an open mind, Linda advises: treat our social interactions now as fact-finding missions to see how we feel in our friendships. Maybe they won’t be the same but perhaps we can meet one another with a new level of understanding. “Ask people questions about themselves,” she says, “see if you can get to know them again, renavigate your relationship. To be so intolerant as not to forgive people for how they have behaved under unprecedented circumstances of which we had no warning would be to cancel out some of your own behaviours. Think back to how stressed you have been and give everybody you can bear to give a chance, a chance.”
I’m single and, honestly, I feel like we have been growing apart because she stopped checking in and went into her own bubble with her boyfriend.
However, Linda adds, there are exceptions. “If someone has been truly harmful and poisonous, it’s okay to say goodbye to them.” She would define this as someone being “consistently and deliberately hurtful” to you.
Over the last year, 29-year-old Kaya* from the southeast of England has done exactly that. She realised that her best friend was, as she puts it, “toxic” and has deliberately phased her out to preserve her own mental health.
“Before the pandemic, we were very close and used to tell each other everything. We’d always be texting or tagging one another in memes. I’d call her my best friend – the person I’d run to in a crisis,” Kaya explains. “Our friendship wasn’t perfect, though. She would sometimes try to undermine me (for example if I’d achieved something notable at work) and sometimes she would comment on my clothes or makeup in a negative way. But she’s always been brutally honest and I just put that down to her being a November Sagittarius.”
Everything changed when Kaya’s boyfriend broke up with her during the first lockdown. This was the last time she saw her former friend. “Although she came to support me, she gave me some really awful advice and I felt like she was trying to make the situation worse or stir trouble. Then the second lockdown hit and spending time apart from her made me realise that I felt drained whenever I talked to her and she made me feel bad about myself.”
It was only when she spent time alone that Kaya feels she was able to reflect on the friendship. Lockdown, she says, taught her how to “protect” her “peace of mind” and with that came the steady realisation that this friend made her feel anxious. She began to reflect that her friend used to make unkind comments about her appearance: “She used to comment on the way I look or do my makeup.” On top of that, she would belittle her achievements at work: “She would actually laugh at them.”
For Kaya, having the space to drift apart slowly has been hugely beneficial. She says she has surrounded herself with other friends who make her feel positive. “I don’t think this would have happened without the pandemic!” she reflects. “I think we would still be meeting up regularly for dinner and drinks and each time I’d probably come away feeling crappy and the cycle would continue. We texted each other a happy Christmas but I haven’t spoken to her since and have no desire to, to be honest. Sometimes friendships come to a natural end.”
Some rifts will be irreparable and others, in time, will heal. “I like to think of friendships as an onion,” Linda says. “We have inner layers and outer layers. The next few months – and I really do mean months because this is a process – are about deciding who we allow to remain in the inner layers and who needs to go to the outer layers of only saying hi if we see them in the street.”
I spoke to tens of people for this article, all of whom had similar stories. They all felt a sense of loss and some described themselves as grieving for how their friendships had changed. Our world has changed, so it follows that we have evolved and adapted too. Whatever we do next, Linda says that kindness and compassion are key. “Slow down,” she adds, “take your time and think about what you want from your friends.”
If it still feels hopeless, remember that there are people out there who you haven’t met yet. People who have also worked on themselves during this time and will be looking to make new connections.
“I’ve recently started using Bumble BFF,” Emma tells me. “I was really nervous about it but it’s been so helpful! I’ve been meeting people who live near me and forming local connections. I do still feel like the loyalty I have to my oldest friends hasn’t been reciprocated but I’m meeting people who have been through similar stuff to me and who knows what will happen in the future…”
*Names have been changed to protect identities
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