5 ways to get your friendships back on track post-pandemic

·9-min read
Photo credit: Unsplash
Photo credit: Unsplash

In the deep dark depths of the first lockdown, one of my closest friends (and Red colleague), Arielle, sent the same GIF to our group chat every single day. The GIF was from Frozen, with the words ‘Yoohoo, big summer blowout!’ written across it. To be quite honest, I have no idea how or when or why she started sending it on a daily basis. But this seemingly silly thing kept me going. No matter how miserable I was feeling that day, every time the GIF landed in my WhatsApp, a smile crept across my face and I felt a little lighter.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s how much we need people. Not necessarily a partner or a family (although they can be great, too), but a network of friends that keeps us afloat during the worst of times. Even in sending goofy Disney GIFs, they throw us a lifebelt. They sustain us, feed our souls and give us hope. Perhaps that’s why, last spring, we all rushed to fill our diaries with Zoom chats. We felt a sense of solidarity as we faced this ‘unprecedented’ situation together. We exchanged memes about home-schooling and jokes about loo roll. We sent one another Netflix recommendations and photos of our baking triumphs (or lack thereof). We connected with a community of people through Instagram. We did endless quizzes.

Then, at some point, things changed again. Was it Zoom fatigue, or did certain friendships just run out of steam? Those people we’d only catch up with every six months over a glass of wine suddenly felt like excess baggage. And even with some of our most-loved friends, with nothing significant to share for months on end, conversations seemed less appealing.

Meanwhile, the investment we’d put into certain relationships prior to the pandemic fell short during it, with people letting us down and not checking in. Then, when the world tentatively opened up again, we clashed over rules and restrictions. So,
whether it was a result of passive drift or more intentional platonic break-ups, our social circles shrunk. A poll on Red’s Instagram revealed 84% claimed to have fewer friends now than pre-Covid.

‘It’s no surprise that relationships have been put to the test during the pandemic,’
says psychologist Dr Vicki Uwannah. ‘We’ve all endured challenging times and
some have even experienced post-traumatic stress in varying degrees. When we’re going through a significant life-adjustment, it takes all of our mental energy to just survive, meaning we have limited capacity to turn outwards.’

So, why have some friendships waned while others have become stronger? Shasta Nelson, a leading friendship expert, and the author of Friendships Don’t Just Happen!, The Business Of Friendship and Frientimacy, says a good friendship hinges on three pillars: positivity, consistency and vulnerability. ‘The reason so many relationships have withered this year, comes down to who we’ve been consistent with,’ explains Nelson.

‘This is a year when consistency didn’t just happen to us, so if there wasn’t a sense of intentionality in keeping in touch, there would never be chance for the other two pillars – positivity and vulnerability – to get a look-in, and the friendship won’t have survived.’

In the face of everything, we all had to make a choice about who we confided in, and those friendships grew closer because of it.

Mutual investment – sharing thoughts and feelings – is vital to a healthy friendship,’ says Dr Uwannah, ‘and what this pandemic has taught us is that there are only so many people we feel comfortable to be truly vulnerable with.’

This time has also helped us reassess our relationships in a healthy way. ‘When we experience trauma on this scale, we come to realise who we want to be there for us during the dark days, and who is actually willing to be,’ explains Dr Uwannah. ‘I also think the time spent reflecting on our values, work/life balance and after purpose has meant we’ve naturally re-evaluated who we keep around us, too.’

In some cases, this has meant we’ve gained friends we might not have come into contact with before, often in our local area, as a stronger sense of community developed. Others, who have moved home as a result of the pandemic, have made friends in new places as their lives took them in a new direction. But overall, we’ve come out of lockdown with smaller, yet stronger, social circles – and that’s a good thing. In fact, Nelson says many women have reported feeling relieved they have fewer friends now, especially as we are all starting to ramp up our socialising again. ‘Studies show we feel more stress, anxiety and sometimes even loneliness the larger our network,’ she says. ‘So a lot of people feel a new sense of ease at not having to keep up with so many friends.’

But there are others who feel there is still something missing and that’s the friends you saw every now and then, the ones that hinge on the gym, the office or going ‘out out’. While these casual friendships can seem insignificant, they often act as the ‘glue’ that keeps our social circles together. ‘There is space for relationships that don’t fall into the category of deep and close,’ says Dr Uwannah. ‘Instagram friends we’ve never met can be great cheerleaders, work friends instinctively understand the ups and downs of our jobs, and there’s still a place for small talk with your gym buddies.’

So before you dismiss your peripheral friendships, know that there is value to them, too: a joint passion and a shared history as you’ve learned something new, the chance to be open with someone less immersed in your day-to-day life and the opportunity to be a different version of yourself as well. We mustn’t lose sight of those people who add this layer of texture to our worlds – the question is how we approach and reconnect with them, without adding stress to our time-poor lives.

How to get your friendships back on track

Reach out and allow leeway

‘First things first, don’t be hard on yourself for having drifted away from some people that you love,’ says Nelson. ‘Even in the best of times, friendships ebb and flow, and in these circumstances, we should definitely allow one another more leeway and be willing to forgive.’

Reconnecting is as simple as reaching out. ‘Acknowledge that you’ve not been in touch by telling them that you’ve missed them and you’ve been thinking of them,’ says Nelson. ‘Then just hold it loosely, and remember that everybody is coming out of this time differently. Some people are still maxed out and exhausted and might not feel like they have the bandwidth to say yes to everything at once.’

Reconnect with casual friends – but maintain healthy expectations

It’s great that our circles have become small and strong, but there is value in peripheral friendships, too, says Nelson. ‘Those relationships do feed a piece of you, so I’d recommend reconnecting with more casual friends as you reconnect with those areas of your lives.’

So how do we manage that without feeling overwhelmed? ‘The key is having healthy expectations of what those relationships are, and what they are not,’ Nelson says. ‘Take pressure off these peripheral friendships by being really clear with yourself: here are my closest intimate friends that take priority, and here are the friends it’s fun to be friendly with, but shouldn’t take up the same amount of time and energy.’

Break up if you need to

Stepping back from friendships that no longer serve us might be difficult, but it is necessary. In fact, it’s an ‘act of self-betrayal’ if we don’t, says Dr Uwannah. ‘If we knowingly hold on to people that hinder our progress, disturb our peace or break our boundaries, we are essentially telling ourselves that we do not matter.’

But how do we let go?

‘I think we don’t need to let go of the friendships as much as we need to let go of our expectations of them,’ says Nelson. ‘You can still be cordial with someone without confiding in them, or making extra time for them. We just need to shift the view of what role they play in our lives.’

It’s our instinct to be reciprocal in relationships, so if we pull away, they’ll most likely follow. But if that doesn’t happen, Nelson admits the break-up might need to be more formal. ‘Phrase it in the most honest and compassionate way possible. Try: “I’ve appreciated our friendship over the years, but honestly, right now, I don’t have the same bandwidth, so I need to step back”,’ she advises.

Keep strengthening the friendships that survived

Even if you feel immeasurably closer now, friendships still have to be worked on, particularly as we navigate the transition back to a more ‘normal’ life. A lot of us created routines – a walk every Saturday or a Zoom call every Wednesday – that we had space for then, but less so now. ‘Be careful of just letting commitments slide because that can lead to resentment,’ says Nelson. ‘Instead, speak value to what you had – say that you loved that thing you were doing – and then quickly turn it into a brainstorm by asking, what can we do going forwards that works for all of us?’ Once you’ve established that, ‘intentionality is key,’ says Dr Uwannah. You may not be able to meet up every week, but making a commitment to see each other on a regular basis is vital, as is continuing the level of vulnerability and positivity you shared during Covid.

Make new friends

Whether you’ve moved house, started a new job or just want to widen your shrunken friendship group, making friends as a grown-up isn’t easy. ‘As we age, it can be hard to knowingly place ourselves in vulnerable positions,’ explains Dr Uwannah. Then there’s the added layer that many of us feel more socially insecure these days. So, take small steps and just focus on one area of your life where you can be consistent. ‘There’s a reason people suggest joining a gym or indulging a hobby,’ says Nelson. ‘It’s not about what you do, it’s about the fact that you won’t make friends unless you start seeing them repetitively, because we don’t feel close to people until we’ve interacted six to eight times.’

So be strategic and ask yourself: where do I want to be consistent? What activities do I want to be doing regularly? Is it simply the school gates because I know I’ll be there every weekday collecting my children? Or is it a new art class because that’s where I have a passion or curiosity? ‘Those need to be the places where you centre your search for friendship,’ says Nelson. ‘Then, the other two requirements – vulnerability and positivity – jump in. Your only job is to get to know each other. With those three things, we can bond with anybody.’

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