Since March 2020, you might have experienced what one writer has dubbed 'friendship fade'. This is the feeling that your formerly tight connections, those that have been with you through countless birthday drinks and summer park hangs, are disappearing down a pit of silence as the shine on Zoom drinks thins.
Then there's what another journalist called 'friendship paranoia'. This, like you might guess, is a hum of fear that members of your circle are, for reasons unknown, mad at you – something that's never assuaged by a catch-up dinner in this age of social chasm.
'During the pandemic, friendships have been impacted from different angles,' says Dr Sula Windgassen (@the_health_psychologist) a health psychologist working in the NHS. 'We're all having our mental capacity tested or might be completely at the end of our tether, depending on your circumstance.'
Why is 'friendship fade' such a problem, right now?
This manifests in friendships in myriad ways. There's the obvious things, in that we can't see each other and maintain bonds as usual. A lack of much new to chat about can keep us from picking up the phone. And, while the start of the pandemic saw some element of novelty mean that we all took to virtual quizzes with zest, months down the road and with a lack of sunlight ending the day at 5pm, that vibe has died a death.
Then, of course, we're all riding this shaky pandemic wave, but some of us are doing it on a £500 surfboard and others on a few pieces of card scrapped together with Sellotape. Someone who is trying to clock a 40-hour week from a laptop, has a child and is grieving the death of a parent to the virus might have zero bandwith for joining your virtual book club; someone who is bored but gainfully employed and living in a spacious home with a partner they adore, might.
This could feed into another great divide: how to the letter you've followed the lockdown rules. 'With my clients, I've seen a polarisation of people who have gone even beyond what the government asked – not taking up the "rule of six" offer, for example, and those who might have been more relaxed. In any friendship group, there is usually a mix of personalities, and you're going to get a range of views: those who are very concerned with safety and social responsibility and those who feel that other things are more important.
'This is going to cause tension and might result in people thinking that, actually, they are not compatible with some friends. Between this and the fact that you might just have stopped chatting to people outside your very core crew, it's easy to see how people's circles might have been shaved down.'
Amid all of this stick, tending to your friendships, the ones that really matter, is vital. As Dr Windgassen notes, 'Humans are fundamentally social creatures and relationships are key to our wellbeing.'
Keep your people close, using the tricks below.
7 ways to nourish your friendships in the pandemic
1. Know that you don't have to be on your A game to chat
When you feel depleted, it can be easy to think 'I'll be no fun' and ask to reschedule a phone call with your best mate. 'We can have assumptions about how we should behave with friends,' explains Dr Windgassen. 'And, if we think we are not going to meet these standards, we might not want to mix. So there's an imagined negative outcome. But it's better to think: "what's the worst thing that could happen?" – that you hang up a little early?' You'll probably feel better for the conversation, so say you feel a bit low and go for it, anyway.
Similarly, if you're in a tricky situation – say you're a new parent – then adjust your standards, for a while. 'You might have traditionally had very high expectations of yourself, but things are different, now. It's okay to duck into someone's birthday Zoom with food on your top and greasy hair,' she adds.
2. Pick up the phone
On that note, while the thought of a Zoom cocktail party with multiple people can feel too draining to contemplate, a phone call with one other person is much less full on. 'There's a lot of reasons why we experience so-called "Zoom fatigue," including that battling with a load of voices on one call while videos freeze and the lag makes things awkward is tiring,' says Dr Windgassen.
'Re-learning the art of the simple phone conversation is a great idea in this situation.' Truly have nothing in the tank? Leave your pals a voice note checking in and sharing a fun memory, or somesuch. Hearing voices will enhance connection far better than typed out words ever will.
3. Schedule your social time
Say 'let's catch up this week!' via text and rest assured that your much-needed call will never happen. 'Now that time blends it's hard to schedule,' says Dr Windgassen. 'Say we'll chat at 3pm on Saturday and put it in your calendar, instead.'
4. Be romantic
We might take as a given that we perform small, romantic acts for a partner, whether it's making their favourite meal or finding the perfect surprise gift for their birthday. But bringing this into your friendships can be incredibly nourishing. 'Write a friend a postcard or have some of your favourite pictures of you together printed,' says Dr Windgassen. 'Creative ways to harness a sense of connection work. Surprise and thought resonate with people. It's good for you, too, as you anticipate how good they'll feel receiving it.'
5. Avoid WhatsApp arguments
If your friendships have mostly occurred over a crowded group chat for the past 10 months, then you'll know how easily what people say can be misinterpreted. 'You can't read tone over text and you can easily sound harsh when that was never your intention,' advises Dr Windgassen. 'I'm pretty friendly, but my word choice can be blunt. In-person, you'd hear my warm tone, but that doesn't translate when I type, for example.'
This is why, if a disagreement comes up, it's best to not ping back and forth. Instead, steer the conversation onto safer ground, or, if there is something that feels like it need to be hashed out, arrange a phone call.
6. Try to cut yourself - and your friends - some slack
Given the situation – and bearing in mind that some people are dealing with shaky finances, job losses and navigating working while trying to educate small humans – a lot of us are operating on a very short fuse, right now. 'We can think of pandemic as meaning that we are in a constant state of threat. Everything has changed and we don’t know what will happen, next,' says Dr Windgassen.
'So, in evolutionary terms, we might be in fight, flight or freeze. In friendships, 'fight' might manifest as being snappy with the other person; while 'flight' and 'freeze' might look like withdrawing.' The upshot? If you reach out to a mate and feel like they are a bit tense with you, or if you struggle to get a reply out of them on WhatsApp, know that they might well be having a knee-jerk response to a testing set of circumstances – and it's very probably not personal.
If they have spoken to you in a way that you don't feel is okay, though? 'In a polite – not passive-aggressive way – you could leave a voice note or message to say: "I know you are really stressed right now, but I find it difficult when I feel you are snapping at me, please could you try not to do that." '
Feel like you're the one who is hypersensitive or overreacts? 'What you might be dealing with is a build-up of stress that then spills over when you speak to someone. To release this accrual, make sure you take regular breaks from work on workdays, make time for things you enjoy like listening to music or go for a quick walk.'
7. Create boundaries
Saying that, it's important to have personal boundaries around the type of chats you can deal with, right now. 'For example, say you're really struggling, you might want to just let loose and talk it out with a friend. But they might rapidly go into problem-solving mode, giving you advice on what you can do. If that's not what you want, say: "I'm feeling low but you don't need to problem-solve right now, I just want to chat." '
If you're in a group chat, meanwhile, which is a hotbed of virus talk and makes you feel worse every time you look at it? 'It's okay to tell a group chat that you need to leave it for a little while, as the Covid chat is too much for you right now, not just to mute it for a while,' says Dr Windgassen.
'It's important that we all try to be flexible. We're all navigating this 'new normal' and a lot of us are feeling emotional.
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