Has the pandemic changed our friendships forever?

Tina Charisma
·5-min read
Photo credit: OLI SCARFF
Photo credit: OLI SCARFF

The pandemic has presented one of the biggest social challenges ever faced by modern friendships. It hasn't been easy to conduct our entire social lives online. While the last 12 months would have been infinitely harder without Zoom, FaceTime and Whatsapp, they are no substitutes for being able to see loved ones IRL. Technology often gives the impression of false closeness that can lead to a lack of effort in day-to-day relationships. Then there are the riffs that have been caused by perceived flouting of the lockdown rules. Judgements have been cast and respect for others lost. The pandemic has made us feel grouchy, fearful and fed-up, all ample breeding ground for arguments and hot-headed reactions.

Coronavirus has undoubtedly transformed our social interactions and circles, but to what extent? We have all been physically cut off from loved ones, so how has it changed the way we see our friends? According to UCL’s Covid-19 social study into wellbeing and mental health during the lockdown, 22 per cent of people reported that their friendships outside the household worsened. Younger adults were most likely to report a worsening of relationships, while older adults were least likely to report a change.

Friendships, like romantic relationships, are subject to various external forces that either strengthen or chip away their quality. They must be developed and require intentionality even if that comes more naturally to some than others. A mismatch between the social connection we desire and the amount that the environment provides can leave us feeling lonely or even depressed.

While Covid-19 has applied pressure to our friendships, it has also proven their importance. The research was already there long beyond the pandemic – close friendships boost life expectancy. Researched conducted by Harvard University in 2017 indicated that meaningful social connections play an important role in health, happiness, and longevity. In 2015 British-Swiss writer Johann Hari said during his TED talk that, “the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection.” Whenever we deny the connection, we deny the medicine that can save us. There is ample evidence that shows that healthy, close friendships do us better than we realise.

Photo credit: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank - Getty Images
Photo credit: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank - Getty Images

“Socially and culturally, for many people, friendships have either for the first time taken on deeper meaning and value or for others has caused a revival or return to their prior value and appreciation for relationships,” psychologist Dr Thema told us. “Relationships can be therapeutic sites of healing. As we connect, we feel seen, known, understood, and valued. As the African proverb teaches, ‘I am because we are.’ In our connection to each other, we discover new aspects of ourselves.”

My experience of lockdown helped me learn an important lesson of how steadfast or fragile friendship can be. Like many people who lost loved ones during the pandemic, I went into a very low period dealing with the combination of the death of loved ones, isolated alone in my apartment, and the struggle of absorbing a lot of what was going on around me - the burden of an empath. Next came the racial reckoning of summer 2020, which left me emotionally drained. In a short space of time, my much-needed space of peace segued into an overwhelming sense of grief, a period that changed what I value in a friend. I learnt the difference between acquaintances that I had developed social bonds with from countless engagements over the years versus those who were able to relate to every aspect of my life and could still hold space for me as I did for them, irrespective of what was going on around the world. Those calibre of friends are very few, and all the more precious for their rarity.

I grew close to people I had never before connected with because of my hectic pre-pandemic life. I had enriching conversations with my neighbour who I will forever call my ‘pandemic survival buddy’. Together, we shared long evening walks, a lot of cake and countless chocolate exchanges. I returned to old, estranged friendships as we found creative ways to come together, even with different time zones. Whether we wanted it or not, time was finally something we had in abundance, and it gave us the opportunity to talk and catch up. Having spent most parts my life in different countries for various reasons, it became apparent how dispersed my friendship circles were. More effort was required to maintain them, but their importance was never clearer to me than it was mid-pandemic when the chips were down.

I was reminded that friendship and compassion come can often come in unexpected forms and each need to be appreciated and openly received. My year of grief slowly transformed into an important life lesson of gratitude. Friendships don’t always come from the places you expect, but it was the least expected people who were ready to support and uplift me this year.

Photo credit: Moviestore/Shutterstock
Photo credit: Moviestore/Shutterstock

Our understanding of friendship is ever evolving but learning to be a better friend will become an important aspect of our post-pandemic life. Perhaps it will involve finding creative ways to connect with those that are far from us, or just genuinely staying present for the those we love even if it is just for a few minutes. Perhaps it’s making time to talk to our neighbour. Perhaps it’s about realising that we don’t need a huge friendship circle, just a few really strong social connections that will see us through the hardest of times. Maya Angelou’s poem Alone sums it up best:

“I came up with one thing
And I don't believe I'm wrong
That nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.”

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