Our friendships have suffered over the last year of lockdowns and social distancing, and one expert has warned it might not be as easy as we hoped for our friendships to return to normal now coronavirus restrictions are beginning to ease.
Professor Robin Dunbar, professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Oxford, says that our inner circle of five special friends and family, (our "shoulders to cry on"), are the ones that have the biggest impact on our health and wellbeing.
But in order to reap the benefits of these relationships, we need to be investing in them.
"You need to contact those five closest friends at least once a week to keep the friendship functioning," he writes in the Daily Mail.
"Drop below that level, and the friendship will slowly but surely fade away.
"After two or three years of not seeing someone they will rank among your acquaintances rather than your friends."
Dr Dunbar says regular relationship check-ins can work wonders for our wellbeing, and others echo his view on this point.
"Contact with friends is really important for mental health, happiness and stability," explains Neil Wilkie, a psychotherapist and founder of online relationship therapy platform The Relationship Paradigm.
"Friends provide support and challenge to help us grow, flourish and achieve a fulfilling life."
Dr Elena Touroni, consultant psychologist and co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic, agrees that regular contact with close friends can provide important benefits for our mental health.
"We’re social beings designed to connect," she explains. "Back in the day, being part of a social group was key to our survival - and nowadays it’s just as vital for our mental and emotional wellbeing.
"Keeping in regular contact and sharing our thoughts and experiences with those we care about is paramount for our health and happiness."
The impact lockdown has had on friendships
Our lives have changed immensely over the past year and this has had a major impact on our ability to keep in regular contact with our closest friends.
"Lockdown has caused many people to withdraw physically into a safe space at home, without the stimulation of going to work and out to the gym, bars, restaurants and theatres," explains Wilkie.
"Emotionally, people have retreated into the sanctuary of social media and online interactions. Their lives have been expressed through emojis rather than laughter, tears and hugs.
"This means that the strength and range of friendship connection has become more superficial and habitual.
"Lockdown has also increased the need for close friendships because of the isolationship, loneliness, fear and boredom."
And, of course, who we count as our closest friends may have actually changed over the past year.
"This has been a time when really good friends have come to the fore and casual friends may have faded," adds Wilkie.
"Regular contact on social media may mean that someone out there has awareness of you, but a Facebook 'like' can be very transitory and meaningless."
Watch: Friendships are being tested during the pandemic.
What if the thought of contacting five friends every week makes you feel stressed?
Pascale Lane, therapeutic relationship and life coach and author of How to be Happy in Life and Love, believes that while regular contact is important for friendships - there is no magic formula for how often you need to be in touch to maintain a strong relationship.
"I certainly agree that meeting with and keeping in touch with your friends is essential for good mental health, which, in turn, can impact on our physical wellbeing," she explains.
"However, to say that we need to be keeping in touch with our five closest friends every week seems quite arduous to me and could come with its own complications.
"Not to mention whether or not everyone has five close friends and what this means if they don’t."
Lane says the coronavirus pandemic may have impacted our ability to check in with our friends.
"Working and juggling family life has not been easy and having to consider keeping in touch with my five closest ones just seems like too much hard work; plus puts pressure on them too," she explains.
"My friends have all been spinning on the spot this year and it's so important that when any of us speak with our friends, it is a relaxed and happy experience; lockdown or no lockdown."
Additionally, Lane points out that how we conduct our friendships has to work for us as individuals.
"Some friends maintain a very strong bong by contacting each other daily, others weekly, some monthly. It’s whatever works best," she continues.
Besides, says Lane, true friendship will withstand a bit of distance.
"Far more important is the quality of the friendship and the time you have together, not necessarily the frequency," she adds.
"It’s certainly got me thinking about my closest five. Maybe a bit more regular text contact would work but I dare say more than that would put me in a head-spin, and I’m sure I’m not alone."
How can we reboot our friendships now that lockdown is easing?
Whether you believe you need to get in touch with your closest friends every week or you're a little more laissez-faire with how you conduct your friendships, there are still some ways you can reboot relationships that have become a bit neglected.
Make regular and direct contact with people
Now that we can meet up with people, it’s about re-strengthening these connections in-person. "Arrange a regular meet up, whether it’s a weekly walk in the park or regular after-work drinks in your local," suggests Dr Touroni.
Always ask: 'How are you, really?'
Many people have struggled during the pandemic, but some are likely to have suffered more than others. "Make sure you check-in with your friends about how they’ve been coping - and always 'ask twice'," Dr Touroni suggests.
Try exercising together
"Exercising with friends is a great way to strengthen your commitment (and make sure you do it!) but it can also be a bonding experience - and one which is centred on a healthy, positive activity," Dr Touroni says.
Ask intentional questions
The best friendships have a strong emotional connection. "To feel more connected to the people you care about, skip the small talk and ask intentional questions like, 'what do you feel most grateful for?' or 'what do you value most in a friendship?'" Dr Touroni says.
If you’re struggling, speak up
Friendships can suffer when things get left unsaid. "If you’re feeling anxious about meeting up again socially, make sure you vocalise it to those you trust," Dr Touroni says.
Reflect on your friendships
We are beginning to come out from the tunnel into the light after an unexpectedly long and difficult journey during which "we have learned more about ourselves and our needs of friends," explains Wilkie.
He says that rather than continuing with the same friends and the same patterns but with more face-to-face contact, now is a good time to reflect on:
· What our needs are now from our friends
· What we learned through lockdown about our own needs
· What we learned about the needs of our friends
· What we did well and what should we have done more of
· What our friends did well and what should they have done more of
· Who surprised you and has become a closer friend
Reassess your inner friendship circle
"Imagine all your friends are standing outside your home. Who now would you invite in for a special party and who would you leave out?" asks Wilkie.
Once you've answered this question:
· Meet your ‘new’ list of close friends, maybe one-on-one for a drink, a meal, a walk and share your lockdown stories, your feelings and your desires for the future
· Apologise if you feel that you have failed them and ask for what you would like from them in the future
· Agree a plan for when, where and how you want to meet or talk to nurture the friendship
· Enjoy your friendships!