At the beginning of 2020 I made an ill-fated proclamation that it would be the year of meeting new people and cultivating more meaningful friendships, having spent the last few years laser-focused on my career.
While I had never been more professionally fulfilled, my tunnel vision had taken a serious toll on my social life.
Just days prior to the first lockdown in Melbourne, I joined a new dance class, signed up to volunteer at a local community farm, and excitedly joined several groups on Meetup.
I’d grown apart from many of my childhood and school friends, so I hoped to form new adult friendships on a foundation of shared interests and values.
These plans swiftly disintegrated before my eyes as the global pandemic was declared, and soon even the social interaction I enjoyed at work was replaced by back-to-back Zoom meetings and half-hearted ‘checking in’ emails.
For many people, technology was a saving grace, allowing some level of communication and connection to continue.
Yet, as the months of stay-at-home orders rolled on, the idea of close, intimate friendships withstanding the crisis unscathed seemed an unlikely dream.
Chasing connection in a time of social distancing
Some friendships successfully adjusted to the new ‘normal’ of living through a pandemic, finding innovative ways to stay connected, like Facetime trivia nights and Netflix watch parties.
Yet for others, after months of being unable to catch up in person or enjoy shared experiences, a once-close friendship eventually dwindled to the odd text, posing the question: what are the reasons for this discrepancy?
Why did some friendships make it through the pandemic seemingly unaffected, or even becoming closer, while others slowly but surely drifted apart?
Some reasons for feeling disconnected from our friends were more obvious and universal – the activities that once bonded us, like going to restaurants or the theatre, were no longer available to us.
Travel restrictions also meant that, if all of your friends lived outside of your five- or 25-kilometre radius, there were long stretches of time where any face-to-face interaction with your social circle was effectively prohibited.
Anxiety and fear about the health risks, especially for vulnerable loved ones, caused many to turn inward, making it difficult to reach out for support or to check in on how friends were coping.
Against a backdrop of uncertainty, cancelled travel plans, and milestones like birthdays and anniversaries going uncelebrated, it’s not surprising that many friendships became casualties to the pandemic.
Did the pandemic ruin friendships, or just highlight existing red flags?
While the pandemic undeniably brought about new challenges for maintaining an active social life, for some it simply called attention to existing problems in the relationship.
The disruption to our usual routines highlighted or exacerbated issues in some friendships that existed long before life in lockdown.
This was especially evident for those whose friendships relied heavily on one person initiating conversation or outings, or picking up the slack for a flaky friend.
If the person usually doing the bulk of the legwork in a friendship is overwhelmed with work, homeschooling, or the exhaustion of constantly changing restrictions and medical advice, communication can quickly deteriorate.
Everyone handles times of crisis and change differently, and for some it was this incompatibility that put strain on their friendships.
Being unclear of your own coping mechanisms and those of your close friends, or failing to set clear boundaries around the friendship, can quickly give rise to falling out or resentment when times get tough.
I’ve always stubbornly tried to sort through my issues on my own, and while I know that reaching out is important, during the pandemic I found myself preemptively exhausted at the prospect of a drawn-out text message exchange.
With so little happening in our lives, the formulaic discussions about the state of the world felt repetitive, frustrating, and depressing.
My constant lethargy left me paralysed by guilt and worry that I would only bring others down with me if I engaged too deeply.
After all, if I couldn’t muster any enthusiasm to talk about my own life, how could I show genuine interest in theirs?
Conflicting interests and values in times of crisis
Restrictions on gatherings, declining social stamina, and technology fatigue aside, the pandemic also sparked debate on topics once considered unsuitable for social settings.
Suddenly, every interaction I had felt loaded with personal standpoints on vaccinations, preventative public health measures, and the age-old power struggle between economic agendas and protecting the most vulnerable members of our community.
I always suspected that some of my inner circle had values that conflicted with my own, but the privilege of our daily lives meant that we could usually get along without having to explicitly state our political views.
I feared sharing my views publicly, having received a tongue lashing from a friend of over 20 years for sharing a pro-vaccination message online.
I cringed whenever I saw people echoing conspiracy theories or protesting lockdown measures, only resulting in more restrictions and risk for everyone else abiding by the rules.
This frustration was shared by many, including celebrities like Jennifer Aniston, having openly cut ties with anyone refusing the COVID-19 vaccine.
While I had once held the view that friendships could withstand differing views, the high stakes and risk to human life made it increasingly difficult to show compassion to those putting myself and vulnerable loved ones in danger.
How to maintain healthy friendships during a pandemic
Many of us have felt increased loneliness or isolation during the COVID-19 crisis and are simultaneously struggling with the effort of sustaining our relationships.
However, the upside may be that we are learning how to express our boundaries and values to our friends for the very first time.
Discussing loaded issues, particularly when you don’t agree with each other, can be a valuable bonding experience when done with compassion and openness.
It has also been a time where brutal honesty about our daily struggles has brought some people closer together than ever.
Shedding away the layers of superficiality and routine that characterised some friendships before the pandemic has led to a greater understanding of our own personal values, and by extension, what we hope to find in a close friend.
Even if living more authentically costs us a few acquaintances or friendships along the way, in the end you are likely better off, having created space in your life to make new friends with whom you connect more deeply, and can trust to have your back in the face of whatever challenges life throws at you next.