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International friendship day: Has the pandemic ruined our relationships?

·3-min read
Have your friendships suffered this year? (ES Composite)
Have your friendships suffered this year? (ES Composite)

The last 18 months have turned our worlds upside down, physically, emotionally and mentally — but you know this already. Everyone has experienced a different version of the pandemic; I lost my father at the beginning of the first lockdown. Weeks later, my best friend gave birth to her first child. Unexpectedly joyous micro weddings followed a painful funeral on Zoom. Furlough has ended in redundancy for one friend, while another received the biggest pay rise of her life. House purchases have fallen through for some, as others decamped to Lisbon — and that’s just my friendship circle.

Our relationships have transformed as a result. Despite the life changes we’ve faced, a year-and-a-half of an empty social calendars and the monotony of a new daily routine means many of us feel we have nothing exciting to report. While the impromptu feel-good pub session, my ultimate friendship cure-all, is making a return, months without it has been distracting, in some ways devastating. RIP spontaneity.

And as we sleepwalk through the summer, the reminder that we’ve missed various gargantuan milestones usually celebrated together, or drowned sorrows over, is making us feel even more out of kilter, stirring up fears of what Elle magazine has called “friendship fade” and The Cut describes as “friendship paranoia.” A colleague tells me her B-list — or is the kinder term, “second” circle? — friends have become A-list, purely based on geography, with those further away still recalibrating, readjusting to travel. And then there are those who have been secretly revelling in the fact that they just don’t have to see anyone anymore. For one friend, lockdown freed her of the shackles of a heavily planned social life and, frankly, she was here for it.

“Friendships have been quite surprising, lots of people say they’ve got closer to friends that they weren’t that close to before and other friends have found that the ones they thought might be more around for them haven’t necessarily been there,” says, Dr Radha Modgil, GP and Life Hacks podcast host. “One reason for this is different peoples’ attitude to risk [to the virus]. We’ve seen people tailoring themselves more to friends who have a similar attitude. It’s also about how people connect usually. If you’re someone who is not great on text and only really feels comfortable having meaningful conversations face-to-face, that can create a barrier. Each of us has been going through massive life changes and we all react to stress differently. If you haven’t heard from someone for a while it’s probably more about what they’re going through than anything you have done.”

This resonates. As someone known to be a bit flakey, I felt the consequence of not being a social planner in lockdown. I can count the number of socially-distanced walks I took with a friend on one hand. The brief moments of normality over last summer were a lifeline, but those memories are fading fast. Life is returning now, but not all of it. I fear drifting from the close friend who’s had a daughter (who I see only on Instagram). I’m sad that my other friend’s toddler, who I’ve not been able to cuddle since last March, doesn’t know who I am. Will my friends and I drift apart permanently? Are friendships everywhere gasping for air?

The pause was a time to take stock of friendships, and some people used the time to weed out their circles, says Modgil. “There shouldn’t be any shame or judgement internally if you want to step away from certain friendships.”

Some are returning now, others not. But perhaps the best thing to take out of this hellish 18 months is a reminder to be your own best friend. “Looking after yourself leaves you in a better place to be a good friend,” Modgil continues. “Reassess the balance between the energy you conserve for yourself and the energy you give to your friendships.”

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