Anyone who's currently maintaining a long-distance friendship likely experienced a common situation toward the beginning of the pandemic. "At the start of all this, it was sort of like there was a winnowing of the gap between long-distance and close friendships, because we were all interacting via technology," Dr. Marisa G. Franco, psychologist and friendship expert, tells The Zoe Report over the phone. "So I think there was initially a surge of people interacting with their long-distance friends. But then, I think for a lot of people, Zoom fatigue set in and now it's become harder and harder to keep in touch via technology."
If you're anything like me, you may not have noticed that fatigue at first. There was a canceled video meeting here, a little less texting there, but no major changes in day-to-day interactions with friends. But as the months went by, Zoom lost its allure, any future travel plans evaporated, and I started to realize that the closeness I had with my far-away friends was starting to evaporate, and honestly, I didn't know how to stop it.
Since very few are spared from the effects this year has had on day-to-day life, I figured I wasn't the only person struggling to maintain my long-distance friendships in the age of COVID-19. So, I reached out to Dr. Franco to get her tips on what to do if you start to feel your intimacy slipping away — and how to emerge out of this time feeling closer to your friends than ever. Her suggestions, ahead.
Maintaining Long-Distance Friendships: Find Ways To Affirm Each Other
According to Dr. Franco, the more interaction you have with your friends, the more you maintain your friendships. That said, how you go about your interactions is just as important.
One way to make them meaningful is to find ways to affirm each other, like saying that you've missed them or that you've been wondering how your friend is doing. "Showing care and concern for each other, like being really happy for one another's success, is a great predictor of how satisfied we are in our friendships," says Dr. Franco.
Dr. Franco also says that prosocial behaviors — like being helpful and looking out for ways to help others and treat them really well — can be helpful in maintaining long-distance friendships. That can include things like gift-giving — such as sending a housewarming present to a friend that just moved — but it's really just about going out of your way to show your friends how much you care.
Maintaining Long-Distance Friendships: Show Vulnerability
While it may feel like pouring your heart out to your friends just overwhelms them, Dr. Franco explains that it can actually have the opposite effect. "People think that vulnerability burdens people, but when you're vulnerable with someone, you convey to them that you trust them and that actually makes people closer to one another." In fact, she says, research finds that "people like people more when they're vulnerable with them," so that sense of openness is actually a great way to maintain a friendship.
"So, if you're struggling getting through this pandemic, tell your friends about it," she says. "Don't try to pretend everything's alright, because you're keeping them at more of a distance." And, don't forget to encourage them to open up to you as well; make sure when you're telling them about yourself, you check in with them and ask them how they're really doing, too.
Maintaining Long-Distance Friendships: Embrace Different Mediums Of Connection
Often, people who have social media use the platforms to interact with their friends — and contrary to popular belief, that can be a valuable way of keeping in touch. "I know there's this way we feel like, 'Oh that's not real interaction,' but the research finds that commenting on your friend's page actually does make them feel more connected to you," says Dr. Franco. "If they post something on Instagram and you comment, 'Hey I miss you, you look fabulous, let's catch up whenever we're both free,' that actually does provide some sort of glue for the relationship."
So, she says, be open to using all viable ways to connect — and if one feels like too much for you right now (ahem, Zoom) "make sure there are other mediums where you're sharing love for your friend."
Maintaining Long-Distance Friendships: Assess Your Role
If you've ever thought, "My friend always reaches out first so I don't need to," you may be making a common relationship mistake, according to Dr. Franco. "I think sometimes we get into roles," she says. "Like this is the friend that reaches out and this is the friend that doesn't reach out, and so we sort of assume that one friend won't have to do any of the work and the other friend will have to do all of the work."
According to Dr. Franco, those roles can become sort of a crutch, which can be harmful to relationships because the person doing the work can feel as if they're in a non-reciprocal friendship.
"It's easy to not notice when people are reaching out to you when you're not reaching out to them," she continues. "So be intentional about evaluating your friendships, and think about how you can try to reach out more and make sure you're showing that investment in the relationship."
Maintaining Long-Distance Friendships: Schedule Time To Talk
It's normal if your group chat has been unusually quiet lately, but if you want to avoid that communication drop off, scheduling regular interactions is a good way to go about it. For Dr. Franco, that meant setting up a monthly meeting to talk with her friends. "So now we don't have to go out of our way and plan, and say, 'Hey, is everybody free at this time?' It's already there, it's in our calendars, and we've set aside that time."
Essentially, avoiding those long periods of radio silence boils down to changing our behaviors, she says. For this scenario, that involves "planning ahead of time, setting a specific date and time when you're going to [talk], and making it as easy as possible. Then it's just easier to follow through with it."