Romantic partnerships had their fair share of struggles presented by the pandemic over the past year — from accelerated closeness to economic hardships and so many more — but they’re far from the only relationships in your life that have likely been impacted during this time. Many friendships have also been affected by COVID, and that could mean you or your loved one has been without one of your support systems when you needed each other the most. So now that the world is (hopefully) heading towards a more social future again, where does that leave the friendships left in limbo? Mental health experts have a few suggestions — whether that means re-connecting with someone in a healthy way or leaving them in the past.
There have been countless ways that COVID may have caused issues between even the closest of friends, from conflicting beliefs about safety practices or simply lack of getting to spend much face time together. And you may not have even had a single fight: The stress and anxiety of the situation alone has left some people struggling internally and made them isolate even further. “I've certainly seen some major changes in friendships this past year,” explains Dr. Lauren Cook, therapist, speaker and author. “People are much less close than they used to be. Absence does not necessarily make the heart grow fonder — if anything, it seems to breed social apathy. Many of my clients have lost motivation and gotten out of practice when it comes to cultivating their friendships. When we're not regularly engaging with our friends, we start to forget that we even miss having friends because we've gotten so used to living without them.”
In extreme cases, this divide may have even led to you and your friend actually experiencing a sort of break up. And Dr. Carla Manly, psychologist and author, adds that if one of you was also experiencing some issues within their romantic relationships, unfortunately it might be the friendship that’s put on the chopping block. “When a romantic relationship is the top priority, friendships and friendship concerns often take second or third place,” she says. “Given that the pandemic left many people feeling drained and exhausted, what limited emotional energy people have had was often directed first to romantic partners, family members, and then to friendships.”
This could explain some of the friendship divides you’ve experienced over the past year, but now that things are starting to shift (with the availability of vaccines and less restrictions to socialize), it could be time to reconsider some of your strained — or even estranged — friendships, or work on repairing them. So how do you move forward? Ahead, a few psychologists and therapists weigh in on some tactics to try if you want to strengthen your bond again, but aren’t sure where to start.
Friendships Affected By COVID: Pick Up The Phone
If you’ve been primarily communicating through texting, know that a lot can get lost in translation. For this reason, Dr. Cook suggests a good old fashioned phone call for a more intimate dialogue. “So much gets lost in text messages and it's easy for people to ghost one another,” she explains. “If you can't be in person, get the friend on the line in order to have a real conversation about where the friendship is at.”
Friendships Affected By COVID: Put It In Writing
If the person — or you — is resistant to get on the phone, Dr. Cook says putting your thoughts in writing, by way of a thoughtfully written note or card, could be a way for you to express yourself more freely. This also leaves them a little room to process. “Send a card in the mail and tell them that you miss them,” she suggests. “Letting the friend know that you're still here and that you want them in your life with some good old-fashioned snail mail goes further than you think.”
Friendships Affected By COVID: Get Creative With Quality Time
“For friendships that have been strained due to lack of time spent together, creativity may be necessary,” shares Saba Harouni Lurie, Owner and Founder of Take Root Therapy. “If you and your friends can’t see each other in person due to distance, vaccine status, or because the activities you are used to engaging in are not currently available, it may be time to think outside the box.” Try an interactive virtual date; the therapist suggests “cooking and eating a meal together remotely, watching a movie together while you’re both on the phone, or even singing karaoke through Zoom.”
Friendships Affected By COVID: Practice Compassion
With any of the aforementioned actions, Lurie notes that it’s important to always approach with compassion — as everyone has been affected by this pandemic differently, and you want to be as sensitive as possible. And this can especially be true if your main source of conflict has been differing opinions of values during this time (like not being in agreement about certain pandemic practices, for example). “It could be wise to do some perspective taking,” she says. “Can you try to have compassion for and to understand your friends decisions or beliefs? If you can, that may make it easier to try to find some common ground and to repair the friendship.”
Dr. Manly adds that showing compassion also means trying to curb any passive aggressive behaviors toward the other person. “If COVID issues — such as social distancing protocols —have affected a relationship, you can reconnect by addressing the issue directly in a nonjudgmental way,” she explains. “By avoiding blame or reigniting the issue, you can reconnect by naming the issue and offering to move forward in a positive way. For example, if beliefs around safety practices caused a rift, you might simply say, ‘I’m so glad we’re almost to the point of not having to worry about social distancing practices. I know that issue got in the way of our friendship, and I’m excited to get reconnected!’.”
Friendships Affected By COVID: Know That It’s A Two-Way Street
Just because you care about someone, doesn’t mean you should exhaust all your precious energy on them — especially if they’re not showing you that effort in return. “A friendship takes two people to make it work,” says Dr. Cook. “Don't blame yourself or beat yourself up if you're putting in all the effort and your friend isn't meeting you halfway. You deserve to have a friendship where each person is willing to lean in.”