Written by Rose Downton
Design by Abigail Waters
When COVID-19 hit and the country plunged into lockdown, a lot of what we’d previously taken for granted disappeared overnight; our lives were webs of sociability and fun activities, and all of a sudden we only had whoever we lived with to provide us with social stimulation. Though the lack of contact from family and romantic partners has been widely talked about, there is another thing that got removed from everyone’s lives which had an equal impact: friendships.
Friends are our chosen family. For many, the inability to meet up with friends (or later on only at a distance) had huge effects on their friendships. Whilst they might not possess the determined longevity of family ties, or the emotional punch of romantic relationships, they are still massively important, especially where individuals lack other connections. But, are friendships still able to survive when there is no face-to-face connection? Or when people’s mental health was, and still is, affected so intensely by the pandemic?
Thanks to social media, keeping in contact was made a lot easier. Instead of all contact being cut completely, it was reduced to online messaging and an influx of Zoom calls. In the pandemic, social media became more important than ever, as a way to check up on friends and keep them up to date.
For me, though, it was hard to keep up a lively conversation when so little was happening in our lives. Our news to share had once been unique and exciting, now we were all living the same day basically on repeat. Although Zoom quizzes and Netflix parties had the appeal of being fun and new at the start, they quite quickly became a little stale and overdone, and not a close substitute for the real thing.
For more of an insight on this, I asked some of my friends what their opinions were on the pandemic affecting their friendships.
For most, university or long-distance friendships were those that suffered the most. The transition to seeing each other nearly every day to infrequent messages meant they quickly felt emotionally distanced, and had less to say to one another. On the other hand, home friendships were able to develop, especially once meeting at a distance was permitted.
Personally, I don’t often see my home friends as much as I’d like when we’re back from university, because people are busy with jobs or family events. With most things cancelled, though, we all had little else to focus on but each other, provoking a lot of picnics and walks. It seemed to be a simpler way of living, like we’d gone back a few decades time, when people actually did things together outside rather than preferring watching TV or being stuck to their phones. A nice side-effect was spending a lot more time in nature, which people can forget to do if all their social interactions are hastily planned coffee dates or lunches.
Another of my friends noticed she quickly became unused to socialising in big groups, so when larger groups were allowed to meet outside she felt intimidated. After not seeing people in the flesh for so long, it felt odd to be talking in real life again. Due to social distancing, we would arrange ourselves in large circles on the grass, and you almost had to shout to be heard, adding to the unnaturalness of the meet-up. She worried she was losing her ability to be social and talk to new people, because she’d become so out of practise with it. Another friend noticed that these large circle arrangements made her feel upset, as physical contact, to her, is a big part of a friendship. With hugs banned, she felt still separated from people.
What I thought was interesting, was something my friend Becky said. To her, the strength of friendships were proved when people continued communicating the whole way through lockdown, because they were obviously prepared to put the effort in. Whilst, on some level, I do agree with this, as it’s nice that friends still want to talk during a pandemic, I don’t think it’s always true.
According to Mind.org.uk, more than half of adults and over two thirds of young people said that their mental health declined in lockdown. One way that increased anxiety or depression can manifest is a wish not to communicate, or to simply shut out technology to let our minds rest for a while. I found myself often turning my phone off completely over lockdown, to avoid incessantly checking the news or the gloomy posts on social media. Although I missed friends a lot, I knew communicating with them in that state probably wouldn’t be good for either of us.
As a result, expecting constant messaging from friends throughout the pandemic is probably unrealistic, and also has no correlation to how much effort they are willing to put in. If I didn’t hear from a close friend in a while, I would make a point to check up on them, but not to bombard them with messages or calls. Everyone has different ways with dealing with lockdown: some prefer the distraction of conversation, whilst others would rather retreat to calming activities like reading or exercise.
All in all, there is no easy way to navigate friendships in a situation as unprecedented as a global pandemic. With lots more local lockdowns currently in place and perhaps stricter measures coming in the future, many people will be feeling anxious once more about the effect of a second lockdown on their friendships and relationships.
Though I don’t speak for everyone, I think the best technique is to give people space, check up on them every now and then, and let friends know you are there for them if they need it. But, it is also incredibly important to look after yourself; if being on social media becomes draining, it’s important to let your friends know you will be off your phone for a while, and do something that makes you feel calmer.
There is no right or wrong way to preserve a friendship when physical contact is cut off, but the way to make a friendship even stronger is to look after one another as best as possible.