The pandemic tested our friendships. Which ones will survive?

By Lydia Denworth | June 19, 2021 | Globe and Mail | Topics: Emotions and Relationships, Social Behavior


Back at the very beginning of the pandemic, when no one had cancelled anything yet but we were eyeing the headlines with a growing dread, I noticed a detail buried in the news here in New York. Our second case had just been reported. Unlike the first (a health care worker who had been travelling in Iran), this one was alarmingly local – a lawyer who lived in the suburb of New Rochelle but worked in Midtown and had travelled exactly nowhere. Before anyone knew what he had, the lawyer had passed the virus to nearly everyone around him. His family got sick, his colleagues got sick and his friends got sick, including the friend who drove him to the hospital.

There was much that was distressing in that story, but the detail that stuck with me was the friend who drove him to the hospital. I had spent the five years before the pandemic writing about the science of friendship. Roughly 40 years ago, researchers first uncovered a link between social relationships and health. They found that people with strong friendships tend to live longer than those who are lonely and isolated. The reason, they suspected, was that friends provide “social support” – an ear, a shoulder, a casserole or … a ride to the hospital should you need to go.

More recent research shows that, while the social support theory holds true, the benefits of friends reach deeper still, into our very molecules. Friendship boosts our cardiovascular and immune systems, lowers our risk of dementia or depression, improves our stress responses and the quality of our sleep. Loneliness and social isolation do the opposite. Even among baboons, animals with the strongest positive bonds live longer. And monkeys cannot drive each other anywhere. What they do is protect each other from predators and help each other find food. Nevertheless, a ride to the hospital neatly epitomizes what friends are all about: care, help when you need it, a willingness to go out of the way. Friends get us through the hard times.

Was that going to change if we were terrified of coming near our friends? If giving anyone a ride anywhere meant risking your life? How would we help each other now? What would the pandemic do to friendship?

Now we know. Friendship survived the pandemic, but not unscathed. Our social circles contracted to the four walls of our homes and to our screens. Forced to live in bubbles, we focused on the people closest to us. Second and third level friends – fellow parents at your children’s school, colleagues in different departments, that guy you always joked with at the gym – disappeared. New friends? They were as hard to come by as yeast and toilet paper. Instead, we got nostalgic. There was a rash of Zoom reunions for former classmates, teammates and colleagues. Geography, at least, was no constraint. Technology was our lifeline, but also a laggy reminder of all we had lost.

Here in New York, most people I know are now fully vaccinated and so am I. It feels like I am stepping, blinking, onto the threshold of my old life and my new life simultaneously. I find myself pausing. The pandemic enforced a rare stillness, a slowing down. Quite a few people have told me they can’t quite imagine going back to the hectic lives they led before, running from one social engagement to another. Others cannot wait for the parties.

Either way, I suggest we put back the pieces of our social lives with care and intent. We have a rare opportunity to reset our relationships. If we do it well, we can refresh our friendships, strengthening the ones that matter and releasing the ones that don’t. The science of friendship provides a useful guide to how to make the most of this opportunity, before we get sucked into our old way of operating.

Here’s an uncomfortable truth: Not all friendships are equal. Some sustain us, some drain us and most fall somewhere in between. A second truth: Pandemic or no pandemic, each of us has a limited number of hours available and we can’t devote the same amount of time to everyone.

Source: iStock

Psychologists sometimes use concentric circles to help people visualize their social lives. Who’s in the inner circle? Fewer people than you might think. Most of us have somewhere between two and six intimates, a mix of friends and family members. Chances are those are the people you turned to in lockdown. You lived with them, or they were on your text chains, your outdoor walks and your Zoom happy hours. You couldn’t imagine not calling them regularly. That is as it should be. These are the most important people in your life.

But it is important to choose these people carefully. Science has clarified that quality friendships – the ones that are good for your health – share three minimum requirements. Good friendships are long-lasting and stable. They build on each encounter to develop a depth of understanding. Good friendships are also positive. They make us feel good. And good friendships are co-operative. They involve give and take and that all-important willingness to help. Everything else you think of when you think of your friends – trust, loyalty, fun, companionship – fits pretty neatly into these three buckets.

The goal now should be to focus much of our time and energy on the friendships that meet this definition. You know who already does that? Older adults. Social circles tend to get smaller as we age. We spend a lot of time worrying about this because loneliness is a serious health risk for everyone, but especially for older people who have lost loved ones and live alone. But the fact is that many older adults have smaller social circles by design. They know who really matters to them and they spend their precious time on those people more than anyone else.

Instinctively, the rest of us do this at least a little bit. Sociologists have found that no matter how the world changes around us – increased mobility, technological innovations, global pandemics – we protect our core relationships. We should keep on doing that.

That said, more distant relationships have their own charms and benefits. These are the relationships – at the outer reaches of our concentric social circles – that suffered most over the past 18 months. Such friendships depend on circumstance, and circumstances just didn’t allow for them. These are the people you used to see in the breakroom or at your favourite bar, but whom it would have been downright weird to call during a lockdown, if you even knew their numbers.

Yet such people provide a bridge to new information and ideas. They prevent us from getting stale and insular by only talking to the same four people. They often point us toward job opportunities or available sublets or the daughter of a former classmate’s cousin who’s free to babysit/house-sit/cat-sit right when you’re looking for a babysitter/house-sitter/cat-sitter. These friends broaden our horizons in every sense.

The problem is we’re out of practice making conversation with them. So much so that as I’ve started to bump into some of these casual friends again, I find I’ve forgotten their names or the names of their children or how we know each other. Nonetheless, I plan to weather the embarrassing moments and keep at it.

In truth, we’re rusty at many of the rituals of friendship, not just small talk. As we work to regain our social skills, it’s a good moment to look in the mirror and ask ourselves how good a friend we have been to others in the past. It’s easy to focus on what other people do for us, but we rarely assess our own behaviour. Nearly all of us could do better.

Fortunately, that working definition of a good friendship – one that is stable, positive and co-operative – offers clues on how to be a good friend. It suggests trying to be a steady reliable presence in friends’ lives by showing up (in person where possible, via technology otherwise), and by noticing and responding to what is happening in friends’ lives. The definition reminds us to look for opportunities to be kind and thoughtful and make friends feel appreciated. And it nudges us to be a little more helpful, to reciprocate and hold up our end, and to be mindful of who does most of the talking and who does most of the listening in a relationship.

The end of the pandemic is the perfect time to acknowledge that our friendship muscles have atrophied or maybe even that they were a little slack before the world shut down, and then to get to work making them stronger.

On the other hand, if we’re honest, there were some people we didn’t miss. And there were relationships that did not weather the trials and tribulations of pandemic life well. Navigating friendship over the past year and a half was like navigating consent in a sexual relationship – it required trust and a respect for other people’s boundaries. The people who handled that well are keepers. The others, not so much.

It isn’t always easy to recognize when a friendship has run its course, but once again, the three-part definition of friendship is helpful. Without all three elements – stability, positivity, co-operation – a relationship probably isn’t serving one or both of the people involved. Shared history alone is not enough. And a relationship that is lopsided – all take and no give on one side – will not stand the test of time.

The same line of research that shows how critical good friendships are for our health has shown that toxic relationships are terrible for us (not a huge surprise) and ambivalent relationships – the kind with some pros, some cons – are also bad for our health (more surprising).

There will probably never be a better opportunity than right now to shed unhealthy friendships. It’s better not to just disappear, though if that feels like the only option, this is probably the moment. When there’s something in a friendship worth salvaging, a hard conversation – the kind we usually avoid having with friends but should not – is in order. There isn’t much to lose by trying. Another approach is to mentally shuffle the furniture of our social lives, moving some friends to circles further out. This is an emotional reprioritization – a note to yourself not to spend quite as much time with someone or to put up with quite as much nonsense. Friendship takes energy and the people who sustain rather than drain us deserve the lion’s share of our attention.

When my book on the science of friendship was published early last year, about six weeks before the pandemic was declared, I thought my task was going to be to convince everyone of the value of their friendships, and that they were worth prioritizing. Too often, in the Before Times, we said we cared about our friends, but they were often the first thing to go. We ditched them when we fell in love. We put work and family obligations ahead of friendship. I remember in particular an attempt at a 2019 reunion of my college girlfriends that fell apart because we were all just so busy. If only we’d known what lay ahead.

Of course, work and family and love are all important, but I think that was not the only thing at play. Hanging out with friends feels like fun and, therefore, it feels indulgent. It is not. The science is clear. Hanging out with friends is not a luxury, it’s a necessity.

When the world went into lockdown, it delivered my message more emphatically than I ever could have. We didn’t know what we had until it was gone.

But now we do know what we missed. It’s time to mend our ways – to choose our friends with care, and then to deliberately and joyously embrace them, trying hard never to forget how much we missed them.

Those college friends of mine have begun to talk of a postpandemic reunion. I think this time everyone will show. I know I will.