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How Covid-19 is breaking up friendships

The pandemic has not just kept us physically distant, it has created new gulfs between old friends.

By Sophie McBain

On the final night before the second lockdown, I sat outside for dinner with one of my oldest friends and received a huge telling off. I was useless with my phone, she said, and needed to get better at texting back. She thought I needed to be more open with her. I instinctively clammed up. The conversation could, I realised, have escalated into a huge row, one less about the particulars of our friendship than about the general strain of the pandemic. We were both feeling aggrieved. We were stressed out, prickly and quick to take offence. We are all, another friend later diagnosed, a bit “Covid-crazy” at this point. 

“What friendship is there for, what it is about from an evolutionary point of view, is to be there for one another in difficult times,” Lydia Denworth, the author of Friendship, The Evolution, Biology and Extraordinary Power of Life’s Fundamental Bond, told me. And yet, because friendship has until recently been relatively neglected by researchers, we know little about how these social bonds fare during periods of hardship. When does a crisis bring friends closer together, and when does it drive a wedge between them?

The pandemic has not just kept us physically distant, it has created new gulfs between old friends. Small differences in lifestyle have been magnified: between those who are living alone and those with caring responsibilities, those who have lost their jobs and those who are busier than ever, those who spent lockdown cramped and uncomfortable and those who posted on Instagram from sprawling country homes. Differences in temperament that hardly mattered before can come to feel insurmountable: between those who are terrified of catching the virus and are following stringent social distancing measures, and those who think the whole thing is overblown and wish everyone would loosen up. Last month hundreds of people wrote in to BuzzFeed to describe how once-close friendships and family ties have ruptured during the pandemic. Inconsistent Covid-19 guidelines and rampant misinformation means that most people are “winging it, choosing to do what feels safest to them personally”, BuzzFeed observed, which is why we are in such disagreement.

“The joke is that you have to navigate friendship the same way you navigate consent in a sexual relationship,” Denworth said. “You have to have an open and honest conversation about risk tolerance and how you want to handle things. And some people are handling that better than others. I’m hearing a lot of people say that they are seeing their friends’ true colours.” 

Other, non-Covid-related disagreements can easily blow up into bigger problems, or at least continue to niggle, when we have so few other distractions, a phenomenon that New York magazine recently captured with a piece titled “Are all my friends mad at me?” Small misunderstandings, such as a misinterpreted text message, that could be cleared up easily face-to-face, are left to fester. And research has shown that when we feel lonely – as many of us are – we are more likely to interpret interactions with friends negatively, and so loneliness often begets loneliness. 

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[see also: How loneliness became an epidemic]

The Oxford anthropologist, Robin Dunbar, argued in a paper published by the Royal Society in August that as the pandemic drags on, our friendship circles may be permanently reshaped. Dunbar is known for the “Dunbar number”, his contention that humans’ brains limit the number of friends and acquaintances we can maintain relationships with to 150. In the paper he observed that beyond our most intimate circle of five to 15 close friends and relatives, most of our relationships die within months if we are not interacting frequently. The longer we must practise social distancing, the harder it will be to rekindle our relationships with lower-tier friends: the people you only see at parties, the colleague you are vaguely friendly with, gym buddies and choir friends. Older people, who find it harder to make new friends, may find that their social networks shrink permanently. Depressingly, even before the pandemic, a 2019 YouGov survey found that 15 per cent of Britons said they had no close friends, and 8 per cent said they had no friends at all.

[see also: Rosena Allin-Khan’s Diary: Pandemic loneliness, and my shifts on the NHS front line]

When people lose friends, there are public health consequences. It is now increasingly recognised that social connections are critical for our physical as well as our emotional well-being: loneliness is said to be as bad for one’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Less widely acknowledged is that the quality of our friendships is important, too. 

According to Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University, on average around half of people’s friendships or family bonds are ambivalent, that is, characterised by both positive and negative emotions. Your ambivalent friend might be funny and warm but also insensitive and unreliable. You love them, and you also resent them. 

Her research has found that while supportive relationships can protect us against stress, ambivalent ones increase it. For instance: interactions with ambivalent ties seem to increase blood pressure much more than interactions with people we don’t like at all. The same research paper indicates that we are less likely to turn to our ambivalent friends in times of stress and, when we do, we tend to find them less supportive. “We’ve found that having mixed feelings towards friends is not only not helpful but may actually be a source of stress in our lives,” Holt-Lunstad told me. “And that’s challenging, because we care about these people on some level. So, we maintain these relationships.”

The brutal response might be a friendship cull. To some extent, we might be doing so naturally as, now that our social lives are artificially limited, we focus our attention on those we feel closest to and the friends who make us feel better, rather than worse. As Denworth put it to me: “I find myself coming down on the side of, you know, maybe a silver lining in all this is it’s helped us to separate the wheat from the chaff.”

The response that comes more naturally to me is to try to improve, rather than abandon, friendships that have come under strain. Researchers don’t yet know exactly why some people have more ambivalent bonds than others, or how to turn “frenemies” into friends, but Holt-Lunstad speculated that it may be a matter of doing things that help us make friends in the first place: offering support to others, expressing gratitude, practising compassion and empathy. A little more generosity and compassion never did any harm, after all. And so, although I needed to cool off before I could admit it, my friend was right that I should have checked in with her more. 

[see also: Inside the infodemic: Coronavirus in the age of wellness]