How to Manage Friendships During COVID-19

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Now, more than ever, we need the support of our friends, but it can be tough to stay close when you can’t meet up in person. Here’s are some ways to nourish your friendships during in the era of safer-at-home.

By Abigail Bassett

SEP 24, 2020

Friendship is part of our essential nature — part of our lizard brain characteristics that drive us to form a community and a collective. Friendships can be nourishing, supportive, and they can make us feel whole and connected. Yet, in the modern era, fraught with deep political divides and the added danger of a deadly worldwide pandemic, friendships can also be fraught.

Sue Scheff is the author of Shame Nation: The Global Epidemic of Online Hate. She recently penned a story on Psychology Today on the unraveling of friendships during this time. “We have seen the unraveling of friendships during Covid-19 when people don’t agree on masks or whether they should be getting a hair-cut or going to restaurants,” she says. “The truth is, everyone has their own comfort level, we need to respect it, and if we don’t agree with it, we are witnessing (what was once close relationships) now crumble.”

Jenn Kennedy is a marriage and family therapist based in Santa Barbara, California. She says that she’s seen people move through what’s known as the Kubler-Ross phases of loss, as the pandemic has gone on. Where you are and where your friends are in the process can determine just how fraught or complicated your friendships might be, she says.

Navigating the truth of Covid-19

One major point of contention for many friendships has been the facts about coronavirus and the safety procedures that we all need to take to prevent the spread of this deadly sickness. We are susceptible to the things we see on social media. Given the divisive nature of our current political environment, some of your friends may believe the lies and falsehoods spread on various platforms, instead of listening to the scientific and proven truth. Many of these divisions fall along political lines, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center. What you believe about Covid-19 and how you act based on scientific facts can cause significant strife in a friendship simply because you may not see eye-to-eye.

Sometimes we outgrow friendships, and that’s okay.

“This is challenging. If you want to engage and try to influence a friend’s position, I encourage dialog in person or via phone, but do not lob political bombs via social media,” Kennedy says. “It will only cause more distance and distress to the friendship. If you’d rather not engage in political discourse, then keep your exchanges to neutral topics: accomplishments, vacations, art, home renovations, pets.”

Scheff agrees and says, “Although you may believe that the entire country should see the political world your way (especially your friends), the truth is, they don’t. Unless I know someone who wants to have an educated conversation, I would avoid this topic. Reality is, there have been too many friendships lost due to presidential elections – and you have to weigh what is most important to you. Your friend or your politics? Some people may choose their politics – it’s a personal choice.”

There’s also the additional layer of trust (or mistrust) that gets heaped on top of the current situation. According to a study published in the Journal of Health Psychology in August, it turns out more people are lying in the current era. For their own reasons, some friends might conceal that they have been feeling ill or that they have widened their “pandemic pod” to others who are not practicing safe social distancing. While it may seem like it’s not a big deal, the truth is, lying about your behavior or how you feel can endanger the lives of the friends you care the most about.

Ultimately, we all have a choice about just how social, anti-social, or masked and unmasked we want to be in this current world. Each one of us needs to navigate that carefully since there is so much at risk. If, for example, you are not comfortable meeting a friend for lunch at an outdoor restaurant, you should speak up and tell that friend how you feel. If they’re someone close to you, they’ll respect and understand your decision and not pressure you or shame you into doing something you’re not comfortable with. If they do choose to behave in that way, they may be a toxic person that you need to manage out of your life. After all, it is up to each of us to determine our own boundaries and stick to them.

The importance of staying connected in the right way

Once you have determined what your boundaries might be as they pertain to the risks you are comfortable taking to maintain friendships, it’s time to consider how best to connect and foster the friendships that you value most, especially during these times. There are plenty of options to stay connected and practice safe social distancing to stop the spread of Covid-19.

Although you may believe that the entire country should see the political world your way (especially your friends), the truth is, they don’t.

As Kennedy says, “We have all been coping in various ways. Initially, people were in strict lockdown, so phone calls or Zoom cocktail parties were the link to friends. Eventually, those faded as people fatigued from so much time online. I saw people turn inward to their household for most of their contact, and friendships were ‘put on hold.’ Late summer, people started to hit their breaking point of boredom with their household. They also became less fearful of contagion and started negotiating their pods. They started having outdoor dinners, socially distanced outings, and they allowed their kids to play. The friendships were a welcome break from the monotony of home and Zoom and worry about masks, unemployment, air quality (in California), and the election.”

You have probably heard the term “pandemic pods,” or “quaranteams,” in this new environment. These small groups (usually limited to just 12 people over three families, per the recommended guidance) have popped up as a way for people to stay safe and get some in-person interaction. These pods of people help keep the spread of Covid-19 to a minimum and keep the more vulnerable in the population safe. You can form a pod or quaranteam with whomever you deem worthy, but remember, trust is at the very center of these small groups. Each person must be honest about their interactions outside of the pod and any symptoms they may feel.

If you are uncomfortable seeing friends in person, there is always the option of doing Zoom calls, sending text messages, or as Kennedy suggests, setting standing dates and times for phone calls to check in and say hi. “Of course, you can follow each other on social media to keep up a bit. However, setting a standing date to talk is really helpful. Otherwise, months go by without contact. I also see friendships strengthening when people remember and acknowledge the big moments (birthdays, kids birthdays, anniversaries of loss, retirements, graduations, etc.) This communicates that this person cares about you and holds important what you do,” she says.

Scheff says that she’s a big fan of sending cards to friends and family she wants to stay in touch with, too. “I’m a big believer in Hallmark greeting cards. The ones you ‘feel and touch’ – the ones you can now buy at most grocery stores, and they sell stamps. Especially if you know your friend is struggling or just want to say ‘Hi,’ there’s nothing like a card to let them know you care or thinking of them. If you feel comfortable going to other stores, there are places that sell cards very inexpensively – and the joy of receiving the card is priceless. I promise you – it will instigate a phone call,” she says.

However you decide to stay in touch, it’s always important to check in with yourself and your family about where you are in the process of coping with the new world. Covid-19 will affect us all in different ways, both mentally and emotionally and it’s important to remain in touch with how we are each feeling as we navigate the new world. The process of coping is never linear, but with time and space, you will adapt to the new environment and find a safe way to navigate it.

When to cut your losses

Friendships will wax and wane with time and distance. It’s the natural rhythm of things. The pandemic can exacerbate that pattern, and it’s important to know when it might be time to walk away from a friendship that is no longer healthy for you.

“Sometimes we outgrow friendships, and that’s okay,” Kennedy says. “If you feel ambivalent about a friendship, it might be time to let it fade. If you miss someone and what to try and reinvest, then reach out! You have a foundation from past times, but also you may need to create new traditions, memories, or associations. And it needs to be reciprocated by both parties to really have it work.”

The pandemic can also bring friendships that were simply not meant to last, into view, Scheff says. “If you can count the number of good friends you have, on one hand, I think you’re fortunate. A good friend is with you through all times, space and pandemics. This can be a true test of friendship. It’s the acquaintances that will be drifting off.”

Whichever friendships you decide to maintain or not, it’s important to stay clear on your boundaries, and, as both Kennedy and Scheff say, never shame a friend for their own choices when they differ from yours. “There are no winners with shaming,” Scheff says, ” it will only hurt your friendship.”

As always, it pays to be honest about your feelings as we all learn to navigate friendships during Covid-19. Even when a vaccine becomes available, some of your friends may decide not to vaccinate, which could significantly impact how you choose to integrate those people into your life.

“I think it’s acceptable to have a candid conversation about someone’s level of exposure and philosophy on Covid,” Kennedy says. “If they are dismissive, then you can say you’re playing it safe and want to limit your exposure. Also, watch how people function in social gatherings. They may think they are more observant than they really are behaving. I think it’s better that they understand the hesitation is about fear of contagion — not mistake it for ‘I don’t like you.’”

Abigail Bassett is an Emmy-winning journalist, writer and producer who covers wellness, tech, business, cars, travel, art and food. Abigail spent more than 10 years as a senior producer at CNN. She’s currently a freelance writer and yoga teacher in Los Angeles. You can find her on Twitter at @abigailbassett.

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Abigail Bassett is a full-time freelance journalist, content creator, and television, video, and podcast host whose work has appeared in publications like TechCrunch, Fast Company, Inc. Magazine, Forbes, Fortune, Motor Trend, Shondaland, Money Magazine, and on CNN. Her passion is telling unique stories that change the way we see, interact with, and relate to the world. She is also a Yoga Alliance Registered 500-hour yoga teacher.

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