Going the Distance: How Covid Has Remapped Friendships

Will we remember how to be good social beings? Or have we lost things to that six-foot gulf that has separated us for more than a year?

In the early days of the pandemic, a spate of stories appeared in the media proclaiming introverts the winners of the lockdown era. With a preference for small groups and time alone, the less outgoing among us seemed poised to thrive in this period. Introverts themselves embraced the idea. “With all this social distancing and takeout food, my life is about to dramatically stay the same,” tweeted comedian and satirist Randy Rainbow in mid-March last year. “Introverts: Flattening the curve since forever,” quipped Jenn Granneman, an American who’s spun her love of solitude into a writing and blogging career.

(Related: 7 Ways to Cope with Loneliness While Staying Socially Distanced)

As a sometimes introvert, albeit a sociable one, I’ll admit that in the early days it did seem as though the world had settled down to a velocity more in step with mine. The circumstances were grim. But public-health dictates meant no more dithering about dragging myself to a party, no pressure to make or keep dinner dates, no guilt about a weekend with zero plans. It was a silver lining in a dire time.

A year later, though, I find myself wondering if my introverted leanings did much to protect me. I’m not beset by anxiety or loneliness or melancholy; the feeling is both smaller and bigger than that. Certainly, like many people, I’ve had moments of longing for a dinner out, coffee with a friend, a conversation with — god, anybody but these two lovely people in my home who never, ever seem to leave. But mostly I’m comfortable in my largely inward existence. Perhaps a little too comfortable. After a year of “stay home” and “stop the spread,” that six feet of physical distance sometimes feels as though it has calcified into a shell.

I don’t think I’m the only one. We are all introverts these days, and not by choice. So what happens as vaccines roll out and the virus recedes, and we look timidly toward reconnecting with our world? “After the Coronavirus, Prepare for the Roaring Twenties,” read the title of an essay by Yascha Mounk in The Atlantic last May, in the innocent days of the first wave. Mounk was weighing predictions, already proliferating, that our social natures will triumph post-pandemic — that once this is all over, we will go forth into a frenzy of socializing. More recently, Yale sociologist Nicholas Christakis, author of Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live, has looked to past pandemics to predict that people will “relentlessly seek out social interaction.” There will be parties, carousing, an orgy of Sunday brunching and games nights (also, by some accounts, an orgy of actual orgies, but that is a topic for a different article by a different writer).

Will the prognosticators be right? It’s possible. Around the time Mounk’s article appeared, I spoke about the effects of the pandemic on kids with a few psychologists. Among them was San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge, a bestselling author of books proclaiming various generational trends over two decades. Childhood the world over had, in a sense, moved online, and I wanted to know Twenge’s thoughts on what this meant for young people, a group she dubbed “iGen” a few years earlier and believed was shaped by smartphones and screens to be more disengaged and lonely. I braced for a glum prediction. Her answer was more interesting. Sure, post-COVID, risk-averse young people hooked on social media could forgo real-world interactions even more, having fallen out of the habit, she said — or they might actually seek them out with a vengeance, having been denied that physical contact for so long. It could go either way.

I would think that forecast applies to the rest of us, too. I’d be surprised if many of us will want to stay in our respective bubbles after the pandemic. We have missed interacting with people. We’ve also learned in this time how much we need our friends, our extended families, the people in our wider circles; many of us are determined, when normalcy returns, to make up for lost time. The question is what our relationships will look like after a year of enforced neglect and whether desire will translate to connection. I don’t doubt there will be parties. But will we remember how to be good social beings and fall back quickly into the give and take that meaningful human exchange demands? Or have we lost things to that six-foot gulf that has separated us for more than a year?

(Related: What We Should Take Away From The Year of Covid)

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Twenty years ago, long before she became embroiled in campus wars over sexual relations and free speech, cultural critic Laura Kipnis published a provocative little book called Against Love. A polemic about the misery of romance, it detailed all the things domestic bliss forces us to give up. Here’s a sampling from Kipnis’s list, which will sound familiar to most people in a long-term relationship: You can’t go out without telling the other person. You can’t go out when your partner feels like staying at home. You can’t do less than 50 percent of housework, even if your partner wants to do 100 percent more cleaning than you’d like. You can’t watch what you want or eat what you want. You can’t take risks, unless they are previously agreed-upon risks. “Thus is love obtained,” Kipnis concludes wryly, putting the nail in the coffin of our forgotten freedoms.

Friendships don’t make nearly the same number or intensity of demands. But there are still trade-offs for the companionship and intimacy they bring. If the friendship is healthy, neither person gets to do exactly what they want. Your friend doesn’t eat gluten, so you go somewhere with options — even though you’re really craving the carbonara from that Italian place. She’s going through something at work, so you shut up about your life this time so she can tell you all about it (as in, all about it). You sit outside on the patio because she smokes; she accepts the reality that you will always be 10 minutes late. You put up with each other’s quirks. I recall an evening spent at a friend’s, a Nina Simone album playing on repeat on her stereo. We heard it four, maybe five times. I didn’t say a word. She really liked Nina Simone, and I really liked her. Real human connection involves slightly uncomfortable states of perpetual compromise.

(Related: How to Keep Your ‘Big Friendships’ Alive, Especially During a Pandemic)

In the Before Times, I barely noticed these small acts of giving in, let alone begrudged them. After a year of self-reliance, though, I wonder if my compromise muscle has atrophied, if I’ve grown so unaccustomed to negotiating those small things that it will be harder for me to be a good friend when all this is over. Living with constraints may have diminished my tolerance for further constraint; my frustration threshold is lower than it used to be. And the rewards for those trade-offs — laughs, companionship, emotional intimacy — are such hazy memories now. I’d attributed these trepidations to my own introverted leanings, so I was surprised to hear an interview on NPR in which a California teacher, a self-described extrovert, related the changes she’s observed in herself over months of social distancing. Before COVID, she said, she and her husband always had weekend plans: meeting friends, dinners out, movies. The pandemic has introduced her to the pleasures of alone time. Recently, she confessed, she found herself reacting with irritation to a distanced walk with a friend: “I felt like, oh, this is cutting into my normal routine. So it’s very curmudgeonly.”

Any event that casts others as intruders is not exactly a helpful influence in a society as individualistic as ours. Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, in his 2000 book Bowling Alone, tracked the decline of social capital in America, evident in dropping rates of volunteering and participation in groups ranging from the B’nai Brith to the Girl Guides. Social media has made up for some of this loss of interaction. Still, a quarter of Canadians have fewer than three close friends, according to Statistics Canada data, and in a 2019 Angus Reid survey, six in 10 wished their family and friends would spend more time with them. (We may be better off than our American neighbours, who have on average two confidants with whom they can discuss important issues, a 2011 Cornell University study found; one-quarter had none at all.)

Isolation is enough of a problem in the West that “social prescribing” programs began popping up in the U.K. in the 2010s, in which advisers work with GPs to prescribe patients community-based activities, such as cooking classes or karaoke. The Alliance for Healthier Communities has run a similar pilot program, called Rx: Community, in Ontario since 2018. For those who were already struggling with connection, the pandemic has only made things worse. The COVID-19 Social Study, conducted in the U.K., surveyed 70,000 adults about how lonely they felt last year. As with social isolation pre-pandemic, those most affected by lockdown measures were people who are young (ages 18 to 30), precariously employed or live alone.

I am none of those things and would not have described myself as lonely before the pandemic. Yet a look at the questions was startling. The survey is very simple, with just three items: How often do you feel that you lack companionship? How often do you feel left out? How often do you feel isolated from others? I wonder how many of us, however gregarious we are, could honestly say “never” to all three.

It turns out that the whole introvert/extrovert distinction is less useful than it might seem. A 2020 Dutch study on depressive symptoms during COVID reviewed data from 93,125 subjects in 47 countries and found that introverts did fare better in places with more stringent pandemic measures, but that extroverts didn’t necessarily suffer more. That’s perhaps because of the nature of extroversion, which correlates with fewer anxiety and mental health issues. Introversion, a body of research shows, often comes with traits that help in adversity — the ability to reflect on experience, for one. But extroverts experience emotions less intensely and are more likely to show help-seeking behaviour, which is jargon for reaching out to a friend when you need one.

We are all muddling through it, then — sometimes awkwardly. I have noticed odd tics in my social habits. A friend came over for a backyard visit recently, and I greeted her with, well, no greeting at all, only a barrage of logistical options blasted out as I reached for a mask, just in case: “Do you want to sit on the front porch? Or shall we go to the back? Should I bring a blanket out? These chairs are far enough apart, right? Shall I make tea, or would you like sparkling water?” She answered my questions, and then paused. “Hi!” she said. “It’s been so long!” It felt like the warmth of the sun. In our old life, she’d have come in. We’d have hugged. I might have said how long her hair was getting. They’re just niceties, small ways of expressing a feeling that is much deeper and bigger — but without them, the feeling itself seems diminished.

The truth is, for so many women I know, those habits of connection — a phone call, a coffee date, regular dinner plans — were imperilled long before the pandemic. Professional and domestic life keeps you busy, and before the six-foot distance of the COVID era kept us apart, there was the 600-foot distance of work deadlines, kids’ activities, eking out time with partners, running errands. Years ago, in my first journalism job, at Chatelaine, I coordinated a project to help the magazine’s readers find close female friends they’d lost along the way, sometimes decades earlier. We ran a list in the magazine, and women saw their names on it and wrote in. Some of the letters were profoundly emotional, about living and loss and memories of girlfriends who got them through it. Female friendships can have that intensity. Mine certainly did; I was just out of university when we launched the project and couldn’t fathom forgetting to stay in touch with my friends.

I’ve taken a master class in it since, as my friends apparently have too. I’ve had friendships fall into months-long, even years-long periods of benign neglect. We recovered, sometimes barely. But we had help: from coffee shops where we met, the chocolate-making or cookery classes we giggled our way through, the yarn store that in one phase of a particular friendship saw so many tears we feared for the fine mohairs and alpacas nearby. So much happens within six feet; proximity is, after all, why humans flock to the busy part of the dance floor or pack themselves into cities. To say nothing of the balm of human touch, the way a squeeze of an arm can comfort, soothe, dissipate a tense moment.

(Related: The Importance of Making Memories During Pandemic Life)

I don’t know if that yarn store is still open, and coffee shops are little more than chilly lineups these days. (We’ll leave the balm of human touch for a less blighted time.) Relationships lean on structures in ways we don’t notice. The decline of work-friend routines, for one, is surely an under-acknowledged result of pandemic life. In an Australia–U.K. study on COVID’s social impact, one in four adults ages 26 to 65 reported working fewer hours last year. We’ve read about the economic effects of reduced employment, but there’s enormous social impact too. Think of all those so-called office marriages or the little gaggles of colleagues kvetching and chortling over coffee or a cafeteria lunch. What happened to those moments of friendship as people worked less or remotely or with the new constraints of masks and physical distancing? We’ve lost ties not only to colleagues and friends but also to their friends — incidental social contacts that tether us to the wider village.

The pandemic has remapped friendships. Friend networks generally shrank in the past year, the data from open-ended questions asked through the Australia–U.K. project suggests. “When social interactions moved online, only certain kinds of relationships seemed to survive,” Dr. Marlee Bower, a loneliness researcher at the University of Sydney told the BBC. With lockdown measures in place, many of the social rituals of our lives disappeared: gym classes, after-work drinks, potluck dinners or girls’ nights. The friendships that survived had to have some common ground besides shared interests or jobs. They also had to satisfy odd new requirements, like being tech-friendly or COVID-compatible.

I’ve seen my own social life reshaped by such vagaries. Friends I really like but who interpret public-health guidelines more loosely than I do fell off my social calendar (if it can be called that). The logistics just became too difficult. I know of friendships that have ended over pandemic-era travel or COVID vaccine hesitancy. I saw more of friends who occupied roughly the same segment of the happiness pyramid as I did because they were easier to be around than the ones exuberantly ticking every item off their pandemic bucket lists while I wilted. There are friends I hardly spoke with but remained intensely connected to, and others who seemed to vanish.

Some of the waning relationships were — unexpected bonus of pandemic life — replaced by friendships that intensified suddenly thanks to a shared world view that seemed all the more precious in this time. The clearing away of busy routines created the space for me to reconnect with a few neglected friendships. It rejuvenated my most local ones and (in snatches) some of my most distant ones — though I know that for some people, I was the friend who seemed to vanish. Physical distancing and guidelines that resist mingling have sometimes brought more intimacy even while pushing some of us further apart.

Habits are strange creatures. There is no simple rule for breaking bad ones or making good ones, wrote The New Yorker’s Charles Duhigg in his book on the subject. They operate on a complex system of cue and reward, and to change a habit, sometimes you must tweak one and sometimes the other — it is almost never simply a matter of willpower. If we have become habituated to being distant from people who matter to us but were for a year or more mandated to be inessential, we may struggle to build back our social habits when normal life returns.

But these are exceptional times, and I wonder if we can’t trip the brain’s circuitry into learning a new trick or improving on old ones. There were moments in the past year that reactivated mine: the walk through Toronto’s Mount Pleasant cemetery on a frigid and windy December day that a friend took me on, pointing out Christmas arrangements and the statue of one particular angel I’d said my son liked — all via FaceTime, while I sat on my bed. The farmers’-market strawberries dropped off on my porch for no reason at all. The friend who sat on the phone with me for an hour on a glum July day and found my family a campsite so we had something to look forward to last summer. The surprise delivery for our annual Hannukah celebration with friends, by way of a computer this time. Minutes before the call, six exquisite and exuberantly flavoured doughnuts from across town arrived at my door. (My friend is vegan, and the doughnuts were too; I don’t even want to think about what that cost.) And all those dumb little hearts and laughing-till-crying-face emojis and gossipy texts that travelled between my phone and my friends’.

A year of the pandemic has been brutal on many and not easy for even the luckiest of us. But even at a distance of six feet, there have been real moments of human communion. To thank the people who brought me some of those, I delivered a few items on March 13, the anniversary of the day the world shut down. My garbage collectors, mail delivery person and local grocery workers got thank-you cards and cash. For my friends, who I knew would appreciate my streak of gallows humour even a pandemic can’t crush, cupcakes or cookies and homemade coronavirus-themed anniversary cards (“Happy Lockdown Anniversary!” or “Look who’s one!”). The deliveries turned out to be an all-weekend affair, as my family and I stood on driveways and sidewalks around the city, chatting at a distance with friends we hadn’t glimpsed in months. What half began as a gag turned into a deliberate act of friendship and care. It’s the beginning, I hope, of new habits for a happier, sunnier time.

Next: 8 Women Share the Impact the Pandemic Has Had on Their Mental Health

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Originally Published in Best Health Canada