Almost two years into the pandemic, we’ve felt its impact on all areas of our lives – and that includes our friendships.
Prior to Covid, the majority of us could comfortably say we knew who are friends were and who we could call in times of need.
However, many certainties are no longer so. Being in lockdown gave us a chance to reflect – or dwell – on the state of our friendships, while for many, restrictions or growing introversion meant they began to drift.
One in five of us have become distanced from close friends during the pandemic. That’s according to YouGov’s new Friendship Study, shared exclusively with HuffPost UK.
The study explored how the pandemic is affecting friendship, surveying 2,195 UK adults in the middle of June 2020, a month before the final easing of lockdown restrictions on July 19.
Four in 10 Brits (40%) reported losing contact with some of their friends since the arrival of Covid-19 in our lives. However, 35% of those surveyed said the pandemic actually made them value friendship more than before.
And the two are not necessarily contradictory feelings.
Based on the YouGov stats, we actually have fewer friends than you might think. More than half of Brits (58%) Brits say they have 10 or fewer friends, while 23% say they have between 11 and 25 friends.
Only 6% say they have between 26 and 50 friends, and just 3%, more than 50. And when it comes to close friends, the numbers are even more revealing.
One in eight (12%) of us have just one person they would consider a close friend. Four in 10 (41%) Brit say they have two or three close friends, a fifth (21%) have four or five, while just 16% have more than six.
But what is it about the pandemic that changed the way we see and value the friends we do have?
“Friendships are usually formed around our similar belief systems and experiences,” Vanlint tells HuffPost UK. “The pandemic has been centred around our political beliefs in regards to things such as vaccines and people have noticed that their belief systems with their friends have somewhat differed.”
Our individual approaches to Covid health and safety and how closely we followed government guidance and lockdown restrictions have been a source of tension for many people – and there’s also been opportunity to dwell on our feelings towards friends in the absence of actually seeing them.
“Throughout the pandemic people have had a lot of time to reflect on their friends and their belief system,” says Vanlint. “People were recognising that they don’t necessarily have the same belief system as they thought that they did have so there has been a lot of kind of reevaluation or friendships.”
Even if you’re on a page with your friends about the Covid basics, your life circumstances may vary greatly, she adds. “We’ve all had different priorities. Some people were furloughed, others were still working full-time and others were working whilst homeschooling their children.”
How do you know when you’re drifting from a friend?
It’s not always immediately evident when a friendship has become distanced, especially during a period when we’ve been social-distanced by necessity.
But for Vanlint, a warning sign is “when you’ve come to a point where you don’t have anything to talk about”. This can be in person, on the phone or online. “Usually with friends you don’t necessarily need to say anything but you feel comfortable with them,” she says. “If it feels like you need to fill in that space and you don’t know what to say, that’s when you get a sense something is off.”
Of course, we’ve all experienced a degree of social awkwardness or anxiety, post-lockdown, so it’s important to consider whether conversation drought is a product of this, or a sign of something more fundamental with your friend.
How can you mend a friendship that’s drifted?
Well, first, you need to figure out whether you want to mend the friendship.
“A lot of my clients have been friends with people since primary school, so there’s a lot of history there,” says Vanlint. “But then as they got older they notice they don’t necessarily have the same beliefs or the same lifestyles. So first assess whether the friendship is worth mending beforehand.”
If you do want to fix the friendship, try to arrange some fun together – something all too many of us have been missing from our lives during the pandemic. It could be a day out playing crazy golf or a night in watching Taskmaster, Drag Race, Bake Off or your favourite silly sitcom.
Whatever your bag, it’s an opportunity to rebuild your “emotional bond” together. “Laughter can help us reconnect,” says Vanlint.
It also gives you a chance to focus on something other than your worries about the friendship, while potentially facilitating conversation between you.
There may come a moment for honesty. “It’s really good to actually talk about why you feel like you’ve drifted,” says Vanlint. “Discuss things that are unsaid as any relationship takes hard work and communication is key. Even if it’s an uncomfortable conversation you should try to address those things.”
Going for a walk – yes, another one – can also be a good option. The simple act of moving forward together, and talking side by side rather than face-to-face, creates a different sort of dynamic that can lead to more constructive chats.
How do you let go of a drifted friendship?
It can be hard to work out if a drifted friendship is worth working on or when it’s time to let it go. “This is a tricky one,” says Vanlint, “but I think when you arrange plans with that person and suddenly you can’t be bothered to see them. Sometimes we get older and our our responsibilities change but if you don’t have a desire to see that person you should address why that is.”
Of course, there may be a bigger grievance or issue at hand. “Maybe you’ve expressed something your friend does that you don’t like. For example, they’re taking too much air time when you’re together and you feel like you’re not being heard. If you express that and it doesn’t change, that’s a red flag and you should evaluate whether this is a healthy relationship.”
Of those surveyed by YouGov who said they’d lost contact with a friend, 26% said they would seek to reconnect, while 14% said they would not. Those under 40 were more likely to report losing touch with friends (46-59%) than those in older generations (32-37%) and those aged 16-24 (27%) were also more likely than older Brits to say they wouldn’t be seeking to recontact lost friends.
As a hundred love songs will tell you, letting go is never easy – and the same applies to friendship. So go easy on yourself if you do choose this path.
“See it as a stage of mourning and start the grieving process as you’d go through the same sort of stages emotionally,” says Vanlint.
These emotions could range through disbelief that the friendship didn’t work to sadness, even some potential anger, she says.
“Allow yourself to experience those feelings. It can also help to journal about these things or speak to a therapist about it. You can then start to remember the happy times that you spent with that person, and you’re able to move on.”