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Much has been made of what we should or shouldn’t do under lockdown. For the first 50 days, the message was clear: stay home – and don’t see anyone outside your household. Now, as part of the government’s new ‘stay alert’ guidelines, we can see one friend, from a safe distance, in a park.
Notwithstanding the surreal nature of Boris Johnson dictating our social lives to this level of detail, it’s a welcome development.
But what state will we find our friendships in when they do resume face to face?Has the damage already been done? Judging by the social media pile-ins we’ve seen of late, the strain of lockdown has been getting to us all.
There are those who say the guidelines are straightforward and there to be followed to the letter. Others question whether it’s really that simple to curb our behaviour to such an extent that we never see the people we love, even when that’s what the government says is necessary to keep the population safe.
And if missing each other weren’t enough, these divergences of opinion have heaped new stresses on old friends. “I have lied to many of my more panicked friends regarding meet-ups,” confesses Andrew, 26, a radio communication engineer from Newcastle. “Not revealing I have been in physical contact with anyone since the lockdown began, for fear of judgment.”
It’s felt like the bare minimum needed to stay okay, he says of his meetings. “It may be easier for introverts to enjoy this lockdown period watching movies and playing video games but as a very social person I find it extraordinarily difficult. In a time when we are supposedly more enlightened with regards to mental health issues, the lack of understanding and judgment is outrageous.”
Others who have ‘broken the rules’ tell HuffPost UK that they have also done so out of necessity. They may live alone or, like Andrew, find their mental health suffers badly when they aren’t surrounded by friends and family.
Regardless of the reasons, their fear of judgment from close friends, neighbours or strangers on social media, is pervasive – leading some people to form their own de-facto ‘bubbles’ of those who know about their social movements.
Julia, 26, a student from Glasgow, says that now that cases of coronavirus have started to fall, she has been meeting up for irregular walks – but not without a huge sense of guilt. “It was a relief to see a friendly face and be able to talk and share thoughts without using a phone or a laptop,” she says of seeing her neighbour and best friend, David. “It felt wrong but necessary at the same time.”
David lives alone, while Julia shares with one flatmate she barely speaks to – her family are quarantining at home in Italy. “These are exceptional times when it is almost normal to feel guilty about meeting with one friend from two meters of distance every couple of weeks,” she says, adding that she’s heard of people calling the police on their neighbours for going out for a second walk in a day.
“I think that it’s taking it too far and even just hearing stories like this make me feel a bit hostile when I am among people.”
“Many people operate on the level of thinking that they are right and the other person is in the wrong,” explains Sören Stauffer-Kruse, a relationships psychologist who runs The Counselling Practice of these tensions. “Good friendships are based on understanding we all have our own point on such issues. It is not up to us as a friend to judge the other person’s position.”
Conflict is to be expected, he says – lockdown is like “a giant magnifying glass to any relationship, including friendship”. What can help both parties is tuning into the emotions that lie behind someone’s attitude to lockdown, whether that’s anxiety, loneliness or (as is common to many of us) the need to control a situation that’s full of confusion, exhaustion and threat. “Friendships in which both sides understand that behaviour is motivated by emotional need will fare better and I would expect there to be less conflict,” says Stauffer-Kruse.
“I’ve seen friends going to the park who claim they are social distancing but they really aren’t,” says Pip, 23, a social media worker from Enfield, who disagrees that meeting people – other than the one friend now permitted under the new government guidelines – is ever appropriate. “Just because you feel you’re not causing any harm, it is so disrespectful to the NHS workers working their bums off to get us through this. I’ve not seen my family in months and it’s awful, but I’m prepared to keep it that way till we get out of it.”
Pip believes people are breaking the rules because they are ignorant or oblivious to them or unaware of the consequences of their actions. “It’s not a judgment towards a person, thinking they are horrible or mean or anything, it’s about how aware I’ve become of people not fully understanding the rules or not believing in the rules. ‘Stay Alert’ just adds to that ignorance.”
While she lives with a partner, Pip insists she has sympathy for those who don’t. “I do completely understand that it must be incredibly tough to be fully isolated during this. I do have friends who are single and living alone who have the same opinion as me though. They are staying home and working their way through this the same as everyone else.”
As the lockdown stretches on, morphing into new shapes as the easing of measures continues, there looks to be no end to the disagreements over what constitutes morally upstanding behaviour. But when people test the new rules around socialising this weekend – and social media reacts accordingly – Stauffer-Kruse urges empathy, especially among friends.
“Try to see it from their point of view,” he stresses. “Stay away from using judgmental language and try to attune to the feeling or the emotional need that may be underlying the other person’s behaviour. Having a conversation like that can lead to a deepening of friendship, even if your positions are different.”