Alone together: friendship in a pandemic

Alone together: friendship in a pandemic

During the first lockdown last year, one of my friends created a WhatsApp group. They had a suggestion: every day we send a photo. The catch? It had to be positive.

I was grateful, very quickly, for that chat. We soon failed to send a photo daily, but frequently something would appear, and I would receive an insight into my friend’s world. It was a reassurance. Before I had even clicked on the latest photo I would find myself cheered — here was a friend, thinking of the rest of us. There was something in that alone.

Friendships are a certainty that is easy to undo. What proof do we have that anyone is really our friend? Do texts count? A sufficient call log? Birthday cards?

If you’re committing to a monogamous romantic relationship, there will be learned ways in which you measure its significance. But with friendship, the judgment complicates. There are too many types of friendship to be able to easily quantify your significance.

The pandemic has encouraged reflection. We have turned inwards: stuck inside, and in our heads. With forced isolation, for some it has been a time to take stock. All the while, friends have been kept at a distance. How to be social when seeing your friends in-person is discouraged (sometimes, illegal)? How have friendships weathered during the pandemic? 

Pictures shared by friends on Rebecca Watson’s WhatsApp group

The strange thing about writing on friendship, though I approached psychologists for the technical view, is that suddenly everyone is an expert. I was surprised by how much people had to say. I wanted to hear how my interviewees had tried (or failed) to sustain their friendships under restrictions. Ten months into what might have once seemed a short stopgap, it seemed the time to ask how the process has felt.

Evidently it was a topic people had been thinking about. A few sent me stories of dramatic friendship break-ups only to stop replying — their messages were perhaps cathartic enough. Others passed me on to their own friends after we had spoken, sure that they would also have something to share.

Katie, who is 28 and lives in London, tells me: “I have got a lot closer to a lot of friends.” One of the ways that has happened has been through voice notes. These aren’t offhand recordings: Katie compares them to podcasts, some of them up to 40 minutes long. “It makes me really listen. It’s not to say I don’t listen to my friends, but in a world where we are bombarded with Zooms and phone calls, and we’re trying to see people in a social-distanced way, [it’s about] having a safe space where you can record when you have the headspace and time to do so.”

Familiar ways of communicating have been difficult since restrictions began — and besides, the pandemic has tampered with conversation. Nothing happens while everything is happening. Many people I spoke to devised ways of getting around that. For Louise, 30, the pandemic prompted her to start an online film club. She had been regularly talking with friends on Zoom but the conversations were “quite frankly, boring”.

© Dina Litovsky

The film club was a way of “operating in some framework of normality”. Others mention quizzes, book clubs, coffee mornings over FaceTime. Friends have sought ways to focus the discussion. (As one interviewee complains: “What passes for an anecdote nowadays is pretty poor.”)

With communication generally needing to be online, there has been a reset — not in just how we communicate, but with whom. Louise has many friends who live in different countries. She describes how “everyone was a lot more in touch” as she went into lockdown.

“I couldn’t see my friends who were round the corner from me just the same as I couldn’t see the ones who live hundreds of miles away. So there was a bit of a flattening effect where suddenly I could prioritise people no matter where they live in relation to me.”

About the photography

Main images from Dina Litovsky’s ‘Dark City 2020’ series, which captures scenes in New York at the height of the Covid-19 lockdown. ‘Disoriented by the city I have called home for the last 20 years,’ the Ukraine-born photographer writes, ‘I was reminded of a dystopian sci-fi film, Dark City, where a dreamlike metropolis is trapped in eternal nightfall.’

Olivia, who moved to Berlin from New York at the end of February, says she experienced something similar. She had made a transatlantic move before (in 2005). Then, she had felt distanced from friends, but this time that didn’t happen.

“Rather than me stepping out of this circle of friends I have, we all had to step out of that circle and the distance even with time zones is kind of irrelevant as we are all staying home. It’s kept some of the people I was saddest to leave in touch in a way that maybe we wouldn’t have.”

A Covid-19 psychological wellbeing study from Queen’s University Belfast classified more than a quarter of respondents as lonely. Unsurprisingly, the results indicated that UK lockdown policies have had a negative impact on mental health and loneliness. It is inevitable that a pandemic would emphasise the value of friendship: we are looking for support or company while aware of those who are no longer around.

But why does it take a rampant disease to prove friendship’s significance? Miriam Kirmayer, a psychologist based in Canada who specialises in friendship, is frustrated by how “we as society are constantly in a position where we are made to defend the value or benefit of friendships in our life . . . that experience does not exist for our romantic relationships or our family.”

The consequences of friendships being disrupted are significant, she stresses. Loneliness is about a lack of emotional intimacy and it has “very real consequences”. It can cause and exacerbate symptoms of anxiety and depression as well as affecting our physical health. “One statistic that is often thrown around”, she says, “is that feeling lonely is just as detrimental to our physical health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day”.

But it is not just that loneliness can do us harm. Friendship can improve life. “It doesn’t just bring us back to baseline”, Kirmayer says, “it makes us happier and more satisfied with life. It improves our ability to cope with stress and so, not just how healthy we are but how long we’ll live is predicted by our relationship satisfaction.”

© Dina Litovsky

Nick Lake, director of psychology and psychological therapy at the Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, makes a similar case. “So much of our psychological or emotional development is linked to our relationships with people. Which is often why it affects us when it’s disrupted, like it’s been in Covid, and in much more profound ways than we realise.”

It is easy to take something that feels guaranteed for granted. But what is clear is that during the pandemic there has been a shift. Friendships have been a reminder of community for some who live alone. For those going through bereavement or illness, they have been a tonic. Friendship has helped dissipate the emotional burden on romantic partners.

Many speak to me using these clear terms: they illustrate what they have learned, or what they notice is now missing. I pose the question: do you think the pandemic has made you reflect on the significance of your friendships? The answer is almost always yes. 

Though the pandemic has encouraged reflection, it has also applied pressure. Friends are often a group you rely on feeling aligned with. But particularly when rules are to be applied using “common sense”, an ambiguous, impossible-to-universalise term, they can encourage rifts. 

Share your experience

How have your friendships changed during the pandemic? Share your stories in the comments below and we’ll publish a selection of the best responses

Two people I speak to have had good friendships damaged by the pandemic. Amber*, 27, has disagreed with her friend over “interpretations of the rules”. Whereas before, they were “always on the same page”, the pandemic has pushed them apart. She gives an example of her friend’s birthday. Her friend told Amber: “even if there’s a lockdown I’m still going to have a party.”

“I can say what I think: that’s really selfish”, Amber explains, “but it’s not going to stop her, all it’s going to do is damage our friendship.” She is stuck between the choice to say something and annoy her friend, or annoy herself by not speaking up. 

Ignoring lockdown is “not the stance I would have hoped that she would have taken . . . I find it hard to fathom that she is seeing the stats in the press and the numbers of people who have died and not connecting to that on some emotional level.” 

Rachel*, who is 30 and based in America, tells a similar tale. She is no longer talking to one of her friends who she made in college 12 years ago. “I think she was censoring herself a lot with what she was actually doing”, Rachel says. “[While] I can count on one hand the number of risks I’ve taken since March.” Then the day before Thanksgiving, she received a text from her friend, who was excited because she was flying to a resort for a week’s holiday. 

“I was just vibrating with anger”, Rachel tells me. “I’m like, you doing this directly correlates with me and my husband not being able to go home for Christmas . . . I wrote up a long thing that I sent her . . . saying: I can’t do this, what you’re doing is reckless, stupid and selfish.” 

Does that mean the end of their friendship? “On my end, I have no interest. You’ve proven who you are . . . I don’t have room in my life for someone like that.”

© Dina Litovsky

Differences of opinion can cause trouble in friendships, but during the pandemic, fractures become breaks. It has upped the stakes. It is also easier to draw the line, Rachel remarks. “Watching someone be selfish enough to go on vacation in the middle of a pandemic, it’s like, OK, you’ve laid it out for me.”

Lake explains that during an isolating crisis “we are exposed to less interactions with less people, we’re not getting that breadth of views”. The consequence, he says, is that “one person’s view becomes more important than it might have been before. So you notice more the disagreements.”

I have wondered whether there is a particularly existential quality to friendship during the pandemic. Many I speak to have turned to their older friends, and it seems — in a moment where lives and time feel on hold — they are a reminder of the length of life leading up to the present. They are witnesses to times that have mattered, that have been light, foolish, and together have made us who we are today. 

We don’t talk a lot about what friendship is for, what it means, what needs our different friends contribute to or help dissipate, why loneliness is so detrimental. But with human existence such a baffling, curious thing, friends seem a way of reflecting ourselves back. I do not think that makes us egocentric — these relationships are rooted in love, trust, care, and after all, we are doing the same for our friends.

Kirmayer says her hope (and part of what she is already seeing) is that “people are more aware of how important social connection is for them, that it no longer feels as frivolous or as much of a luxury”. Human connection — rarer now than before — is appreciated more.

“I moved recently to a block”, 40-year-old Max, who lives in London, tells me, “and there’s a big communal green space. I’ve had drinks with my neighbours a few times. I would never have done that at the last place . . . there are people with kids, teenagers, [in their] twenties, my age, middle-aged, old people, and they all mix outside.” 

“Strange!” he exclaims. “I don’t know that I would have done that had it not been for this, I certainly might have been sceptical.” 

We have our familiar friends, those we met at school, university. But do many people — do I — close off interactions? I call my grandmother early on in the pandemic and she describes how her neighbour has been playing the piano for the street. People gather outside the house at a distance and take the time to listen. She hasn’t visited the supermarket once: strangers have shopped for her from the beginning.

The further you travel from the centre, the hazier relationships can become. During coronavirus, friendships have had to be consciously kept afloat. Many of my interviewees say they miss peripheral relationships: those we see at a party or an exercise class, at certain work events. Katie tells me she has thought a lot about “tertiary friendships”. 

“Every friendship now has to be very intentional . . . that can throw up the gap between the people you are choosing to keep up with and those that fall to the wayside and what that does to you and your feeling of community and togetherness . . . I miss being around people where the stakes aren’t as high.”

© Dina Litovsky

When I ask Louise how she feels, she agrees strongly. “I miss it so much”, she says. “We are very limited to the people we already knew . . . There’s no opportunity to get out of what we know and who we know.”

As I speak to people around the world about friendship, I find that after a phone call I am often melancholic. Talking with someone whose voice and life I do not know feels nostalgic. I enjoy the conversations, but it is the enjoyment that causes the melancholy.

Lake describes how there have been shifts through the pandemic. In the first lockdown, there was a feeling of interconnectedness. “But the second lockdown does feel as if people are more isolated . . . the danger is that the more separate we become from people, the more fixed we can get into our own views of life and our own positions.” 

The pandemic has been a reminder that we are part of something — all grouped in the same risk. Partly, it has allowed a resetting. (Not entirely, some are far more at risk, and this has to do with race, work, provision, ultimately: privilege.)

But it has also thrown up antagonism and judgment. When we are out in public now, Kirmayer says, many of us are more aware of where we and other people are in space. We are on guard. As the pandemic recedes, we will be entering a weaker world: one filled with lingering grief, suffering, fallout.

Both Lake and Kirmayer stress the mental impact that is yet to fully arrive. “I have never seen my practice so busy, and the same is true of my colleagues”, Kirmayer observes. “It’s only going to get worse . . . There’s been this talk of first wave, second wave, third wave, but eventually there’s going to be a mental health wave.” 

The world will not return to normal, instead the pandemic will yield. There is a difference. Friendships will not simply revert to what they once were: but that need not be a bad thing. I find it easy to live to a schedule: what I am doing and who I am seeing next rising to meet me before the previous event is over.

When it is safe and possible, I will want to see my friends. But when I do, I will try to appreciate the moments as they happen, fortified by the memory that for a time they couldn’t.

*Not real name

Rebecca Watson is the FT’s assistant arts editor. Her novel ‘little scratch’ is published by Faber & Faber on January 14

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