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Friendships Post-COVID: Resume, Repair, or Replace?

friends outside restaurant selfie

June 1, 2021 -- As the pandemic in the U.S. appears to be winding down and society opens up, many people are eager to reconnect with friends they haven't seen in person for months or even longer, while others have discovered reasons to reconsider long-term relationships strained over the past year.

Marvin Roca Jr., a Los Angeles public relations associate, can't wait to socialize again. He graduated from college during the pandemic, is patiently awaiting his ceremony when it's allowed -- hopefully in July -- and was careful to take precautions during lockdown. He stayed in his safe bubble of five, "my close friends," he says. Now, he's looking forward to scheduling dinners out with friends. "I'm ready for the world to open," he says.

Arianna Varas, an executive assistant in New York City, isn't quite that eager. She is slowly moving out of her COVID bubble of close friends -- the handful of people who were her support system as they saw her through her bout of long-haul COVID last year -- and seeing a few other friends. One thing COVID taught her: "You don't need more than your support system." She now views the other friends as "a bonus."

Meanwhile, Amy, a Southern California journalist who was careful to mask up and got vaccinated as soon as she could, is still on great terms with her close circle of about 15 friends, although she kept her pandemic, in-person bubble far smaller. Her dilemma now is figuring out how to handle some other friends -- the ones she lost respect for when she found out they were anti-mask and anti-vaccine, even though they have elderly parents. "I wonder if I ever really knew who they truly are," she says.

Clearly, while some people are ready to resume old friendships full-steam ahead, others aren’t sure whether to repair friendships fractured by political or health debates or to replace them. On full display on Twitter are the heartwarming side of friendships post-COVID as well as the messy side. Tweets about longtime friends reuniting in person with glee are followed by angry announcements about dumping a friend due to COVID-related differences.

Isolation Is Hard on Friendships

Friendship has long been applauded for its proven health benefits, including a longer life and better physical and mental health. But COVID and isolation have taken a toll. In an ongoing study, researchers from University College London surveyed more than 70,000 people and found that about 22% said their friendship quality worsened -- and that was after just 7 to 30 days of isolation.

In another survey of more than 600 people from the U.S. and other countries, younger people were especially affected negatively by not being able to keep in contact with friends, says researcher Jessica D. Ayers, a PhD candidate at Arizona State University. Respondents who reported the most pandemic-related stress were also more likely to say they felt isolated and lonely. No one was immune, although the effects seemed to hit younger people harder, says Ayers, whose research was published in a preprint journal and has not yet been peer-reviewed.

Pandemic as a Friendship Lesson

This negative impact of the pandemic on friendships, by and large, will be fleeting, says Robin Ian MacDonald Dunbar, PhD, a professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Oxford, who has researched friendship for 25 years. Once COVID cases decline even more, "people will be back to normal," he says. He predicts that will happen in 6 to 12 months.

But getting back to "normal" may not mean your circle of friends will be the same, he says. Among his research findings that are especially relevant post-pandemic:

  • Social networks of people are smaller than many people may assume.
  • Friend "turnover" is normal throughout life.
  • Casual friends are most vulnerable to being replaced.
  • The 30-minute rule helps (more on that below) to predict whether friends will remain friends.

In a review, Dunbar talks about his “Dunbar’s number” -- the number of relationships a person can handle at once. While not everyone agrees, he says the size of personal social networks typically involves just 1.5 intimates (the people you confide in), five close friends, 15 best friends, 50 good friends, and 150 friends. That's by and large our friendship limit, all our brain and schedules can handle, he says.

Friendships aren't always static or lifelong, Dunbar says. That revolving door is especially common during the late teens and early 20s, he says, when data suggests people in this age group is likely to turn over about 30% of their friends each year. It doesn't necessarily mean there were arguments, he says. Rather, many friends just drift away as interests or jobs or activities change. By your early 30s, the rate declines, he says, as people marry, have children, or get serious about their careers. But turnover continues throughout life.

Casual Means Vulnerable

Not surprisingly, the friendships most at risk of being "turned over," he says, are the casual ones -- the guests who show up at your large annual cookout who wouldn't be invited to a more intimate family gathering, for instance.

Post-pandemic, people should expect at least some of these casual friends to disappear, agrees Rebecca Adams, PhD, a friendship researcher and professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She says she’s talking about the casual friends you run into at the grocery, laundromat, or the bar after work on Fridays, and you may be on only a first-name basis, or you may not know their names at all. Now, their routines may have changed, their work situation may be different, or they may have moved.

"We didn't actively maintain those relationships," she says. The meetings were unplanned and spontaneous.

But these casual friends aren't insignificant. Research done years before the pandemic found that these so-called weak ties -- the barista at the coffeehouse, the person who shows up at the gym the same time you do -- contribute to our sense of well-being.

Nearby Neighbors or Farther-Away Friends?

Lockdown rules and changing schedules aren't the only things that predict whether friends stay or go, Dunbar says. The 30-minute rule plays in, too. "If someone lives within 30 minutes of you -- on foot, by bicycle, or car -- you will make the effort to see them," he says.

But complicating that rule during the pandemic was the trend of people beginning to talk to their neighbors for the first time -- and sometimes discovering common interests. Given the choice between the new, interesting neighbors and the 30-minute-away friends, it's logical that some people chose the neighbors and let their other friendships become weaker, Dunbar says.

On the other hand, the pandemic may have helped to strengthen friendships with long-distance friends, Adams says -- people you may have worked with years ago or attended school with who live far away. Normally, you would never ask them to travel to a birthday party. On Zoom, you do. On a maintenance scale, these friendships may be among the easiest to tend. These friends "could go back into hibernation [after things get back to normal], and everyone is fine with that," she says, because the contact before was sporadic.

For friends who live close by, Dunbar says, contact does matter. "The emotional quality of the relationship will decline by about a third for every year you don't see someone," he says. That doesn't apply to family members, he says, or to your best friend forever from kindergarten, which is more like a family relationship. They're more forgiving of lack of contact. While any kind of contact will soften the negative impact of not seeing the person, face-to-face is always better than FaceTime, phone, or Zoom, he says.

The pandemic has inspired some people to re-evaluate the quality of their friendships, and people should be aware of the health hazards of a friend relationship that is ambivalent, says Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University in Provo, UT. In her studies, she has found that people with these ambivalent relationships have more stress than people with relationships that are mostly positive.

"When people report they have more ambivalent relationships in their social networks, they are much more reactive to an unrelated stress test," she says, such as being asked to do a math problem, than are people who have many supportive people in their networks.

Resume, Repair, or Replace?

Whether friends who have disagreed on topics such as vaccination and mask-wearing can resume their relationships depends on many things, Adams says, including the threat level of COVID at the time and the personalities of the friends involved. Can the person who did wear a mask see the difference in opinion as unimportant now that the pandemic is winding down? Or will it be seen as a character flaw forever?

For now, Amy, the Southern California journalist, will delay getting together with friends with opposite views. As she meets new people and evaluates their friendship potential, she vows to do so more slowly, which she hopes will help her find better friendships. She knows she needs to slow down. In her previous go-go-go schedule, she says, "I never had an opportunity to get to know who some of these people are in a crisis."

Before COVID, Varas, the New York City executive assistant, says she was the type to befriend nearly everyone. Now, "when it comes to making new friends, I am going to be more cautious." In the past, she might have given people the benefit of the doubt, more than once. Now, she says, "If I feel something is off, I wouldn't keep leaving that door open."

Roca, the new college graduate, has had no differences of opinion with his circle of friends throughout the pandemic. His secret? "I hang out with people who are like-minded."

Whether people seek like-minded friends or opposites, a recent tweet talked about focusing on the quality of friendships and a goal that seems worth pursuing: "I no longer have time or energy for surface level friendships. Let's build something deep and meaningful."

WebMD Health News

Sources

Marvin Roca Jr., public relations associate, Los Angeles.

Arianna Varas, executive assistant, New York City.

Amy, journalist, Southern California.

Robin Ian MacDonald Dunbar, PhD, professor of evolutionary psychology, University of Oxford, U.K.

Rebecca Adams, PhD, friendship researcher, professor, University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD, professor of psychology and neuroscience, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT.

Jessica D. Ayers, PhD candidate, Arizona State University, Tempe.

Proceedings of the Royal Society A: "Structure and function in human and primate social networks: implications for diffusion, network stability and health."

Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin: "Social Interactions and Well-Being: The Surprising Power of Weak Ties."

PsyArXiv: "The changing landscape of friendship in the pandemic: Males, younger people, and less educated people experience more negative effects of the pandemic on their friendships." 

Perspectives on Psychological Science: "Social Ambivalence and Disease (SAD): A Theoretical Model Aimed at Understanding the Health Implications of Ambivalent Relationships."

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