The past 18 months have been an emotional roller coaster for family and friends. Low times of social isolation when we were longing to see each other, and euphoric highs once we were fully vaccinated and could reunite. I couldn’t wait to reconnect with my people — my inner circle, my outer circle, everybody. Yet once I was freer to socialize, I found myself taking stock. I’d become more purposeful about friendship, more selective.
Friendships change when life changes, and the pandemic has altered just about everything, starting with how we live and work. It has also affected our social relationships. I figured that Robin Dunbar, a professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Oxford who is best known for “Dunbar’s Number,” his theory on how we can only maintain 150 social relationships simultaneously, would have something to say on the matter. The pandemic may have affected our second- and third-tier “mid-strength friendships, [people] you haven’t seen for a good while,” Dunbar explains in an e-mail, adding that “you won’t be sure where the friendship now stands.” But he offers a way to think it through: “Have they found someone new to slot into your place? Have you found someone you’ve slotted into their space simply because you could see them more easily without breaking lockdown?”
Rebecca Adams, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina Greensboro School of Health and Human Sciences, takes it further. Adams, who has published widely on friendship, believes the pandemic also may have affected our closer friendships. “We’ve done less maintenance of our closer friendships,” she says. “Less travel to visit people, less spending time together. So even the close relationships have been neglected, and therefore might not be of the same strength as they were before the pandemic.”
There’s little hard data on friendship and the pandemic, but what Adams and Dunbar say resonates. COVID-19 crystallized for me who my inner-circle friends were, who I felt comfortable sharing my most vulnerable self with — physically and emotionally — and would take risks to see, masked up and 6 feet apart outdoors in freezing temperatures. During lockdown I also found myself wanting to connect with far-flung friends I’d lost touch with, like my old college roommate in California. We could now spend time together on Zoom or on the phone because we were always home.
I grew closer to some of my neighbors, too. (A poll cited in The Wall Street Journal in March found that 32 percent of people had gotten to know one or more of their neighbors since the start of the pandemic.) Our 83-year-old next-door neighbor, Sally, was holed up alone, and just seeing each other’s lights on in the dark days of winter was enough to make us warm up to one another. We started sharing meals and backyard visits after we were vaccinated in the spring, and I’d call us friends now. I hope these new and renewed relationships endure.
Midway through quarantine, I said adieu to casual ties that felt unsatisfying or obligatory so I could make time for the people who matter most to me. I also let go of a friendship that had long been fraught (we just didn’t see eye to eye on social issues). As I found myself resetting the amity button, I asked Adams about shifting relationships. “Normally, we let friendships fade away instead of ending them definitively,” she told me. But that’s changed as more conversations veer into life and death issues. “With differences of opinion about vaccinations, masking, and social distancing, it has become clear that not all of our friends have the same opinions we do. And in some cases, the divisiveness on those issues has led people to end friendships, or to snooze or put them on hold, until the pandemic passes.”
There’s always been a constant turnover in friendships at all ages, Dunbar says, especially in our teens and 20s, when we shed as many as 30 percent of our friends each year and make lots of new ones. Maybe this pruning process would’ve happened eventually and the pandemic just sped things along.
I’ve thought a lot these past 18 months about love, loss, and death. I remembered something I’d read years ago by a palliative-care specialist who had recorded the top five regrets people have before dying. Fourth on the list was, “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.” Dunbar has said that the number and quality of our friendships may have a bigger influence on our happiness, health, and mortality risk than anything else in life except for giving up smoking.
The pandemic has been a friendship wake-up call for us all. Remember to stay in touch with the people you love this fall and winter if we’re faced with another period of social isolation — and beyond that, whenever life returns to normal. I’ve promised myself I’ll do it. Because you never know.
Marianne Jacobbi is a writer in Cambridge. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.