How The Pandemic Changed My Friendships Forever
Remember when you would see someone for lunch just because? You may or may not have valued their friendship immensely, or depended on them for undying support, or even particularly liked them…but it was lunch. And you liked them enough for lunch right? I mean, why not?
Now, there’s a big why not. Covid.
I’ve approached my pandemic social life (now there’s an oxymoron if ever there was one) like it was the old Weight Watchers points system. Weight Watchers, for those few of you lucky ones who have either never had to think about your weight (I hate you, by the way), or who have never tried this particular form of dietary — oh, I’m sorry — lifestyle change — misery, it works like this: every day, you get an allotment of points to spend on your food. You can choose to spend your points throughout the day, sensibly, on a variety of healthy foods, like a normal person. Or you can be me, starve all day, and save your points up for a baguette and a wheel of brie. The idea is, you get a certain number of points, and you at least try to use them wisely.
Whether or not people think about meting out their pandemic life activities as if they’re Weight Watchers points, I think most of us are budgeting our activities in much the same way. Want to go to the gym? Well then, no popping in for a manicure. Want to get a haircut? Then no eating inside of a restaurant. Want to see your grandparents? Get ready for two weeks of vigorous, strict quarantine. Those with a bigger appetite for risk have a bigger budget, to be sure, than those who don’t, and those who have been vaccinated have had their budgets increased to “I Just Won Publisher’s Clearinghouse” levels, but there’s a budget nonetheless.
As far as What We Do, the emotional stakes are low: you do what you enjoy and that’s up to you. Are you rushing to the nail salon or your house of worship? Are you anxious to see movies or theatre? Museums or sporting arenas? These decisions are more thrilling than agonizing. We now have a choice! But when it comes to Who We See, things get more complicated.
Covid has done a number on friendships. Much has been written about friendships that fell apart because of people judging each other’s pandemic choices. One person’s paranoia was another’s reasonable caution. One person’s rule-flaunting was another’s careful risk assessment. Friendships suffered. As the Washington Post put it, it’s awfully hard to sustain friendships when “you’re sizing up friends and relations as potentially lethal threats.”
Deciding whom to see based on how much of a (perceived) risk their choices are, however, is decidedly different from deciding whether or not to see people based on whether or not they’re worth the points. That’s where things get tricky. For me, in the time of pre-vaccine Covid restrictions, casual friendships just weren’t worth the expenditure, either of time or of risk. I was emotionally tapped as it was, what with my near constant fear of contracting a deadly disease, worrying about my aged parents, and fretting over the emotional damage this has done to my kids. I’m still terrified about what’s happening in the rest of the world, where vaccines are scarce and death rates are ramping up. This window of being able to go out and safely socialize might be small. Very very small. Do I really want to spend what little time and emotional energy I have on casual friends? That would a cold, hard, no.
Luckily, that feeling seems pretty universal. Not very close friends who might have reached out to me to get together “just because” pre-pandemic, aren’t reaching quite so far these days. Totally understandable. I don’t think too many people are having their feelings hurt because they’re not at the top of their friendquaintence’s must-see lists. The tricky part comes in when we’re talking about friends in the gray zone between close friends and…well, not so close.
In the beginning of the pandemic, I was Zooming with friends from all over. We all were. The thought that maybe you wouldn’t eventually get around to seeing that person you really, really like but never get to see — who, in fact, you might never see again — translated into Zoom-cocktails with old friends with whom we’d been out of touch. I was very emotional about those conversations. Speaking with friends and relatives in Australia, for example, felt necessary and important. Talking about books with my college roommate — who I often regret not keeping in closer touch with, was a balm in a difficult time. But as the lockdown wore on, some friendships solidified, while others fell off the radar. And it wasn’t always who I expected.
Some of the changes were my choice — and some not so much. There was a parent-friend from my kids’ school who I reached out to multiple times to no response. I got the hint. A newish friend with whom I had had an instant sister-like connection went silent. Another friend I hadn’t known that long, made a huge effort to stay in touch. Now, she’s among my closest friends. One woman, who I’d met only once, repeatedly wanted to get together. I made excuses. I couldn’t see spending my points on someone who I barely knew. Even a virtual get together felt like too much. Was it nice of me to put her off? No. But I don’t hold the people who ghosted me any ill will, and I’m hoping she doesn’t either. It’s a pandemic, we all had to- still have to — prioritize.
When this is all over, some of those friendships will resume, while others will have fizzled forever. Some needed to end. We stuck together for convenience, or habit or obligation. But some I will mourn. Those friendships will be yet another casualty of Covid-19, part of its social and emotional toll.
My friendships that thrived during Covid were all about realness. If a friend told me how great it was, how easy and effortless, to be quarantined in her 850 square foot apartment with two kids in Zoom school, a husband working remotely full time, two cats and a dog, and only one bathroom, I got the feeling that maybe that wasn’t the most honest relationship I could spend my time on. I stopped making excuses for the superficial friendships, friendships where I had to edit myself, or worry about things said in confidence being repeated — — She means well! She’s going through a rough patch! She can be so funny! I no longer have patience for that. I don’t believe I ever will again. If this pandemic has taught me anything, it’s that time is precious, life is capable of taking unexpected turns — for the good and the bad. I no longer have time to waste on “friends;” only on Friends.
Friends who pretended to be fine didn’t fulfil my need for deep human connection. Not that I think every friendship needs to be so deep. There are all kinds of friendships — some deep and meaningful, some social and fun. Every kind of friendship satisfies one need or another: the need to laugh, to share interests, to share experiences, raw emotions, or just a workout routine. It’s one of the reasons so many marriages suffered during lockdown: no one relationship is meant to fulfill every emotional need. No relationship could.
In the time of Covid, in the thick of it, my need was for friendships that had realness. That allowed both of us to tell the truth about how hard it was — how unbelievably fucking hard — to be so worried. How tiresome it was to be constantly cooking and cleaning. How terrible it was to watch our kids suffer…and how miserably guilty we felt when despite knowing how much they were suffering, we wished they would just suck it up and be OK, because where was the space for our suffering? Where, amongst the wiping, and cooking, and scrubbing and laundry — oh, lord, the laundry — and the constant feeling that really, you were lucky, that you should stop feeling sorry for yourself, and just be productive during this time — where in all of that was there room for you to just be real?
I found the room with real friends. Real friends who commiserated when I complained about the endless Zooming, instead of telling me how great Zoom life was, since they no longer had to commute. I felt comforted when friends also bemoaned the endless meal planning, instead of rhapsodizing about how cooking three meals a day seven days a week for their family of six was a breeze, because their mythically perfect adolescents pitched in without complaint. Maybe those people needed to tell themselves those things to cope. Maybe they really believe them. Maybe they were true. But I didn’t have room for that. And I didn’t have the capacity to be that either. During the pandemic, I lost my ability to make small talk, to edit out the messy parts for the sake of social propriety. I wonder if I’ll ever get it back. I’d better. If not, I’ll be “intense friend,” the one earnestly asking how you are…no really! in the middle of a raucous celebration. The one people are afraid to ask “How are you” for fear of getting the real answer, when all they meant was “Hello, let’s both participate in the social convention of pretending to want to know the details, when really, all I want is for you to say ‘fine’ and give me credit for asking.” I’ll be the one incapable of witty banter. Me! Banter-less. Pre-covid, witty banter was my jam!
I hope my casual friendships will come back alongside my more intense ones. Casual friendships serve an important purpose, fun for one, and relaxation. Fun is good. I miss fun. As in the rest of my life, I want the full spectrum of experiences to return. I want the crowded bus and the clean Uber, I want the local restaurant where the food isn’t much, but the vibe is perfect, and I want the newest, hottest culinary sensation. I want to throw a dinner party, get back to ballroom dancing, and who would ever have thought I’d miss going to the gym? Well…maybe not that last one.
With the city opening up and people going out more, the possibility for casual interactions — something I’ve bemoaned the loss of plenty — has reemerged. Just the other day, I bumped into a friend and asked her how her son was. “I’m trying to figure out how honest you want me to be.” she answered. “Honest.” I said. “For real.”