Pre-pandemic, Rae Radford, 58, hung out with at least eight people from her gym on a regular basis, but now she only hangs out with one close friend. Radford, who lives in Broadstairs, Kent, only met up with her friend Debbie Truelove, regularly in lockdown. Without her she would have been “lost”.
“We both moved down here from London and we went to the same gym, so we met up often before anyway,” she tells The Independent. “Then lockdown came and we didn’t know how long it was going to be for. We met on Tuesdays and Fridays to walk our dogs together, and it kept me going. It really took our friendship to another level.”
At the start of lockdown, her gym friends did text through a WhatsApp group. But this petered out and Radford said they drifted apart. “Now the dynamics have changed,” she says. “I don’t drink, and they all want to go and get sloshed. It’s just not something I’m interested in and I’ll be honest, I’ve done a bit of ghosting and blocking, I just don’t want it.”
Radford said she “doesn’t miss any of them”, but her friendship with Truelove is the one she values the most now. “Without Debbie, my lockdown would’ve been horrendous,” she added.
When much of the world screeched to a halt due to coronavirus lockdowns and people were forced into isolation to avoid spreading the disease, staying connected with one another became more important than ever. At the start, there were numerous group Zoom calls, weekly virtual pub quizzes, big WhatsApp groups in an effort to keep social circles intact. But slowly, over subsequent lockdowns, this changed.
Now, as we emerge out of lockdown, some of us have found that our friendship groups have shrunk to just a handful of people we’ve kept in regular contact with over the last 15 months. But how did this happen? And are we better for it?
Lockdown provided the perfect opportunity for people to re-evaluate their relationships and figure out if some are worth keeping. Research by YouGov found that many Britons have fewer friends compared to before the coronavirus pandemic, with a 18 per cent saying their close friend group has shrunk in the past year. Two thirds (67 per cent) of people aged 25 to 49 saying their friendships have suffered. While three in 10 feel that the past year has brought them closer to their friends.
Dr Natasha Bijlani, a consultant psychiatrist at Priory Hospital Roehampton, said: “The UK has had one of the most severe lockdowns and we have all been in enforced isolation, especially those who live alone. So friendships are really important because loneliness and isolation are such destructive agents.” But because of how important this facet of our lives was - it has given us time to see if those we had are serving us.
Dr Bijlani emphasised the importance of friendships as a “reciprocal arrangement”. “To be a friend, the person you are friends with has to be someone you know, someone you can trust, someone you actually like who is mutually supportive and sympathetic and empathetic to you.” And if that is not the case then she says the “culling” of friendships can be freeing.
Of course not all friendships are equal. Some exist on the fringes of your life or are more effort than they are worth, others may be toxic. “In lockdown, you may have been reaching out to people individually rather than in a group, and some may have sat down and thought about which friendships they really want to keep,” said Dr Bijlani.
She compares it to tending a garden. “You do sometimes curate your friendships. It’s like getting rid of unwanted plants or branches...we’ve come to this realisation that life is short, we’ve heard about people losing loved ones, dying, becoming sick. At times like this, you sit and think about what your values are and the fact you have finite time.”
This isn’t a experience exclusive to the UK. On the other side of the world, in Malaysia, 28-year-old Rathika Sheila told The Independent she had been seeing around 25 people a month before the pandemic, a figure which shocks her now she has had time to reflect on her social life.
“I realised I was out every Friday or Saturday night. It was always fun and loud but there were moments when I wasn’t ‘present’ and it didn’t occur to me that my social battery was running low because going out on Fridays was a routine, I didn’t check if I really wanted to go out,” she said.
“During the first lockdown, my friends and I put in plenty of effort to stay in touch, host virtual movie or game nights, and have weekly check-ins. It’s the complete opposite now – I have FaceTime dates with one group every other Friday and text another on Sundays to check in with them.”
Now she is focusing more on herself so relies on her friends less. “I don’t reach out to my friends as often because I’m prioritising more me-time,” she added. Sheila also did consciously end a few friendships because she realised they weren’t “compatible”. In some instances, they were people she had “considered very good friends” but they said she wasn’t reciprocating the effort they were putting into the friendship.
“That’s a part I’ve had to show a lot of compassion to myself for. I didn’t like that I hurt or upset someone I cared about because I didn’t have the emotional capacity for them,” she says. “It’s not that they didn’t mean anything to me or vice versa, we’re just juggling so much and can’t carry it all.”
Dr Bijlani agreed and said when it comes to guilt about friendships breaking down, there are two types: healthy and unhealthy. Healthy guilt is the kind you feel as a good and conscientious person, and is crucial to understanding the difference between right and wrong. Unhealthy guilt, on the other hand, is irrational, disproportionate and misplaced.
“You must be realistic about what you can control,” she said. “If friendships do break down, realise it is something that happens to everyone and that it’s okay.”
As for what happens when lockdown does eventually lift and we take small steps towards normalcy, Sheila said she intends to continue keeping to her current circle of friends, but is unsure about how to manage her “people-pleasing tendencies”.
“I am really worried about having to say no to some people post-lockdown,” she said. “Some friends are organising game nights or want to call to catch up. I’d like to know what I need to do to manage this.”
Dr Bijlani’s advice for anyone feeling anxious about socialising again is to take it slowly. “Try and connect with the people you feel closest to, perhaps one at a time to start with if you are really prone to anxiety,” she said.
“Everyone gets anxious at times, what’s different is how well we cope with it. Follow the government’s rules as that will lessen fear of the virus and carry on looking after yourself, don’t lose any good habits you built up in lockdown.
“As your confidence increases, then you can meet with more people, but keep to the friendship group you’ve curated for yourself. And be kind to yourself. Humans are adaptable but we do take time.”
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies