On March 28, 2020, just over a couple of weeks after COVID-19 had been declared a pandemic, William Bukowski emailed his Notre-Dame-de-Grâce neighbours to say he’d be out in the middle of his street the evening of April 1, reading an Anton Chekhov short story aloud “and then maybe afterward we can have a chat.”
And so it went, up to a dozen neighbours, standing in the street and reading aloud a poem or a story or an essay, every week from April through to November. And so it still goes. They started up again in March and, as the city began to reopen, moved from the street to his driveway. The gatherings are themed: One early August evening, for instance, the theme was animals.
“It has been great to get to know all our neighbours better — a really positive social experience for all of us,” said Bukowski, a professor in Concordia University’s department of psychology. “For me, it has been a great way to get through the confinement period and it has made friendship stronger among us.”
As it altered so much else about life as we knew it, the pandemic may well also have changed the nature of friendships.
The opportunity for shared experiences with friends were more limited, for one. “You didn’t go have a coffee together or vacation together,” said Bukowski.
For Tanya Singh, a doctoral candidate in marketing at Concordia’s John Molson School of Business, our friendships have an inner circle and an outer circle. The inner circle has in it people we know intimately; the outer circle is made up of friendships of convenience — people you know from the gym, say, or your commute.
“I don’t have a definitive answer to the question of whether friendships of convenience will resume once we start inhabiting those spaces again,” said Singh, one of the university’s 10 doctoral students chosen as public scholars. “I think that, as long as social distancing and our fear of contracting the virus remain, we will remain anxious and wary of talking to people to whom we are not very close.”
The pandemic has been an opportunity for conversations of consequence between close friends about such profound subjects as death and the meaning of life, she said; in comparison, small talk can seem unnecessary and vapid. And after 18 months without small talk, we’re rusty. “I have been interacting socially much less with other people and now there is a certain trepidation, almost an inertia, that has built up.”
And yet, friendships can play an enormously important role in everything from skill development to mental health.
In studies, Bukowski and his graduate students have found that for children who are victimized by peers but have secure friendships, the negative consequences of the victimization are weaker than they are for children who are bullied by peers but do not have such friendships. Secure friendship, then, acts as a kind of anxiety-reduction device.
“Can we generalize from studies of fifth and sixth grade to adulthood? Probably,” he said. With less opportunity for the protective effects of friendship, it is likely that people who are already anxious had a more difficult time than others during the confinement and isolation of the pandemic.
“I think people’s conceptualization of what a friend is changes through the lifespan,” said Melanie Dirks, a professor of clinical psychology in McGill University’s department of psychology.
Among young people, some waxing and waning of friendships is common. “It is not atypical for children and adolescents to have different best friends at the end of the school year than at the beginning,” she said.
Still, for younger children, “friendship is an incredibly important context for skill development.”
In childhood, when friends are usually equal in terms of power and knowledge, friendship “is kids’ first chance to navigate conflict and compromise skills that set us up for the types of relationships we have as adults.”
The pandemic separated many children from their friends, of course. “What happens when kids don’t have the same opportunity for a protracted period of time? I think about that a lot,” she said.
As teenagers begin to transition away from the family unit, peer relationships start to become central in their lives. “Once you are 14 or 15, friendship starts to become more about self-disclosure, talking about life and intimacy, and that places a very different demand on the friend: to be there for the other,” Dirks said. “That is another skill you can get better at through friendship interaction.”
“I think how important that daily navigation of conflict and kindness and positive events is — and about how not having that may have implications in terms of developing conflict resolution skills and learning to act on behalf of another person.”
Dirks is part of a team that collected data on their relationships, including friendships, from nearly 900 14- to 18-year-olds across Canada during the pandemic as part of a Public Health Agency of Canada-funded study led by Wendy Craig of the Queen’s University department of psychology. Preliminary results of the first wave of data, collected between August and October of 2020, show that that in-person interaction with friends went down as the teens complied with public health guidelines — and online and text interactions went up as they found other ways to connect.
“Friendship gives you lots of ways to act on behalf of another person,” Dirks said. “How might this be different when their interactions are only online?”
How being physically separated from friends might affect them in terms of skill development is not yet known, she said. “We are in uncharted waters.”
Although academics have focused on the ways in which the pandemic might have compromised development, “there are some kids for whom going to school is really hard,” Dirks said. “A remote learning context has helped them emotionally for a period of time.”
For young adults between ages 18 or 19 and 25, friends are the primary source of social support — even more than in adolescence, “and being away from those interactions would have been extremely difficult,” she said.
“All the casual interaction you have when you go to school in person, the conversations, is all gone, unless you deliberately seek it out. I suspect it had a huge impact on people’s mental health.”
Depression and anxiety, particularly in young adults, were “off the charts” during the past academic year, when nearly all classes were online, said Marlene Grossman, a professor in the Vanier College department of psychology. “It stems from alienation and isolation during the pandemic.”
“When we are with friends and we are enjoying ourselves, the brain pumps out feel-good hormones like serotonin and epinephrine, which make you feel happy and good — and stress is kept at bay,” she explained. “When you are very lonely, the body starts pumping out fight-or-flight hormones and, once that starts happening, your body begins to wear down and your immune system starts to get weaker and you start feeling depressed and anxious.”
For CEGEP and university students, “the pandemic really was a problem — not seeing friends and being isolated,” said Grossman, co-ordinator of Vanier’s psychology department. “For that age group, high levels of anxiety and depression were already a problem; with the added stress response during the pandemic, it became more and more of a problem.”
Young people are only now beginning to return to close friends and many “are still wary,” she said, with the presence of new variants putting a damper on attempts to return to life as it was.
As the pandemic precluded the kind of socializing to which so many friends were accustomed, some went out of their way to create new opportunities for connection, from socially distanced walks and FaceTime chats to 5 à 7 gatherings over Zoom and outdoor visits.
My friend Susan and I developed a Friday morning ritual: tea on the front porch of her Lachine home, on socially distanced benches, with cozy covers and propane heaters to keep us warm on winter’s most frigid days. One morning it was so cold that the tea in the bottom of my cup froze. I so looked forward to those visits.
But just as we made an effort to see some friends, there are others it has been a relief not to see.
“I think the pandemic legitimized cutting toxic relationships out of your life,” said Concordia’s Singh, who contributed a post about downsizing recently to the university’s Public Scholars blog. “As we emerge from the pandemic, we may have fewer close friends than before,” she writes. “It’s natural to feel sad about losing friends, but a downsizing of your friend circle isn’t such a bad thing.”
She cites behavioural economist Dan Ariely, who observed in his book Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions that humans have a tendency to engage in social comparison — and that comparing ourselves to others usually leaves us feeling worse about our own lives. “Having fewer close friends also means fewer social comparisons, which may lead to greater well-being,” Singh writes.
For some friendships not to survive is normal — pandemic or no pandemic.
“Sometimes our friendships end because they no longer fit into our lives or routines,” said clinical psychologist and friendship expert Miriam Kirmayer. Friendships may wane “because of other life responsibilities and relationships.” Amid the pandemic’s myriad challenges, from caregiving demands and financial strain to great anxiety and grief, it can be a challenge to sustain a friendship.
Other times, a friendship ends “because something about the dynamic is inherently unhealthy: The friendship is imbalanced or draining, for example. Something just wasn’t right,” Kirmayer said.
One byproduct of the pandemic was that “people got to wean away the friendships that were irrelevant in their lives — the toxic relationships,” said Grossman of Vanier. “You prune those and are left with the meaningful ones.”
Said Kirmayer: “In many ways, the pandemic has encouraged us to re-evaluate our friendships. Sometimes the most important thing we can do for ourselves and to maintain a healthy social circle is to let go of the relationships that just aren’t working or that are draining our resources.”
Conflicting ideas about the pandemic divided some friends — a divergence of views about social distancing or vaccine readiness. “This theme is particularly present in my work on friendship right now,” she said. A clash or mismatch of views, values and practices “can affect the level of trust and closeness we feel in our friendships, along with our sense of safety.”
If it was rare before for friends’ divergent values to have public-health consequences, the pandemic changed that. “And that means asking: ‘Is this someone I want to stay friends with?’
“Losing touch with friends can be a very real loss,” Kirmayer said, “But it’s important that we allow ourselves to let go of friendships that are affecting our mental health in unwanted ways.”