Last October, a 65-year-old woman in therapy said: “You remember a friend of mine whom I used to go for my walks with? In March, we stopped going for our walks because of safety protocol. For two years before the pandemic, I used to meet her every day and we would spend almost an hour together. During the pandemic, I tried calling her a few times and even messaging to speak to her, but it felt different. Then I didn’t call for a while and I realised that she never reached out; it hurt a lot at the time, and it still does. Do you think the pandemic can come in the way of friendships?”
Often, clients’ friendships make their presence felt in the therapy sessions. More so in the last 16 months, when clients across age and gender have struggled to make sense of their friendships. Clients have tried to understand what has led to some of their closest friendships feeling distant and wondered how they suddenly don’t have anything to share or even talk about with people they used to hang out with every weekend.
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Adult friendships take different forms, whether it’s activity friends, intimate friends who feel like family or people we call friends because we have intersecting social circles. Activity friends are people we connect with over a shared interest or hobby, such as an exercise class, movie screenings or watching plays together. Amidst the pandemic, these have deepened into close relationships for some people; for others, they have slowly faded away as there is no way to meet or participate in these shared interests.
People we hung out with, met at the bus-stop when we dropped off our children for school, or those we bumped into every weekend at the club or at a restaurant, those connections seem to be slowly evaporating from our lives as we are no longer stepping into those spaces. Very often now, when I think of all those people I feel a sense of loss, as those interactions brought warmth, familiarity and allowed us to be seen and feel safe at the same time.
Maybe it’s that void and need for social connection which has prompted us to go back and interact with our classmates from school and university. Possibly, so many online reunions are a way of fostering and nurturing dormant relationships which had slipped into the background earlier. Now that we are interacting mostly online, these are again assuming importance. Often, life-changing events, and particularly disasters, make us acutely aware of our own mortality and this, in turn, brings about a change in our values. I wonder if looking at our past and those relationships is also a function of this.
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As the external world has changed since March 2020, so has our internal world and the values we want to live by. Differences in values in relation to the safety protocol and quarantine process have impacted some close friendships. In therapy, clients have shared that their decision to stay indoors has been misunderstood as them wanting to avoid meeting friends. Other friendships have weakened as some people find it hard to communicate over phone or text messages. A client said: “Two of my close friends have become very bitter and consistently feel helpless and hopeless; every time I speak to them, I feel very low. While I feel guilty, I really want to be around people who are hopeful and optimistic.” This sentiment has impacted friendships too.
As things open up slowly over the next few months, my sense is that a lot of people may have to choose how to recalibrate their friendships. How we see our friendships is a function of who we have become, how many of our needs are met, how aligned our values are, and the reciprocity we experience in those spaces. Like the client who asked me, “Now that we start our walks together, how do I interact with my friend again when I meet her in person?”
Sonali Gupta is a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist. She is the author of the book Anxiety: Overcome It And Live Without Fear and has a YouTube channel, Mental Health with Sonali.