I Have Less Friends Thanks to COVID-19 and I'm Okay With It
Social distancing for fun in 2019
Few people know this but when my husband, Andy, and I met many moons ago, I was getting ready to take off for a 10-week trip abroad. I'd be spending the bulk of those months volunteering on a small farm on the Greek island of Skyros where WiFi access was limited to the main villages. I'd decided early on in my trip-planning that I didn't want the distractions of a cell phone so my ability to take calls, send texts, and answer emails would pretty much be relegated to the one day or so each week that I got to spend in the village. So, for those months, aside from a FaceTime call every couple of weeks, Andy and I got to know each other the old fashioned way: snail mail. We wrote weekly letters to each other, leaving out very little of our lives, and allowed our words to sit, unedited and often (on my part at least) unfiltered, on the pages we sent across the Atlantic. In my opinion, it was the best way to get to know someone. There was no distraction because of physical attraction or confusion about communication because everything was written, in pen, pencil, or crayon (the result of one or two letters I wrote while very drunk on local wine). We just got to sit with the other person's thoughts for a weeks at a time while we wrote responses and waited for the next letter to arrive.
The COVID-19 pandemic created a kind of echo of that experience for me with my friendships. In lieu of days and evenings spent eating, skiing, running, or simply hanging out with friends, I was inundated with hordes of text threads, Instagram messages, and Marco Polo recordings—none of which could be taken back or sent through the distracting filter of "fun times" .... because, for a while at least, no one was actually out having fun. We went from being able to share in first-hand experiences together to being very isolated from each other. This separation created a new, raw form of communication that was so unlike anything most people had ever experienced. For me, the result forced me to confront each friendship at its very core because all I had were the snippets of personality and lasting pieces of communication that couldn't be laughed off or moved on from. When a message left me sitting with a "huh.... let me think about that for a minute" feeling, I started to go down a rabbit hole of questions: was this a friendship based on common interest? on common beliefs? on good, stimulating conversation? Or was it rooted in a lengthy, shared history that had matured and branched away without my noticing? Or, simply, did I even like this relationship anymore? Do I even enjoy this person's company, however socially distant that company may be?
At 31 years old, I work a full-time, 40-hour/week job; I contribute one or two articles each month to different magazines; I have two very needy horses that are not in training so I'm fully responsible for caring for them all by myself, and I'm trying to be the best multisport athlete and partner (to any and all of my partners) that I can be. In other words, I have very, very limited spare time and very, very limited expendable emotional energy so the people I choose to spend my time with had better damn well value my friendship as deeply as I value theirs. Andy likes to joke that I am sometimes an overly loyal friend and I am very guilty of forgiving many, many of my friend's sins—to a fault at times. Learning to be less forgiving of those who exploit my loyalty has been one of the many cruxes of 2020 for me, and it will likely be a lesson I will continue trying to learn for years to come.
At first, I felt like an asshole for even letting these thoughts take root. But after some introspection (and support from my therapist), I was able to start picking things apart and come up with criteria for who I decide to dedicate my emotional energy to. Maybe this list is a no-brainer to you, but for me it was a life-altering moment that will help define the remainder of my adult life. It all boils down to one thing: any relationship must have a net positive impact on my life. If it doesn't, it's time to move on.
We need to be able to rely on our friends through difficult times. People have challenging days and they go through rough patches. Standing with your friends during these times is simply part of being a good, caring human. But when the person on the other side of the relationship does nothing but take, take, take, and complain endlessly about how hard/challenging/impossible their life is to you without taking even a second to ask how your existence is progressing, it's time to give that relationship a long, hard look. I started to ask myself, do I feel good about myself when I hang out with this person? do I feel valued? do I feel like I got repeatedly run over by an emotional rollercoaster-train hybrid by the time we end our interaction? and did they even ask me how I'm doing today? If the answer to all of those is consistently a negative one, it's probably time to cut ties and move on.
Is this person positive? Toxic people love to exercise their toxic thoughts so they stay super fit for the next disaster they choose to manifest using "The Secret." We've all met the person that spends half of their time trash-talking other people or complaining about their significant other/their ex/their boss/their job/blah blah blah. Do they find themselves completely blameless through every break-up, job loss, or other forms of hardship? Do you need to drink some decaf tea and/or go for a head-clearing stroll when you get done talking to that person? Do some of their opinions (once in the positive, now in the negative) give you whiplash?
We must be able to be open in that relationship. Does your friend ask you for advice? Like, if you've recently traveled to another country or are somewhat of an expert (or at least intermediately competent) in an activity, do they ask you for advice before they start their Google spiral? Or would they rather send out an Instagram poll or post an attention-grabbing selfie on SM with a vague caption as they seek for solutions to their problems? ... because who doesn't love feeding the drama beast by alluding to personal issues on a public social media platform?
On that same note, we must be able to be honest with each other. As an introvert masquerading as an extrovert, there are some days where I simply don't have the emotional energy to do anything other than crawl into a book and pet my dog. If I can't explain how I feel to my friends and have them respect that I might need to bail on 'girl's night' every so often because I'm just having a helluva week, that position should be respected and it should be respected without judgement. If you ever get given the guilt trip for having to bail once in a blue moon just so you can take care of yourself, it might be time to have a solid reckoning with that friend.
Friendships should be inclusive and if they aren't, they should be open about why they are not. Are you constantly being excluded from outings and events and finding out about those gatherings via a third party? Or worse, when your friend is talking about it in front of you as if you don't matter in their grand schemes? Can you talk with that friend about feeling excluded or are your feelings glossed over and/or quickly forgotten?
No one is allowed to be rude to your family. If you've reached the point where on almost every occasion your "friend" has been around your parents/siblings/relatives/whatever, you've ended up running interference or stress-eating appetizers while you wait for the nasty comments or rolled eyes to make their debut, kick that chippy to the curb. There is absolutely no excuse for being rude to your relatives. On that same note, if your sister/brother/aunt/cousin/step-sibling doesn't like this person, that's a pretty solid red flag that you might want to heed.
You should both be your own person. The moment you pick up a new hobby, do you have a friend who follows suit? Maybe you've joined a Book Club and started trail running this year and somehow, they are also extremely into those things and have started inserting themselves in the circle of friends you've created and are now the expert at all of those things? At first, it might seem like a loving gesture—mimicry is the greatest form of flattery after all—but when it gets to the point where that person has suddenly comanderied your new friends and adopted the same color scheme you're started rocking, trouble is likely brewing because your friendship might fiercely codependent or your friend is flirty with the green monster and is trying to keep you within their clutches.
We need to support our friends. This means building them up when they need it and celebrating with them when the occasion calls for it. If you got a promotion, got hitched, bought a house, won an award, your friends should be ready to pop bottles of your poison of choice—without using the opportunity to draw attention to themselves. On the other side of that coin, if you've suffered a disappointment or are going through a rough patch, rather than using that "down period" to make themselves feel powerful, your friends should be there to help you laugh your way back to equilibrium, without making you feel like a burden. Simplified, this concept circles back to the proverb: "Always notice the people who are happy for your happiness, and sad for your sadness. they're the ones who deserve special places in your heart."
We shouldn't be scared of our friends. There should never be a moment in a friendship where you ask yourself, "If I suddenly wasn't friends with this person tomorrow, can I trust that they won't put me on blast to every single person they know?" If that moment comes while listening to them endlessly shit-talk their "ex-friends," you should probably move on... like yesterday.
Yeah, okay maybe I'm airing some of my dirty laundry on my professional website but I do think that the pandemic has given people a lot of time to spend learning about themselves and it's time I've chosen to take advantage of. I've used this time to become a better, more prolific writer, to start therapy again (there are few things like temporary social isolation to make you realize that your anxiety disorder didn't, poof!, go away last year while you were distracted by life's many distracting things), and to invest time into the relationships that I truly value. Some of those friendships are new and some are old. But, in the end, whether I see or speak with those people once a week or every six months, they all make me feel valued as a person and that's what really matters in the end.