How to Navigate Friendships That Have Changed in Light of COVID-19

Between work, family responsibilities, drinking enough water, exercising, getting an adequate fill of fruit and veggies and replying to all of your text messages and emails, life is a balancing act. Add in a global pandemic and it’s a whole different ballgame.

Adult friendships are a completely different beast to those you have as a child or teen and often require a lot more work. And, with the stresses of 2020 — starting with a bushfire crisis and then a global pandemic — your friendships might feel a little different at the moment.

The uncertainty brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic caused a plethora of reactions. While you have responded one way, your friends might have done so in another way. This is completely normal, says psychologist Amelia Twiss, from Twiss Psychology Group.

“It’s natural that friendships are feeling different during the COVID-19 pandemic – let’s face it, nearly everything is different!” Twiss told TheLatch—. “People have had to adapt to completely new ways of living, working and relating to each other. This has been overshadowed by health anxiety and grief.

“Grief associated with the loss of life as we knew it, and having to let go of plans that we had for our futures. When people are grieving a natural response can be to withdraw from friendships.

“People are also tired — the pandemic and associated collective stress has been going on since January. Friends might not have the energy to stay in touch, however, they will likely appreciate you reaching out to check-in.”

A clear difference in your friendships might be your friends’ willingness to go out and socialise — or lack thereof. For many states and territories around Australia, you’re able to dine out and socialise with people in a socially distanced way. Many people have resumed these public activities, while others are still staying home.

Seeing how your friends react to these choices can create a disconnect, especially when they might be taking their approach to the extreme — be it going out excessively or refusing to leave the house. But, everyone has to take responsibility for their own health and choose what they are comfortable with, especially at the moment.

Whatever your approach may be, you just have to go with how you’re feeling in the moment, as do your pals. Twiss recommends getting clear on your priorities as this time and how you want to take responsibility for your health.

“This means knowing what your personal boundaries are in relation to going out and mixing with other people,” she said. “Discuss this with your family or housemates to help you come up with a reasonable approach that makes sense to you.

“Specifically articulating what you are and aren’t ok with will help you let others know where you stand. Every person’s response to the pandemic and how they want to do things is very personal and unique to them. For example, you might decide that you are comfortable catching up with people outside your household bubble, outdoors only.”

There’s nothing wrong with placing boundaries around yourself for the time being. Communicating these needs to your friends will make it easier for them to support you and to know what you need at the moment. While you might want to hibernate at home, you still need your loved ones in your corner for moral support.

“Have confidence in the boundaries you have put in place for yourself and let your friends know what stance you are taking for the time being,” Twiss said. “Everyone’s situation is different. Many people are protecting loved ones through their social distancing choices.”

If you have friends who are going out a lot and spending time with multiple groups of people and this makes you feel uncomfortable, you can tell them that you need some space at the moment and that you’re keeping your bubble pretty small. If they are your buddies, they should understand your stance on this.

“You don’t have to explain yourself — you get to decide what you are ok with. You might say, ‘For now, my family and I have decided that we won’t be socialising outside of our family group.'”

If you’re on the receiving end of a conversation like this, try not to take it personally. Everyone is making decisions that they think are best and not actively spending time with you isn’t a reflection on your friendship. But, it can create distance within the friendship and that’s tough to shift when you’re not seeing each other. Supporting your friend from afar is your best option for the time being.

Twiss says: “Show your friends that you care by respecting their wishes and supporting their personal decision. Check-in with them often to see how they are, especially if you know they live alone.

“When your friends are ready to leave the house again, be warm and open and be aware that, initially, they might not be comfortable being around others if they have been isolating.”

Try to keep in mind that everyone is (and or has) been pushed to their limit in one way or another this year. There is a lot of fear associated with COVID-19 and all of the stress manifests in different ways for everyone.

While some of your friendships might feel a little disconnected right now, try not to make any rash decisions at the moment. And, as with most things, communication is king. Keep the lines of communication open with your friends and let them know how you’re feeling as well.

“Remember that everyone is going through a really hard time and be compassionate towards others,” Twiss said.

On the flip side, if you’re feeling like you need some space, simply voice that to your friends.

“If you do feel like you want some distance, you can let your friends know without offending them,” said Twiss. “You could try saying, ‘I’m struggling a bit at the moment and need some space. I’ll give you a call when I’m feeling more social.'”

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