How COVID has strained our friendships

Social distancing rules aren’t the only thing making compatibility harder.

Best friends for 30 years no longer seeing each other because one person isn’t vaccinated.

Anger after someone mentions an interesting article about anti-vaxxers that feels like judgement, and the friends stop talking.

No matter where you stand on the vaccine debate, just about everyone has a tale of tension among friends during the pandemic. When I put out a call on Facebook for stories, a lot of people reached out to share their experiences.

Debi from Toronto laments the lack of public space to be honest about the many peripheral effects of COVID. Of grief. Of loss. Of not just physical illness and death but the ripple effects it has had in our lives. When Debi’s father died just as COVID-19 was beginning, she discovered that her friends from earlier in life, the ones she had mostly lost touch with, were the ones providing support instead of her current friends.

people walking down a wooded stairway
(Leanne VanderMeer)

“People think they don’t need anyone, but you do,” says Debi. “Can we come to a collective understanding that something’s not right?”

Maranda from Montreal, who had one friendship end because of the Black Lives Matter movement and another because of COVID disagreements, says it has changed what she looks for in close friendships: “Morals aligning are now key in all my relationships,” she says. “They always have been, but I was ignorant to think that my friends shared the same beliefs I did. My priorities have changed. I don’t care about impressing people anymore.”

Could it be that cultural expectations around friendship are shifting? We don’t keep friendships for as long; they’re harder to establish; and what we want from our friends has changed. The move to a digital world – research shows that more time spent on social media is correlated with higher feelings of loneliness – coupled with a breakdown of community has made naturally-occurring friendships much more difficult.

In an effort to capitalize on this growing disparity, dating apps like Bumble have expanded beyond romantic connections, adding an option for meeting your next best friend.

Billed as “a simplified way to make meaningful friendships,” Bumble BFF launched in March 2016, and has been growing steadily – particularly during COVID. During the first three months of 2021, the average time spent on Bumble BFF grew by 44 percent for women and 83 percent for men, a Bumble spokesperson told CC. “This change in our lives really put a spotlight on the tools and platforms that help people feel connected to others.”

Vetting potential friends online makes sense when the friendship landscape has become a bit of a landmine. A quick scroll through social media reveals soapbox positions on everything from only having friends who can help you succeed, to being rigid about boundaries, to cutting people out of your life if they don’t agree with you. Even the very idea of “likes” and “friends” on social media has changed how we think of friends, and left many of us with only surface relationships.

“Friendships in [the virtual group] space … do not grow for their own sake, and individual members are not valued for who they are,” states the author of a Forbes article from earlier this year. “Online, we can be whomever we want to be . . . except ourselves.”

“Social media has given us a sense of knowing someone, and allowed us to feel that we know them, when in fact we don’t,” says Stefanie Peachey, director of Peachey Counselling and Family Support. “Social media ‘likes’ provide a lot of people with validation that they are seeking but I’m not sure anyone would deem their ‘friends’ or followers as meaningful friendships.”

Our digital world has prompted us to focus on what friends can give to us, rather than what we can give to them.

Church friendships

At least we can count on making friends at church, right? Think again. Cliques and the “in crowd” exist in church just like anywhere else, and new people or simply those who aren’t big “joiners” can struggle to make connections.

Blogger and Australian missiologist Mike Frost wrote last year that people are leaving church because they aren’t making the deep connections they seek. “They’re nice to you,” Frost wrote, “but no-one becomes your friend.”

He notes that church people aren’t always good listeners, and that they struggle to be vulnerable – two things that are of critical importance to maintaining and nurturing friendships. Churchgoers can also be overly busy, leaving little free time to invest in relationships, and the onus is often on the newcomer to “get involved.”

Frost referenced a book by Matthew Lieberman entitled Social. The book mentions that in 1985, a survey found that “only 10 percent [of respondents] indicated that they had zero confidants. In 2004, this number had skyrocketed to 25 percent,” with respondents noting that “the most common number of friends with whom you would discuss important matters was zero.”

As Lieberman says, “One out of every four of us is walking around with no one to share our lives with.”

So what can we do to change that? How can we build meaningful connections into our lives?

“Friendship involves joining people on their journey,” says Peter Elgersma, Director of Congregational Ministries for the Christian Reformed Church and a Christian Courier board member. “We need to have space, mental space, to accommodate some of those relationships.

Elgersma noted that COVID has only complicated matters, especially at church. Not only are we simply not at church like we used to be, but we aren’t able to do the “extracurriculars” that can foster connections – potlucks and fundraisers and small groups, for example – making things all the more challenging.

“As COVID brings our own rhythms into question, making space for other people’s unpredictable journey becomes a little harder. It used to mean that someone’s attendance at church made us compatible; COVID has introduced new variables that bring new challenges to that presumed compatibility.”

You may find a great friend, he says, only to find out that we differ on our opinions on the vaccine, or mask wearing, or we might all be vaccinated but have different thoughts on visiting non-vaccinated friends.

“But perhaps this is just God nudging into a new corner – stretching our comfort zone in a new direction.”

Repairing relationships

Close relationships that are supportive and uplifting are key to our wellbeing, actually protecting us from stress and other unhealthy parts of life. But negative relationships do the opposite, actually causing stress. A study by William J. Chopik in the journal Personal Relationships, found that valuing friendships was related to better functioning (particularly in older adults), while “strain from friendships predicted more chronic illnesses.”

Still, a survey in the U.S. found that 1 in 7 respondents had ended a friendship over COVID vaccination status, according to a story on Today.com. And with tales of “COVID scores” (friends rating others on how they have behaved during the pandemic, and determining if they’ll still hang out with them), extreme positions, divisions among families and friends, mental health challenges, a tightening of social circles, cancel culture, tough conversations, and loneliness, we may be more in need of connection than ever.

“Do friends really want to talk about the hard stuff?” asks Debi.

“There’s a need for community,” she continues, “for an outlet; an opportunity to state what you’re feeling, and in so doing, what others may be feeling, too.”

She says COVID has changed the way people view each other, with a loss of respect being all too common. “It’s changed what I believe a friend is,” she says.

Cat was pregnant through the early pandemic and saw two friendships end during that time. “I’m now friends with people I’ve lost connection with from years ago,” she says. “Now that I have my baby, it feels like my world is more forgiving. We all want to teach our children kindness and it just feels beautiful. If I ever come across the friends I lost, I’ll still love them. I will introduce my son. But I think the friendship is over.”

“When I think of journeying together, I can’t help but recall Christ’s journey to Emmaus,” says Elgersma. “He walks alongside two of his followers (who don’t recognize him), but he listens to them, as they share their frustrations of the event of the previous few days. He also shares his wisdom of the scriptures with them. Jesus had the answers the entire time, yet he allowed his story to be told in their words, from their perspective, undoubtedly with many of the facts scrambled – but the most important part was that he listened.”


WHAT ABOUT YOU? How has COVID-19 affected the friendships in your life? Have you begun new friendships, connecting more with neighbours or the people who live near you? Have you lost any friendships due to pandemic-related tension? Has the pandemic changed the way you view friendship or what you value in a friend? Do you have close friends at church? We’d love to hear your thoughts! Send your stories to Amy at ac.reiruocnaitsirhc@serutaef.

  • Amy is CC’s Features Editor and a freelance writer and communicator with a degree in Journalism and 13 years’ experience at the Presbyterian Record. Amy highlights stories about community-building, families and personal faith, along with bigger, in-the-news issues that challenge, teach and inspire. She lives west of Toronto with her two daughters and three guinea pigs.

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