Health and Fitness

Lost touch with pals post-pandemic? Here’s how to rekindle the friendship spark – The Irish Times

Talking to friends in the last few months, trying to organise a long overdue get-together, I’ve realised that making the effort to meet up was becoming more of a chore. “It’s not that I don’t want to see people,” one friend said, trying to explain the lethargy that gripped her when I suggested an outing to just hang out and catch up. (“No offence! Bashful face emoji” she qualified. “None taken! Smiley face emoji” I replied.) And yet hanging between us, like a gloomy cloud in an otherwise sunny WhatsApp chat, was the brutal truth that since the pandemic some of us are having trouble making time for our friends.

I’d been feeling it myself. I thought about the meet-ups I’d cancelled at the last minute. The fomo (fear of missing out) that had quietly evolved into what I recently heard described as fogo (fear of going out). I began reflecting on friendship and about how post-Covid, some of mine had changed or become more distant, or in some cases, fallen away. I thought about all those friendship circles that shrunk in the pandemic and stayed that way instead of bouncing back to their usual, expansive shape. The day-to-day acquaintances we no longer saw because they never seemed to resurface when the world opened up. The good friends that slipped through the cracks as we focused, during that strange time, on the people we were bubbled up with, the friends who have yet to emerge from those pandemic crevices. Or maybe we just haven’t bothered trying to rescue them.

“In the pandemic we fell out of the habit of friendship,” says psychotherapist Linda Breathnach, when I call to get her professional opinion. “The spontaneity stopped, it had to, and as a result we really got out of the habit of making those casual connections and meetings. It’s coming back, but perhaps not to the same degree and that’s what people are noticing.”

Why did it feel like there wasn’t enough time, or feel like we’re incapable of devoting more time to procuring and nurturing social relations?

Is it that some friendships just haven’t been rekindled since they were interrupted by Covid? “From talking to people it does seem that with some of those really good friendships, the ones that are almost taken for granted, they haven’t made the effort to connect with them since losing touch. What I’m hearing is that people’s insecurities are stopping them from reaching out, especially if they feel a friendship has been left untended for too long. The longer it goes on, the harder it gets and the more effort it seems to take, so we leave it.”

The fogo, clearly, is real. And yet if we don’t go out, enjoy spontaneous gatherings or hang out with friends, we are missing out on an important and healthy aspect of life. Sheila Liming, an associate professor teaching classes on writing and media at Champlain College in Vermont, in the US, has been ruminating on all of this for the past few years. Even before the pandemic she had been interrogating the idea of friendship, the difficulty of making new ones, and the notion that our chaotic world, in which we are pulled in different real-life and digital directions, might be a barrier to spending time with people we enjoy.

“I had started thinking about what it means to ‘hang out’ even before the pandemic forced me to do that from a nostalgic angle. Why did it feel like there wasn’t enough time, or feel like we’re incapable of devoting more time to procuring and nurturing social relations? In the end, I needed to write a book on the subject to work through what felt both very simple and very complex all at the same time.”

The result was Hanging Out: The Radical Power of Killing Time, a book which makes the case for reclaiming our social lives and our friendships from “the deadening whirl of contemporary life”. Liming maintains that unstructured idle time with friends, family and even strangers, is a key element of our cultural vitality and we need to do more, not less, of it.

It’s good for us, for a start. “Relaxation is perhaps one of the most obvious health benefits, but it’s not a given where hanging out or even friendship is concerned,” says Liming. “For instance, there are plenty of social situations that may result in a fair amount of stress. Hanging out, which I define as daring to do very little and, more importantly, doing it in the presence of others, is about the opposite of that, about improvising and entering into a social situation with low expectations about what has to be done or achieved. Spending time with people in this way is not just relaxing, it’s uplifting because it comes without the pressure to produce or perform. Nothing has to be solved or accomplished because the relationship itself is the accomplishment.”

I mention the so-called “friendship recession” or “drought” that struck during the pandemic. Was that something she was aware of? “Absolutely,” she says. “I teach college, which means I spend a lot of my days interacting with people between the ages of 18 and 24. For that demographic, in particular, I noticed a decline in friendships or social connections that begin in person and, as a result, an increased sense of awkwardness that comes from being forced to sit in a room in the presence of others, which is exactly what happens in a college classroom.

From a friendship perspective, Covid made us old before our time

“But that phenomenon is not limited to that age group, and their generation certainly didn’t invent it. Across all age groups, except for maybe the very young, I’ve noticed a “recession” affecting the degree to which people invest in live, in-person social interaction. There is a sense that one’s ‘real’ people or friends exist elsewhere, outside of the sphere of live interaction.”

While loneliness is studied a lot, there is very little research focusing on friendship in this country. The topic is explored to a greater degree in the US, where a report last year from the Survey Centre on American Life discovered people had far fewer close friends now than they did 30 years ago. Ann-Marie Creavan, a lecturer in the Department of Psychology at University of Limerick, says anecdotally at least there is evidence that the pandemic reduced our number of close friends and made people focus more on quality than on quantity in friendships.

“From a friendship perspective, Covid made us old before our time,” she suggests on a zoom call from the University, where she specialises in social connectedness and health. “We learnt more about the value of friendship during the pandemic. There’s that theory of socio-emotional selectivity, that we narrow in on our close relationships later in adulthood. I think the pandemic made us do that much earlier in many cases and that might be hard to shake off.”

It’s all quite difficult to pin down, she says, given that in this country most research into relationships tends to focus on families and partners. “Everything in the research is inevitably intertwined with other kinds of relationships, neighbours or romantic partners or blood relations, which means we don’t get a clear picture”.

Creavan believes this will change in the future as research expands to include friendship. But even in the absence of hard evidence, few would argue with her point, that the pandemic saw a lot of us conducting friendship audits and maybe even culls, the kind usually undergone much later in life.

Trust yourself, but know that it’s okay to feel apprehensive

What is abundantly clear, she says, is the importance of friendship. “Everybody has a need to affiliate with others,” she says. “It is voluntary, it is reciprocal. By definition it involves liking somebody so it brings positive emotions. More practically, in terms of your health, it fulfils our need to belong and in times of stress is a source of emotional support.”

So how do we start rekindling the spark if the fire in some of our friendships had died out? “Just bite the bullet and do it,” says Breathnach. “Trust yourself, but know that it’s okay to feel apprehensive. Remember why you want to connect again, what was good about the friendship. Look back over photos and remember why you became friends in the first place, all the things you had in common, the support that you gave each other. Just go for it”.

“Relax, be willing to improvise, and adjust your expectations, ” says Liming, when I ask her about ways to banish the creeping fogo. “That last part sounds like a bad thing. When we think of adjusting expectations we tend to think primarily of lowering them, but it doesn’t have to be that way. If we commit to thinking about social relationships as ends in themselves, rather than as means to an end, then what actually happens in the course of hanging out doesn’t really matter. The point is about simply seizing the time in which to do it, which signals to the people you’re hanging out with that they’re free to do the same.”

Below we put three friendships under the microscope to see how they formed, how they evolved and how they’ve survived challenging times.

The best friends forever … poet and fashion stylist Jan Brierton is 47 and lives in Dublin with her husband and two children. She met and became best friends with Lesley McGuirk, also 47, when they were four and the pair have remained besties through the decades.

How did you become friends?

Jan: Lesley has always been there, from the cradle to the rave. We grew up in Tallaght, in the late 1970s. Lesley lived in the house directly opposite mine and I would call in for her every single day. Lesley is a constant in all of my life’s successes and failures. She is still my best friend in the whole world.

Lesley: We went to different primary schools, secondary schools and followed different paths in life but we always remained best friends. When we were grounded as teenagers (usually me as my parents were stricter) we still found a way to keep in touch. We’d no mobiles back then but we used to write messages to each other on the back of posters or old rolls of wallpaper and hold them up to our bedroom windows. Old school texting, I suppose.

What does being ‘best friends’ mean to you?

Jan: The consistency of friendship; Lesley is loyal, and continues to be that constant in my life. Both me and Lesley had just one sibling, a brother. And I always dreamed of having a sister. Our friendship gave me that closeness. We have always been there for each other, even though sometimes life has been busy and messy and chaotic. When we were teens, we covered for each other if we were in trouble. We definitely got caught many times, going to gigs we shouldn’t have been at.

Lesley: This is something that stands out from our friendship and sums it up well: I was raised as a Methodist so never made my communion. To make sure I didn’t feel left out, Jan dressed me up in her communion dress and paraded me around all the neighbours. I’ll never forget it.

Jan: My mam always says “show me you, show me your friends”.

What do you get from the friendship?

Jan: I get love, support, honesty and advice. The best advice. Lesley was in her early 20s when she had her son Joe, and so when I became pregnant for the first time with my daughter in 2009, Lesley was my go-to; I could ask her anything, she told me as it was and guided me so much in those months.

Lesley: The friendship gives me love, laughter and the knowledge that Jan always has my back. She is an amazing person and I am so proud of her achievements and extremely lucky to have her as my friend.

Why is it different from other friendships you have?

Jan: I’ve nowhere to hide with Lesley. She’s seen all of me, happy, sad, young, old, so she feels like an extension of me. Lesley is the first person I call if something great has happened, she is the first one I call when something has gone wrong. She’ll tell me if I’m being an eejit and reminds me to go easy when I’m hard on myself.

Lesley: Jan never judges me but at the same time will always tell me exactly what she thinks. Because we’ve been friends for nearly all of our lives, she’s been with me at every stage of my life, good or bad. That’s important to me.

Were there times in your life when you worried about friendship – not having enough or the quality of them?

Lesley: Not really, I always had good friends but probably would have been more of a people pleaser when I was younger. I can look back now and question the quality of them. I have definitely learned as I’ve gotten older which ones are worth keeping around.

Jan: There were times in my life when I felt I wasn’t investing enough time and energy into my friends – being “busy” with work, the years when the children were young and I needed to be at home more, or when I was in the first flushes of a relationship and all my time was spent with my beloved. The incredible thing is the friends have always remained. It’s like that saying “good friends are like stars, you can’t always see them, but they are always there”.

Do you need more friends or have you enough? Do you think you should stay open to new friendships as you grow older?

Jan: To my surprise, I have made many friends in recent years who will be with me for life. It’s been a lovely thing to find and grow a friendship in my late 40s. I have made some amazing older friends over the last few years, people in their 60s and 70s. They have taught me to be open to these new relationships, even as I age.

Did the pandemic impact your friendships in a negative or positive way?

Jan: The pandemic strengthened my friendships, in particular my local connections. My good friend Brenda, who lives close to me, was in my “bubble” and she became my daily go-to for chats, laughs, tears and everything, every day.

And with Lesley, I do feel like we checked in more regularly on the phone during that time. At the beginning of the pandemic, I decided I would go through my contacts A-Z in my phone and call them, to talk. It took a couple of days, and some answered and some didn’t, but it reminded me why I had their numbers in my phone; they are my friends!

Lesley: Friendships were massively important including Jan’s. They helped me get through a time I hope never happens again.

The community friends … Enida Friel is an academic from Albania who moved to Ireland 17 years ago having met her Irish husband in Kosovo where they were both working in humanitarian aid

Was it difficult to make friends in Ireland?

It was difficult to make friends at first. Everybody had busy lives and their own networks. I found the indirect ways of Irish people difficult to deal with. I still do. In time I learnt that when they said “let’s meet up for coffee or dinner” it was something they just threw out, it didn’t necessarily mean they would make time to meet you. When they asked “how are you?” it was just making conversation. I remember discussing this with an Irish colleague who had come back from Germany to live in Ireland. She found it frustrating too, so it wasn’t just me. Having said that, I now have friends who do follow up on invitations and are interested in knowing how I am in a real sense. This friendship group is hugely supportive.

What was the friendship game-changer?

Seven years ago my now 10-year-old son was diagnosed with autism, which was a dark period of our life. I could read all the books and peer reviewed scientific articles – I was a doctor and teaching in Trinity College Dublin by this stage – but nothing could prepare me for the emotional toll and hard work of parenting an autistic child. This is how I came across a group of women friends, through a music class for children with significant disabilities or life-limiting conditions. I met lots of other parents there and was accepted as one of them. Even after the classes stopped, I kept in touch with this group of parents. We have kept in touch through everything.

What has kept you together as a group of friends?

Some of the parents have since lost their children but remained in our supportive friendship. I am in awe of these women. We talk about the challenges we face but we also remember, in a healthy way, the children that are not with us any more. We all come from different backgrounds, cultures and religions but our bond is our children. I learnt to say “our children” from them. Their friendship makes me feel less alone in my parenting experience. When I am looking for friends I look for common values – family, fairness, justice and equality. I can’t imagine being friends with somebody who does not think we should live in a world that is fair, inclusive and equal. It might be an ideal vision, but it’s one I hold dear and value in my friendships.

Did the pandemic impact on your friendships?

Some friendships may have been fractured, but some were strengthened. I do not see my friends as much as I would like, or used to. One particular friend who since Covid – because of health issues – is isolating. I have made numerous attempts to meet her in her own terms, not very successfully. But on the other front I have been in touch more with other friends. We kept each other going.

The pandemic friends … Tadhg Walsh-Peelo, musician, part-time farmer and spoon carver and Sam McNicholl, who during the pandemic renovated and eventually reopened his parent’s old music venue, Connelly’s of Leap

How did you meet?

Sam: We became proper friends in west Cork after first meeting 20 years earlier. A mutual friend Anna brought us together again. It was a beautiful happening … the way we were introduced was like an adult version of a play date. Kind of like a blind-date but for a friendship.

Tadhg: As a musician my career was stopped in its tracks by the pandemic. I took it as an opportunity to throw myself into my other interests – regenerative agriculture and traditional craft. I moved down to west Cork to work part-time on an organic farm that was setting up a restaurant. The pandemic severely restricted the making new friends but once Sam was able to open up the doors of Connolly’s of Leap, our shared passion for music and food meant we had lots to talk about. We were both a bit impressed by each other’s stories and experiences. We became fast friends.

Sam: The pandemic brought Tadhg down to my neck of the woods, so technically it brought us together. He’s definitely a pal born from the lockdowns.

What do you like most about your friendship?

Tadhg: There’s something nice about being friends in our 30s when a lot of the growing pains of the early 20s have been ironed out. Sam is a straight shooter and his opinion matters to me.

Sam: We mostly hung out during lockdown when both of our careers had basically jumped off a 10 storey building. It was a wild time and it felt good connecting with someone who also had their entire life thrown upside down.

What do you get from each other?

Sam: If I ever need a hand around the venue, Tadhg is always there to help out. We have made some great music together and generally spend some very nice times in west Cork.

Tadhg: I think having someone who understood what I had lost and given up with the pandemic, and my transition out of the music industry, was very important. Although farming is something I’m passionate about it was a big shift in lifestyle from being on stage to being out in my wellies all day. I also appreciate that Sam is someone who dedicates himself fully to not only his business but also his people – he’s a leader in this respect, something I aspire to.

How important is friendship?

Sam: Without friendship life is an utterly meaningless endeavour.

Tadhg: It’s the lifeblood of our communities. I do a lot of my work in solitude, which I enjoy, but the feedback and encouragement from our friends is sometimes the only thing that will get us out of a slump. I think it’s when we’re struggling a little that we realise the value of good friends.

Have you ever worried about any aspects of your friendships? Do you need more or do you have enough?

Sam: I’m always up for making new friends, it’s important to be open to new experiences and people. I never put a lid on it. In life friends do come and go, there are also friendship break-ups. The relationships are like plants, they need taking care of and attention otherwise they die.

Tadhg: I’ve struggled more with reaching out to friends when I am feeling low. This might affect men more, because we were shown by older generations that talking about our feelings and struggles is a sign of weakness. Luckily, I’m in a place in my life where I can talk to all of my friends about anything that’s going on. I think that’s the hallmark of a good relationship, sharing the good and the bad.



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