Friendships need four elements to grow, according to Kat Vellos, an author and connection coach: close physical proximity, regular interactions, a compatible outlook on life and a shared commitment to being there for each other. In her book, We Should Get Together: The Secret to Cultivating Better Friendships, she calls these factors “seeds of connection,” because when they are all present, a healthy friendship can bloom. However, if any of these components are lacking “due to circumstance or not being actively nurtured, the greater your likelihood of failure,” she wrote.
If you’re feeling disconnected because you haven’t been able to spend time with your friends, it’s understandable. When we don’t engage in regular communication and do activities together, even the closest bonds of friendship decay, according to a 2015 study that appeared in the journal Human Nature.
Unlike family relationships, friendships are completely voluntary. Therefore, “they’re the relationships we put the least amount of effort into usually,” said Sabeen Shaiq, a licensed clinical social worker.
Another reason you might be feeling isolated from a friend is because you recently realized your ethical beliefs aren’t as similar as you’d assumed. Clashing viewpoints on social issues may reveal incompatibilities too distressing to ignore. Recent social movements are “really showing more about who people are, what they value, and what’s important to them,” said Ivy Kwong, a licensed marriage and family therapist. “And that’s changing a lot of friendship dynamics.”
Whether your friendship has been rocky the past few months or has iced over completely, here are some ways to heal while socially distancing.
IF THERE’S BEEN CONFLICT
Maybe you’ve had a disagreement about observing safety precautions, or you’ve experienced a glaring mismatch in values and beliefs. There’s been a fight, and you’re looking to repair it.
MAKE A GENUINE CONNECTION.
If getting together isn’t feasible or safe, you can arrange a video call. However, a one-time conversation over video chat probably won’t be enough to get the friendship back on track, Ms. Shaiq said. Setting up another call or check-in at a future date will keep the positive momentum going and help normalize the relationship.
EXTEND AS MUCH GRACE AS YOU CAN.
“We need to have compassion for the stresses that people are under,” said Lydia Denworth, author of Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life’s Fundamental Bond. Some people are untouched by the pandemic; others have had their life grind to a halt. Problems can arise between friends who don’t acknowledge that different people are experiencing this crisis in different ways, Ms. Denworth said. We must be aware of our own lucky breaks and extend compassion to those who haven’t been as fortunate.
Ms. Kwong encourages white people to be especially mindful in interactions with friends who are people of colour. It’s understandable if you want to reach out to your Black, brown or Asian-American friends to see how they’re coping with the changes sweeping the country, she said.
First, she encourages people to examine their motives: Are you operating from a place of care for your friend, or are you trying to soothe your own discomfort? If you’re truly concerned for your friend, instead of asking how they’re doing, Ms. Kwong recommends inquiring about how you can support them right now. Offer to do something specific, like running an errand for them, ordering food on their behalf or donating to a fund they support. She encourages white people to continue their own anti-racist work both independently and alongside their other white friends.
ACCEPT YOU MIGHT HAVE OUTGROWN THIS FRIENDSHIP.
Just because a friendship has existed for a long time doesn’t mean it’s capable of providing you with what you need today. Ms. Denworth said we should take this moment to identify our weaker friendships: “The ones that aren’t sustaining you, don’t make you feel good and that are lopsided.” Some behaviours you tolerated before – an unkind or critical friend, for instance – may not work for you now. She recommends shuffling that relationship to the outer rings of your friendship circle.
If there’s been emotional or physical distance
Many people are so focused on their own immediate needs that they don’t have the bandwidth to show up for others. These are the cases in which there hasn’t been hostility between friends, just a noticeable drifting apart.
Be proactive about establishing contact with friends you haven’t spoken to in a while. “You’re not going to randomly bump into your friends at the bar,” Ms. Kwong said. “You’re going to have to make time to meet with friends virtually now.” She said we should schedule our check-ins as if they were a work meeting. Quality is more important than quantity, so if you only have enough energy to reach out to a few cherished friends, that’s fine.
Write a handwritten letter telling your friend how much they mean to you. Voicing your deep appreciation could help strengthen your bond. “It is scary to do though, because they could not reciprocate,” Ms. Shaiq said. “But sometimes we just have to be authentic to ourselves.”
TRY NOT TO TAKE A “NO” PERSONALLY.
If someone says they can’t talk to you right now, don’t spiral into negative questions and assumptions. “Whenever anyone says no, it’s basically them taking care of themselves,” Ms. Kwong said. Respect their decision and let them know your door is always open to them.
If there’s been confusion or disappointment
Communication has stalled. You aren’t sure where your friendship stands at the moment. You want closure, but that may not be possible.
RESIST THE URGE TO MAKE PERMANENT DECISIONS ABOUT YOUR FRIENDSHIP RIGHT NOW.
Unlike scenarios in which there has been a specific conflict or realization that the relationship isn’t working, a pandemic is not a good time to make permanent decisions if the issue is communication, Ms. Vellos said. You may not be someone’s top priority anymore, “whether it is suddenly taking care of a bunch of kids at home seven days a week, or whether it’s dealing with a family member who’s in crisis,” she said. Silence may not be a personal rebuke, merely a quiet season in a long friendship.
CONSIDER THIS MOMENT AS A BREAK, NOT A PERMANENT CHILL.
Some relationships can’t thrive in this moment, but you may not want to give up on them entirely. “Allow yourself space to come back to them whenever things are more normal,” Ms. Denworth said. “Sometimes there are people who circle back into your life at different times.” She likens it to discovering a forgotten sweater in your closet that suddenly fits you perfectly. “That could happen with friendships again down the road,” she said. They don’t have to be “all things, to all people, all the time,” Ms. Denworth said, “including during pandemics.”
PRIVATELY WORK ON LETTING GO.
Ms. Shaiq said there are several reasons someone might abandon a friendship right now. Perhaps one friend is struggling and just trying to keep their head above water. “Or the friendship was probably not what you thought it was to begin with,” she said.
While you grieve the ending – or pausing – of this friendship, turn your attention to things that will “allow you to feel a sense of hopefulness, optimism or even joy,” Ms. Vellos said. “Put your attention on what you want to grow, not the thing that isn’t growing.”
By Anna Goldfarb © The New York Times