In Praise of Smaller Social Circles

Photography by Andra C. Taylor via Unsplash.

Three years in, this is how the COVID-19 pandemic has transformed our friendships.

Words by Lexi Weber. Photography by Andra C Taylor Jr on Unsplash.

Friendships take effort in the best of times. During the past three years, life has been tumultuous for the world. The pandemic took everyone to a new level of palpable collective grief. Throw in social distancing measures, ongoing child-care needs, and varying belief systems that must be discussed before spending time with one another, and the pressure to maintain relationships during the pandemic was more challenging than ever before. 

In the University College London’s COVID-19 social study on mental health during the pandemic, 22% of people reported how their friendships outside the household worsened, with individuals aged 18 to 29 making up the majority of individuals with declining relationships. Because social isolation didn’t leave much room for weeknight drinks with coworkers or a quarterly game night with acquaintances, those friendships fizzled. 

Some relationships are maintained through shared social spaces and without the opportunity to catch up with someone in the office or during a workout class, the need to be more intentional about connecting becomes stronger than ever. The pandemic has brought to light friendships that were a matter of convenience and the ones that deserved more deliberate effort.

In the beginning of quarantine, friends hopped on Zoom and caught up via FaceTime with people they missed. Although technology serves as an excellent tool, it’s simply not for everyone – nor is it a substitute for actual face-to-face time. Inevitably, group texts went unread. Virtual book clubs and happy hours petered out. Social circles grew smaller. In fact, 13% of women and 8% of men ages 30 to 49 noted they’d lost touch with a majority of their friends about a year into the pandemic

But, is that such a bad thing?

A poll by LifeSearch found that almost one in three of the adults surveyed had fallen out with friends due to pandemic-related pressures. In that same survey, 21% of people aged 18 to 34 said to have let go of five or more friendships over the last two years. The research, conducted among 2,500 adults in the United Kingdom, found that more than one in two individuals formed stronger bonds with friends and family since the pandemic began.

“Prior to the pandemic, most of my friendships consisted of connections made with people based on a shared community committed to the same goal. During isolation, I realized the difference between those I missed and those I didn’t determined who my genuine friends were versus those I felt obligated to maintain a connection with,” said Kasey Matschat. “The pandemic gifted me with the space and freedom to realize not only the preciousness of connection, but the responsibility that comes with choosing who to remain connected to, and the wisdom to know how deeply. It is an unexpected gift from an otherwise desperate time.”

Are casual relationships a thing of the past? Perhaps. According to Match’s 2021 Singles in America study, which surveyed 5,000 single people in the U.S., 53% of its app users began prioritizing their search for a relationship after quarantine. The study found that 58% of those same users became much more intentional about dating. It may come as no surprise that many individuals approached friendships in the same way. Suzanne Degges-White, professor and chair of the Counseling and Higher Education department at Northern Illinois University, conducted a study in 2020 that found middle-aged women with just three or more friends tended to have higher levels of overall life satisfaction.

And the research is there: having friends who encourage and support you is directly linked to improved immunity, lower blood pressure and higher cognitive function. So, as Covid rates dropped and restrictions eased, many people emerged from lockdown to reconnect with friends only to find that not every friendship needed to be resurrected. Post-quarantine, we were able to begin anew with what Degges-White calls a “friendscape,” the space where people inhabit the foreground, middle ground or background depending on how much time and emotional energy you invest in them.

According to the research firm Unacast, which analyzed GPS data from millions of cellphones, Americans gathered in groups 80% less than we did before the pandemic.

Lexi Weber

Not only has the way we interact changed, but the frequency with which we do is different as well. According to the research firm Unacast, which analyzed GPS data from millions of cellphones, Americans gathered in groups 80% less than we did before the pandemic. We learned how to stay home and spend more time alone.

“If the pandemic has taught me anything, it’s how to communicate and slow down. With this newfound appreciation for opening up to my loved ones, I have found my current relationships to be so much more meaningful than the relationships I had pre-pandemic. I’ve learned that I’m not going to bond with my friends beyond surface level at a bar,” said Catie Whitesell. “Instead, we’ve found staying home and cooking dinner together once a week to be much more fulfilling; I think the trauma of the pandemic is something people can relate to, if you’re willing to talk about it, and it may not necessarily be a bad thing to trauma-bond.”

There’s value in carefully curating a supportive network of friends. As society continues to adjust to a new post-quarantine normal, many may find themselves putting the quality of friendships before quantity. 

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