How the coronavirus pandemic is affecting friendships: 'I question whether we share the same values'

We analyse the impact that emotional dependence and dissimilar values has had on relationships

Two sullen young women friends sitting on breezy beach. Getty Images
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Would you be able to relate to someone who refuses to take the Covid-19 vaccine? How about someone who only wants to socialise via video calls or, worse, who won’t wear a face mask in public?

The loss of personal freedoms, travel and loved ones aside, the pandemic has also caused rifts in several relationships, as people realise their friends may not share the same values as them nor be there through emotionally testing times.

Men and women alike have reconsidered their friendships owing to the divisive times we live in, which becomes harder still for those living and working away from home, in places where friends stood in for family.

Differing opinions during the pandemic

Lucy Lashford was in Dubai during the UAE’s stay-at-home orders, while her best friend of 30 years was in Los Angeles, living as though the pandemic did not exist, even going on first dates with relative strangers. Lashford admits she felt judgmental about these choices, and that it drove an insurmountable divide between the two women.

We've got less patience and kindness for anything that requires emotional labour, compared to other times

“I started feeling upset about it and questioning whether we share the same values, because it really came down to whether or not she cared about other people by choosing not to isolate," she says.

Against this backdrop came a divisive election campaign that tore Americans apart. When Lashford’s friend – by now in lockdown – became absorbed in the abounding conspiracy theories, the friendship began to crumble.

“She's an extrovert and I’m an introvert, so while I was thriving [staying at home], she was suffering, and got into this rabbit hole of conspiracy theories and was posting some things online that just made me realise I don't have any common values with this ‘best friend’ of mine any more.”

Lashford acknowledges the pandemic may have led her to be quicker and harsher to judge than may have been the case otherwise.

“I found myself being that way with quite a few friendships and I don't necessarily think it’s fair or right, but it really did impact a very long friendship,” she says.

Dr Louise Lambert, a psychologist from Dubai, believes tempers are shorter and the emotional load of the pandemic has made some people less able to support others.

“We all want this to be over and for people to follow the rules, so we can get back to normal. At the same time, we've got much less patience and kindness for anything that requires emotional labour, compared to other contexts or other times,” she says.

Out of sight, out of mind

With social distancing came the ability to simply disconnect, and with less contact came weaker connections, she says. “It's really easy to walk away from somebody you haven't seen in weeks or months, and it's almost sad because I think many of us like to think our friendships are [strong].”

I didn't expect a reply immediately, but I was audibly choked up on the message, so it was obvious I was having a tough time

Ahmed (name changed upon request), an Emirati man, experienced this painful reality, and feels some of the divisions that appeared last year have never repaired. “The pandemic has been like a magnifying glass,” he says. “Those people who were already selfish, became more selfish, but those who are naturally kind, became kinder. It shined a light on the truth and, for some of us, that was quite upsetting.”

Emotional dependence

The pandemic also placed greater demands on friendships as people are hungrier for deeper connections, says Lambert. Amanda Lewis felt this most starkly on Christmas Day. The Canadian banker had not seen her parents all year and the pangs of homesickness were at a peak. Having worked alone from home since last March, Lewis ended up calling a friend for comfort, to lend her a sympathetic ear.

Roshni Kaur. Courtesy Roshni Kaur
Roshni Kaur met a new group of friends after relating to them on social media, while her former friendships dissipated owing to massive differences of opinion. Courtesy Roshni Kaur

When her friend didn't answer the phone, Lewis sent a vulnerable and heartfelt plea to connect, hoping that her non-Christian friend may be the one person she could turn to for some support and company on a day when most of her other friends were tied up with their families.

If we're all in a needy state, who is doing the giving?

“With WhatsApp, you can see when someone has heard your message, but sometimes someone is busy or driving, so I didn’t expect a reply immediately, but I was audibly choked up on the message, so it was obvious I was having a tough time,” she says.

Unfortunately, two months went by before Lewis heard back from her friend. “It's not new, but I think for the first time it became evident to me, and I noticed that she gets very awkward around me being sentimental about anything. I realised she just wasn’t able to meet me emotionally at a time I really needed her,” Lewis says.

Liz Terry, Rolfing therapist in Dubai. Courtesy Liz Terry
Liz Terry, a rolfing therapist in Dubai, was ghosted by someone she considered a friend, but then realised they were not that close to begin with. Courtesy Liz Terry

Lambert says many of us have naturally become more needy. “We can only get our needs met if somebody gives, but if we're all in this needy state, who is doing the giving?” She further suggests we have forgotten how to relate and “lost practice” on how to listen. This is hitting those who are not married hardest, she says, who naturally rely on their friends more often when there is no constant significant other to turn to.

Frail connections

Liz Terry, a physical therapist in Dubai, believes the nature of friendships has evolved, towards a philosophy of less is more and quality over quantity, at least for now, when peripheral friendships – such as gym friends or those one sees in group gatherings – becoming less necessary or fulfilling than they once were.

The pandemic has caused so much division, people are so convinced in their beliefs, we can't even have discussions any more

“I had someone who dropped me as a friend, and hasn't explained to me why or what that was about,” she says. While it was hurtful at the time, it made Terry reflect on the true nature of the relationship, now seeing that it was not as meaningful as she once thought. “A friendship is something so much deeper than what I had with her, and I think it was a blessing in the end,” she says.

When opposites don’t attract

Issues surrounding the pandemic, from vaccines and government policies to masks and hugging, have become the cause of conflict, says Terry, who has left social media. “It's caused so much division, to the point that people are so convinced in their beliefs, that we can’t even have discussions any more.”

However, she says that while some friendships fell away, others grew stronger and new ones bloomed. Roshni Kaur, a yoga teacher in Dubai, found this too. “My friends and I are thinking in a different way now,” she says. “I ended up meeting a new set of people who are more in alignment with my way of thinking.

“While it is sad for me to lose some people I have been friends with for years, I have accepted that some things just come and go.”