If you’re vaccinated and heading back into the world, you may realise something: there are a lot of people you haven’t spoken to in a year and a half.
Then you realise something else: you may want to keep it that way.
More of us are starting to pick back up the strands of our pre-pandemic social lives. As we figure out who the first people we want to meet up with are, we’re recognising there are friendships from the ‘before times’ we didn’t keep up during lockdown – and aren’t particularly excited to re-ignite now that we can.
Should we feel bad about not caring for these relationships?
While people have known for years that friendships are unquestionably good for your health, experts say it’s only natural for acquaintances and even friends to fall by the wayside as time goes on – and it’s nothing to feel guilty about. If you really do miss someone, you can always reach back out. But if you feel obliged, or like doing so is emotional labour, take that as a sign you can cut that person loose.
“When there’s a friend that you haven’t kept up with during the pandemic – if you didn’t feel the need to check up on this person, and they weren’t checking in on you – then kind of believe what your gut is telling you,” says Suzanne Degges-White, professor of counselling at Northern Illinois University, US. “Not every friendship is meant to last forever. It goes both ways.”
Shasta Nelson, a San Francisco-based author and speaker who specialises in friendship, agrees “it’s absolutely normal that relationships ebb and flow all throughout life”. It’s impossible to keep up with every single friend you’ve ever had, she says, especially as you add new relationships when your life circumstances change, such as moving cities or changing jobs. These kinds of life experiences change your friendship networks, as you re-prioritise the people you want to spend your time with.
As you start to figure out whom the first people you want to reach out to are, you may quickly realise whom you’re not necessarily keen to see right away (Credit: Getty Images)
The pandemic is a perfect example of how life circumstances re-shuffled our friendship groups. As we had to literally isolate from each other during the last year, Degges-White says this led to forming selective “pandemic pods” – a selective, close group of family and friends who were part of your ‘bubble’, and who also took the same health precautions as you. We’ve had to be choosy about who we let in, and we suddenly couldn’t see all the people from our pre-pandemic lives in person like we could before.
We only had so much bandwidth to keep in contact with people outside our pods, which caused us to naturally narrow the friendships we kept going. Keeping up with people outside these pods took extra effort – and while we were busy disinfecting doorknobs and panic-buying toilet paper, we didn’t have the emotional capacity to reach out to everyone with whom we used to interact, both intimately and casually.
And now that we have the opportunity to reach out again, we may find that we didn’t necessarily miss the people we didn’t talk to. All of this can help explain why you might be reluctant to reach out – and, in some cases, hoping that old friends and acquaintances don’t reach out to you, too.
Although you may feel guilty picking and choosing your circle if it means fading out on friends, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. There’s value in curating that network of friends and acquaintances of your own volition.
You’re making what Degges-White calls a “friendscape”: “who’s close by, who do we want to be around and who do we want to surround us?” Your friendscape can change during certain, specific situations during life – going away to university or a summer camp, or being in a certain job – and you often begin curating new friends to fit that current life situation. Not everyone can fit into your current friendscape. That was quite literally the case in the age of lockdowns and social distancing. “In life, as we go through certain stages and ages, our attention shifts and we want to be around people who are like us,” says Degges-White, whether those people are fellow married parents or people away at school with you.
It’s impossible to keep up with every single friend you’ve ever had, especially as you add new relationships when your life circumstances change
“The pandemic shifted a lot of things,” she says. “It showed us the people who we feel are valuable, and who we think will keep us safe, psychologically and physically.
Since our friendscapes are ever evolving throughout our lives, it’s natural to drift away from some people as life goes on. It’s also unrealistic to think we can keep in touch with literally everyone – even research indicates it’s impossible to devote enough time to all your friends and acquaintances. “It’s completely legitimate for all of us to make an assessment now of where we want to invest our energy,” says Nelson.
Saying hello again
Still, if you are wondering if you should reach out again to the friends who’ve fallen by the wayside, be thoughtful and strategic about it.
First, listen to your gut, as Degges-White suggests. If you really do miss someone, that’s a sign that the relationship is worth investing in.
A good litmus test to decide whether to reach back out, she says, is ask yourself if six months from now, would you be upset that you and this person weren’t in touch? If you would be, then feel free to contact them. And if you decide not to, but feel guilty, Nelson says acknowledge that, but also realise it might not be “actual guilt, but kind of an awareness, more sadness for acknowledging that this relationship isn’t going to keep deepening”.
If when you start opening up your social life again you find you miss someone, you can always reach out again – but don’t feel obligated to (Credit: Getty Images)
“Relationships aren’t all or nothing,” says Nelson. If there’s someone you truly want to reach back out to but feel awkward doing so because it’s been so long, you could say something like: “’Oh my goodness, my head is finally above water. I have thought about you so many times over the past year, and I am so sorry that we lost touch’,” she says. “I just wanted to let you know that you were missed. If you have time, I would love to meet you for that walk we always talk about’ or ‘I can’t wait to get back into the office’.”
“Just acknowledge it and say, ‘I wish we were able to keep in touch, but we weren’t able to’,” continues Nelson. “I think everybody understands that.”
Another situation many people find themselves in is having reconnected with old friends from years ago during the pandemic, like old pals from university. And while that was a gift for many amid the health crisis, you may feel obliged to keep corresponding as often as you did during lockdown, which might feel a bit draining.
“A lot of my text threads are kind of slowing down on their own,” says Nelson. She’s sent messages to show that while she wants to keep the door open, she wants to be upfront that there isn’t an expectation to keep messages going with the same regularity. “I just said, ‘it’s so cool to see so many of you getting out and doing more stuff on Facebook, and just wanted to say it was so special to journey a little bit closer to you this year, and I’m just wishing you the very best as you re-emerge back into life’. I’m validating and appreciating what was, and naming that, and also stating, ‘best to you going forward’.”
The pandemic profoundly changed the way we socialise and how we approach relationships. As we enter a new phase of life, and begin to re-examine many of these relationships, experts say you definitely shouldn’t go around burning bridges, but don’t feel pressured to try and fit everyone back into your life. And try not to feel guilty that the friendship lapsed during the pandemic – experts say we should be easy on ourselves and forgive ourselves and each other, because the last 15 months really have been unprecedented.
“If there’s a friend who you didn’t speak to at all during the pandemic, and things just totally chilled out – I mean, they got the message,” says Degges-White. “And they were probably sending you a message, too.”