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How to stay friends during COVID-19

Two women friends in face masks walking and talking outdoors during COVID-19
Two women friends in face masks walking and talking outdoors during COVID-19

Staying connected to the people we care about is one of the most important steps we can take to safeguard our mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic – particularly during periods of isolation due to lockdowns. But maintaining friendships, even those that we’ve had for decades, isn’t always easy when you don’t share the same opinions.

Why staying connected with friends is good for your health

Having strong, healthy friendships can help lower rates of anxiety and depression, boost self-esteem and empathy, strengthen immunity, help us recover from disease and may even help us live longer. On the flip side, social isolation is known to have a negative effect on our wellbeing. Older people who are socially isolated are more likely to have poorer health, while isolated teens are more likely to experience depressive symptoms and have lower self-esteem.

With one in two Australians reporting feelings of loneliness during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s clear just how important it is to maintain relationships while we’re physically separated.

Why some friendships are easier to maintain than others

While having friends plays a vital role in our mental health and wellbeing, it’s normal for friendships to change as we grow and evolve as people. Dr Matthew Stanton, clinical psychologist and director of Life Matters has some ideas around the kind of behaviours that make a friendship stick – and not just in lockdown.

“We need to listen to each other,” Matthew advises. “We need to really hear each other and share the airplay. It’s not just about us being nurtured, we also need to nurture others, so it’s essential to think, ‘How can I nurture my people? How can I increase my thoughtfulness and propagate that in my relationships with my friends?’”

Play, too, is an important aspect of friendship.

“It’s really important for our relationships to inject some fun into them, to let ourselves play – whether we’re young children or even adults. We need to exchange things, be present, listen to each other and share in that sense of fun.”

Related: How to create and maintain deep, meaningful friendships

Friendships that involve toxic behaviour, however, can be hard to maintain. If someone demands a lot from you without giving anything back, criticises you or manipulates you,
stresses you out, or often reminds you of past failures, you might want to consider whether the connection is worth continuing. The social isolation caused by COVID-19 is difficult enough without this negativity in your life.

“Being open to feedback and being heard are really important in a friendship,” says Matthew. “I don’t think people always appreciate what they're communicating and how it’s coming across.”

Successful friendships, he explains, are ones that allow for openness, where the individuals can say to each other, “Hey, pull me up on my blind spots” – and be open to receiving whatever message is shared.

Young woman and her dog on a Zoom call with friends

How to keep friends close when you can’t see them face to face

Of course, maintaining friendships is simpler when we’re not restricted by COVID-19 rules and lockdowns. However, just because you may not be able to head out for dinner, go to the movies or sit down at a café with friends doesn’t mean you can’t find meaningful ways to connect.

Consider scheduling regular catch-ups with mates, making the most of technology to foster those important connections. You might organise a weekly book club activity via Zoom or FaceTime, a Friday-night trivia session with your besties, or plan to jump on a video call while you and a pal cook dinner, then eat together. You could even have a movie night, hitting ‘play’ on the same flick at the same time with apps like FaceTime, Zoom, Google+ Hangouts or Houseparty keeping you connected.

Depending on the restrictions in your state, you may even be able to catch up with a buddy or two for some exercise, which has also been shown to boost mental and emotional wellbeing. Think of it as a two-for-one for your brain!

When you and your friend don’t agree on COVID-19

Things can get tricky when your values and beliefs don’t align with those of your friends, particularly when it comes to issues surrounding COVID-19. Navigating a friendship when the other person holds opposing views (vaccine safety and effectiveness, for example) or is flouting lockdown measures can be incredibly tough.

Things can get tricky when your values and beliefs don’t align with those of your friends

“People deal with fear in lots of different ways,” says Matthew. “Sometimes people get a little bit paranoid and develop a lot more emotional reasoning when they're scared. People also don't listen well when they're scared. When people are feeling threatened, there are more likely to be some thinking errors, some distortion and a little bit more projection. That’s because when people are frightened, they are emotional and don't really have the same empathic stance.”

In these situations, Matthew says, it’s important to “understand that everybody’s got a right to a perspective and it's not our job, even though we love our friends, to protect them from themselves if they're not an immediate risk”.

How to end a friendship that isn’t working

You may find some friendships are strained to the point where you no longer wish to be a part of them. Ending a friendship is never easy – there’s a reason you formed that relationship in the first place, after all – but sometimes it’s necessary when things have turned toxic, disrespectful or harmful.

If you’re thinking of ending a friendship, the first step is to talk to the other person, particularly if you hope to salvage things. Try to be honest about how the behaviour is making you feel.

“If there's a foundation there that's been important to you and you value that person, let them know that you still care for them, that their friendship’s important, but that you feel you both need space,” Matthew suggests. “Openly and respectfully tell them how you feel and explain that it’s because they matter to you that you’re sharing this. Those moments can actually be really important for potentially building a stronger friendship than you ever had.”

Emotions often cool off and you may be able to meet up and talk things out, says Matthew. But if, after time apart, you are filled with anger, anxiety or dread at the thought of reconnecting with this person, it might just be a connection you need to let go of permanently.

Find out more information on COVID-19, travel restrictions and health advice at the Australian Department of Health.

A black and white version of Matthew Stanton smiling

Matthew Stanton

Matthew Stanton is the Clinical Director and Owner of Life Matters Psychologists. He has over 20 years of clinical experience, psychologically assessing and providing therapy to children, adolescents and adults with mild, moderate and severe mental health disorders.