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How Do We Reestablish Friendships After Such A Challenging Year?

Sometimes you grow together and sometimes you grow apart.

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Andrea D'Aquino
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We’re not the same people we were last March. We’ve been locked inside our homes; we’ve lost people we love; we’ve been without work, friends and company for months. When we emerge from our homes after the pandemic lifts its weary clutches over our minds and bodies, we will be entirely new people.

So do we need new friends? “Although we were in the same storm, we were in different boats,” explains Caroline Madden, a licensed marriage and family therapist.

Some people learned a new skill, wrote a novel and got into the best shape of their lives. Not most, though. When our normal, healthy coping mechanisms were forbidden — going to the gym, hanging out with friends and even grabbing dinner at a restaurant — booze and comfort food stepped in. And even the strongest people crumbled.

“Don’t assume that because someone is married, they have emotional and physical support, and someone to talk to,” Madden says. “Honestly, my loneliest clients aren’t the single ones; they are the married ones.”

We spoke with therapists to get advice on how to navigate our friendships as we rejoin society: How do we mesh the old us and the new us, and blend those with our friends?

Understand why your friendship may have changed

When you grow, you also outgrow: habits, careers, thoughts, belief systems and relationships — including friendships, explains Rachel Astarte, a psychotherapist and author of Celebrating Solitude. Two people came into a friendship based on an understanding of the person you each presented yourself to be at that time. “When we change, so does the friendship,” Astarte says. You may have shifted your priorities so much that your friend’s life choices and beliefs no longer jibe with your own. “Sometimes we grow together and sometimes we grow apart,” Astarte says.

Take inventory

This is a good time to decide who you really want in your life, says Mary Joye, a licensed mental health counselor in Florida. “When we are in severely stressful situations, this is when we say, ‘Well, you know who your friends are,’ and you do,” she says. When you’re not stressed, you may overlook someone who isn’t the best friend for you — and you may give them the benefit of the doubt or spend time with them. But when you have less time (cue the pandemic) and you witness trauma, you rethink everything and everyone. It makes you reevaluate and take inventory of whom you spend your time with, and how precious the unrenewable resource of time is, Joye says. Your priorities may have changed as you gained perspective about who you are, what you value, and whom or what you need to be connected with that supports your values, says Tamara Houston, a clinical social worker in Greenville, South Carolina. It may not be that love or like is lost — just that those things have to be offered differently now, she says. 

Have a face-to-face

If you want to renew a friendship after the pandemic, it’s best to do this face-to-face. Your friend may have had a hard time, she may have changed, or she might not understand what you’ve gone through, says Orit Krug, a board-certified dance/movement therapist in New York. Scientific research shows that our mirror neurons get activated when we see people’s expressions, Krug says, so we’re much more likely to empathize with each other and avoid becoming defensive in a face-to-face conversation versus text or email.

Commit to an honest dialogue

The pandemic has almost certainly changed some of the ways we think about and interact with the world around us, and this experience will inevitably have implications for us personally and relationally, says Gina Schmitt, a psychotherapist and author of Friending: Creating Meaningful, Lasting Adult Friendships. These changes will need to be acknowledged in our friendships and discussed as we attempt to modify some of our expectations and reengage in our relationships with compassion for what we have experienced. “If the changes to our friendships seem difficult to navigate, it is even more important that we commit to honest dialogues with our friends about our experiences during the pandemic,” Schmitt says. “Understanding and empathy are going to be vital for reestablishing meaningful connections when significant changes to the friendship dynamic have occurred due to a situation of this nature.”