There are four key ingredients to building and maintaining successful friendships: investment, emotional closeness, trust, and support.
By Dr. Marcus C. Shepard
After a year-and-a-half of battling Zoom fatigue, isolation, and a host of mental strains, it should come as no surprise that some of our friendships have taken a backseat as we try to prioritize our own well-being. Researchers at the University College London (2021) found that roughly 22% of those surveyed in a recent ongoing study felt that their friendship quality has suffered due to the pandemic. Friendships are good for both our mental and physical health (Chopik, 2017), and the desire to reconnect with friends we haven’t seen in a while, reset or readjust friendships, and/or end long-term friendships strained are possibilities many of us have been juggling over the past year. In order to talk about friendships and how they have been impacted by the pandemic, I think it’s helpful to first overview what I call the “friendship formula” in my textbook Midnight Musings: Interpersonal Communication & Social Media (Shepard, 2018) and understand how these ingredients are the bedrock to any friendship.
There are four key ingredients to building and maintaining successful friendships: investment, emotional closeness, trust, and support. Investment is what you put into the relationship and this investment includes your time, feelings, energy, and thoughts. Close friendships are formed through initial encounters (Twitter mutuals, fellow bar patrons, classmates, coworkers, etc.) which, through mutual investment, are extended into something more intimate. You and your friend both put in the time, energy, thoughts, feelings, and maybe even money into building your friendship.
After the initial investment, friends build emotional closeness through shared activities, self-disclosures, and dialogue. Some friends might enjoy the same TV or movies, while others share the same taste in music or books. Some like to discuss certain topics with certain friends that help to engender themselves to one another. Through emotional closeness and investment, trust and support begin to form and help solidify friendships. Trust is that you believe your friend will not betray your confidence and that they will do what they say they will do. Through this, you expect that your friends will also support you through both actions and words. These ingredients help build and maintain friendships and set forth the relationship rules that we build with each friend. While some rules might be largely understood as universal (“don’t share what I tell you in confidence” or “don’t date my ex”), others might be exclusive to that particular relationship (frequency of communication, what you do together, tone/style of communication, i.e., blunt vs. sugarcoating).
You can see how the deterioration of friendships can easily stem from a lack of investment. Without investment, your emotional closeness, trust and support slowly start to wane. Before evaluating your friendships, you should admit to yourself that the pandemic has changed us all, including your friend. The way we see our friendships, ourselves, and the world have all been impacted and in turn, might’ve exposed cracks beneath the surface of our friendships.
One of my friendships deteriorated and subsequently ended this year. This friend relied on me to always reach out and so our investment flatlined when I decided to take a step back. Months went by and he even missed my birthday. When he did reach out, I used it as an opportunity to reset and readjust our friendship. I mentioned to him (again) that I felt like I was always checking in and investing more into our friendship than he was. I told him to either step it up or our friendship would suffer. As in times before, he stepped it up for a bit, but then the effort dissipated. This time, I decided to let the friendship end because I was tired of always reassessing the frequency of communication with my friend several times a year. Friendships are voluntary relationships that should be mutually satisfying and in this case, COVID-19 expedited the end of our friendship.
While this friendship ended partially due to COVID-19, I am still thankful for the relationship and acknowledge that friendship turnover is part of life. We have friends of the road (reason or season), who change as we move along, and we have friends of the heart (lifetime), who remain close to us regardless of the physical distance or frequency of communication. We need both kinds of friendships in our lives, and while the deterioration, ending, and mourning of a friendship may not be easy, I lean into the memories and lessons learned.
Before thinking about mending or ending a friendship, I recommend you take some time to reflect on the lapse of investment and why it happened. Think about why you haven’t reached out to a friend in a while, and evaluate the friendship as a whole. Maybe the friendship was already not healthy or COVID-19 exposed some uncommon ground in beliefs that are non-negotiable for you. Or maybe you were going through a lot of mental anguish and for better or worse put this friendship on the backburner. Taking a moment to think about why the communication changed, what the friendship means to you, and where you see the friendship going, can set you up for a more beneficial conversation if you decide to re-engage. This can also help you decide if you want to formally end the relationship, or let it slowly end via limited communication.
After evaluating the state of your friendship, reach out. Give yourself grace for not reaching out sooner and give your friend the same kind of grace. I recommend being explicit with your grace and stating outright that you understand a lot has happened but you miss them and want to reconnect.
During this reach out, explicitly (re)evaluate your relationship rules. I do this yearly with one of my close friends. During this segment of our conversation, we ask if either of us is desiring something that the other friend is not providing, if we are coming up short in areas previously discussed, and/or if there are new concerns we want to address. The first time you evaluate your friendship explicitly can be hard and awkward, but it is helpful in the end and gets easier with frequency. The evaluation also lets you see if maybe you or your friend can no longer provide the friendship the other is seeking. We all change and evolve over time and the pandemic has accelerated this; maybe you are simply no longer aligned enough to remain close friends, and that is also okay.
Lastly, I recommend setting up some time to talk regularly and brainstorm some virtual activities you can work into your friendship. For my close friends, I set up a zoom call every month or two for us to all connect. I plan it in advance to give everyone time to make sure they are free during the time. I’ve also hosted virtual game nights and movie nights. For other friends, we have a show that we share and will call after watching to discuss it and share life updates. Focusing the conversation originally on the show allowed us to remove some of the awkwardness of getting reacquainted after a prolonged absence.
Each friendship will require a distinct set of tools to either revitalize or end the relationship. Communication is communicator, context, and content-specific; what works in one situation with a friend may not work in another situation with the same or different friend. Therefore, try to be as explicit as possible when mending or ending a friendship. Give grace, be open to change, give concrete details, and offer solutions on how to mend your friendship. If you are ending a friendship, embrace the memories and life lessons you will carry with you, even as you move onto a new season in your life.
Dr. Marcus C. Shepard is a tenured professor who studies communication, identity and diversity as they are heard within soul music and discussed by multiracial communities. Through his research, he has written several books and book projects including Midnight Musings: Interpersonal Communication & Social Media (2018), Midnight Musings: Explorations in Public Speaking (2019), Off the Data Provided (forthcoming) and For Whom Is Neo-Soul? (forthcoming). If you are interested in learning more about friendships, check-out his Udemy course on Manging Friendships.
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