Identity

They Thought Their Friendship was Rock Solid. Then the Pandemic Happened

While differences over COVID has imploded the closeness between some people, others have rekindled old relationships with childhood and high school friends.
Hannah Smothers
Brooklyn, US
December 2, 2020, 5:23pm
Young woman celebrating birthday in home isolation with her friends on video chat
dtephoto via Getty

For months, Leah, 28, had been having “conflicts” with her best friend in Florida, a friendship that’s lasted more than 10 years. Leah lives in Texas, which is not so politically different from Florida, but Leah was taking the pandemic more seriously: She canceled her planned wedding, and chose to stay home and avoid public spaces. When she noticed that her friend in Florida had continued going out to bars, restaurants, and Disney World they had a very socially-distanced falling-out. 

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“She posted a picture on Instagram at a bar, like, inside a bar, and I got mad at her,” Leah told VICE. “I didn’t even say, ‘You shouldn’t be doing this,’ I said, ‘You can’t post about this.’ If you post about something on social media, it’s kind of fair game for criticism. Especially for something important. So I got mad at her and we didn’t talk for a week.” 

Eventually Leah’s friend explained how she’d been antibody-tested before going to the bar from which she posted—a measure that would not actually protect her or anyone from getting infected with COVID—but declined to quit going out or quit posting about going out. The only way for Leah to maintain the friendship at all, she said, was to unfollow her friend on social media and avoid the topic of the pandemic in all future conversations. 

“This is an incredibly important friendship to me; I don’t really have a lot of close friends and I can’t not be friends with her,” she said. “I love my best friend. So I told her: ‘I’m just going to have to unfollow you on social media.’ We’re still friends, but there’s a huge hole now where we can’t talk about the pandemic.” 

Now Leah and her friend stay away from any topics of conversation that could lead into the pandemic, and their differing understandings about how to stay safe. For example: Neither of them brought up Thanksgiving, in an effort to avoid a conversation about travel or family gatherings. Before this year threw everyone the giant, lasting wrench of the pandemic, their friendship had been smooth, enjoying the kind of ease only long friendships can. The pandemic changed all that.

Nearly a year of pandemic-necessitated isolation has had a significant impact on friendships. Some, like Leah, have seen entire friendships dwindle or significantly weaken, after months of awkward conversations about risk assessment and mask wearing revealed previously unknown differences in values. Others felt a sort of flattening, realizing that acquaintances and long-held relationships can hold equal value in times of crisis. And others still have channeled feelings of pandemic nostalgia and a pining for simpler times into their friendships, using this year to rekindle childhood and high school relationships that had dimmed. The extremes of this year have had a significant impact on friendships, pushing people away from each other who never saw anything coming between them, and bringing people who’d long fallen out of touch closer together. 

“What it came down to was our different tolerances for risk, and how I was a lot more risk averse than he was.”

Dan Gentile, 36, ended up completely cutting off a friendship with his roommate over differences in pandemic behavior. Gentile had lived with the same roommate—a close friend—since he moved to San Francisco from Austin, Texas over a year ago. They’d previously enjoyed a completely harmonious roommate relationship, and then COVID struck. 

“What it came down to was our different tolerances for risk, and how I was a lot more risk averse than he was,” Gentile said. “He was the type of person to see rules as something to be walked right up to the edge of, which [previously] made him a fun person to be around. The consequences were never dire if he wanted to, like, park in a red zone or something.”

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But after the pandemic settled in, that same fun, freewheeling approach to life that Gentile loved about his roommate translated to doing things like going out to restaurants and seeing groups of people, which were now choices that posed an imminent danger to Gentile’s health and safety. Gentile eventually moved out after it became clear nothing was going to change. The roommate and apartment search that followed were colored by previously strange questions about understandings of safety and “the rules.” 

Like Gentile, Meghan O’Dea, 34, moved to a new city not long before the pandemic set in. But unlike Gentile, she didn’t move in with a friend, lived alone, and knew only a few people in Nashville when she moved there at the end of 2019. “In the four months I had in Nashville before the pandemic began, I didn’t really make a lot of headway in building a social life or support network,” she said. “Then when the pandemic happened, it was like, how are you supposed to make new friends in a new city?”

Even though O’Dea’s existing friendships from Portland and her hometown were spread out all over the country, the sudden inability to see anyone close by in person brought them all together. “I was surprised that geographic proximity had very little bearing on the degree of emotional intimacy some people in my life were prepared to offer,” she said. Likewise, people who’d only been acquaintances in Nashville and online came out of the woodwork to help O’Dea through the isolating, difficult time in ways older friends did not. The pandemic had shown her, if anything, that proximity and length of relationship don’t matter as much as she previously thought, in terms of how meaningful a friendship can be. 

“There’s a way that the pandemic has had of making all these relationships feel not that different,” she said. People she speaks with on Zoom all the time feel just as valuable as those she exchanges occasional Instagram DMs with. 

O’Dea’s found a way to keep the momentum of regular conversation going through a book club that a friend started. “We’ve made a point of talking every week or two about the chapter that we read, and it usually devolves pretty quickly into just catching up with one another,” she said. “The thing that I think has been really helpful, and that I find especially lovely about this, is it’s so hard to call people sometimes, or get back on Zoom when you sit on Zoom all day for work. She’s created a really lovely excuse for us to stay in touch and check in on one another, without the pressure.” 

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Like O’Dea, Alex Lleras, 25, also emphasized the importance of regular communication as a way to escape the weird, bad vibes that asking “how are you?” or sending a “just checking in!” text carries these days. Lleras and a group of friends from high school are perhaps the only group of people still holding weekly FaceTime happy hour calls, meeting every Thursday for what they call “Wine and Whine at Nine.” Somehow, as everyone else lost the tolerance for staring at tiny, digital renderings of loved ones and lost their ability to make casual conversation, Lleras et. al. trudged on. 

“Before the pandemic, we would see each other maybe every couple of months,” Lleras, 25, told VICE. “There was always that awkward need to go over everything that has happened in your life. But now it's like we know exactly where everyone is in life and what's going on. Our friendship has just become a lot deeper.” 

The regularity of the conversations is key, like a months-long game of never letting the ball hit the floor. Lleras emphasized that, because they talk for about an hour once a week, she and her friends never have to ask the big, impossible to answer questions. Nothing particularly new is “up.” Structuring their calls around gossip and whining provides a nearly soap opera-esque vibe that distracts from the world and deepens the relationships. 

Lleras isn’t alone in seeking out friendships from high school, either. Ellen Payne, 29, and Maren McGlashen, 29, told me on a three-way phone call recently that they haven’t kept in such close contact since they were growing up. The two have been friends since kindergarten, but after moving to separate coasts—Payne to Portland and McGlashen to New York City—they communicated less regularly, and saw each other about once a year. Once they started doing Zoom happy hours and such with friends who lived nearby, they figured why not do the same thing with each other? 

“In a crisis—whether there’s a worldwide pandemic or personal things everyone goes through—the superficial stuff becomes apparent.”

Like most others (minus Lleras) they quickly ditched Zoom and have been instead talking every single day since March over the messaging app Marco Polo, sending each other short video messages that range in seriousness, just like a normal conversation in a normal year. They’ve covered everything from Payne’s engagement earlier this year, to McGlashen’s COVID diagnosis, to “stupid” TV shows they’re both watching together. In little video clips that span eight months of time, they’ve cried, laughed, talking about “bullshit” and ultimately become closer than they’ve been since they were kids. 

“And all the bullshit was really meaningful stuff, too,” Payne said, essentially giving a thesis statement for why friendships are valuable. Over the course of our twenty-minute phone call, both Payne and McGlashen spoke over each other and for each other, referencing clearly specific conversations they’ve had this year. It felt remarkably normal, like being in a room with my own high school best friend.

“In a crisis—whether there’s a worldwide pandemic or personal things everyone goes through—the superficial stuff becomes apparent,” McGlashen said. “It’s really clarifying to be like, these are my people, and I have a really solid support system.” 

Leah isn’t sure what her now-turbulent friendship’s future holds. “I hope it mends over time, but I’m prone to holding a grudge,” she said. “I’m worried I’m going to stay resentful, even a long time after the pandemic.” 

Lleras similarly can’t really envision a future beyond the pandemic. “It seems so weird to think [the calls] will end eventually,” she said. “It’s not guaranteed that we’ll be able to keep our weekly gathering going religiously post-pandemic, but I think we’re all just a lot closer in general because of this.”

Follow Hannah Smothers on Twitter.