Although small outdoor gatherings and some indoor workplaces are accessible to more people now, many people continue to struggle with maintaining regular social connections, and with loneliness. In theory, when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re all in this together. But any two (or more!) friends may have wildly different priorities, needs, and stressors in their daily lives during this time—not to mention differences about the practicalities of keeping in touch, like safety concerns, living arrangements, and time constraints.
Some people have truly been alone while sheltering-in-place, whereas others may have been living in crowded quarters with others all this time and still feel lonely. Many of our friends are likely going through painful or difficult times, given the scope of the virus and the economic disaster it's caused. Those people might need a lot of engagement from their support networks right now—or need a lot less expected of them, friendship-wise, for the time being.
When close friends have incompatible approaches to how (or how often) they want to connect, things can get complicated quickly—it can be especially hard to strike the balance between taking care of your own needs versus supporting your friends in theirs, especially if they're constantly pushing to meet up in person, expecting you to drop everything to respond to a text because "we have so much time on our hands right now," or otherwise asking more of you than you're able to give.
Here are some steps to protect your friendship—and your well-being—on constantly changing social terrain, especially when some friends are lonely and cooped-up after months of sheltering-in-place and may be acting really needy with you.
Figure out your boundaries and stick to them.
Boundaries are a crucial way of protecting your emotional health. We can look at them as limits that we set and stick to, that help set expectations for what works for us within relationships. Think about what boundaries will be most helpful for you in particular: If you're not able to spend time together in person, think about how to allocate time for your friend at home without wearing yourself out. Maybe texting is fine, but you can’t spare time for a phone call without advanced planning. Maybe you need weekends free for your family (or yourself), or you need to focus during the workday, or you just can’t deal with late-night messages anymore.
Remind yourself of your reasoning, and the bigger picture of why you have chosen particular limits. You may have different values, beliefs, or needs than your friend does—which means you have every right to make different decisions than your friend might. The more that you feel firm in deciding what's best for you, the less you will waver when expressing these limits to your friend—and the less tempted they will be to try to pressure you.
Don't let guilt take over.
So often, when a person in our life is hurting, we feel guilty for telling them what we need in order to be good to both ourselves and to them—like setting boundaries makes us a bad friend, or is inherently selfish. But let’s say that you deplete yourself over and over again, by losing sleep for late-night phone calls you didn’t have energy for, or saying “yes” to in-person gatherings that didn’t feel safe to you. It’s likely you’ll grow resentful and disconnected, which doesn’t do your friends any favors, either. And if you constantly flip-flop on your boundaries, your friends don’t know what to expect—which is frustrating and stressful.
Be direct about when and how you can be there for your friends.
If your friend is needing more and more from you, and you're just not able to give as much as they're hoping, it's helpful to be upfront. Carve out the time that you can spend and how you can spend it. Plan it in advance, like, “I’m sorry, I’m going to be too slammed at work this week to text much during the day, but can we plan on a phone call on Wednesday?” The more your friend knows what to expect, the less let down they’ll be, the less pressured you’ll feel, and the more they have to look forward to. Sometimes, though, a friend will push back, and perhaps make you feel guilty in the process. Remember: kind but firm. “I’m so sorry—I’m still slammed at work, like I had mentioned, so I can’t talk now, but does Wednesday still work for you? I’ve been really looking forward to it.”
The more clearly you spell things out for yourself, the better you can express your limits in a kind way—and stick to them. Of course, as regulations and advice change in terms of the safety of various interactions, you can reserve the right to adjust your boundaries with the new information. But it’s important to make sure that if a boundary is being adjusted, it’s because you’ve chosen to adjust it—not because you felt pressured. You can make this process easier for yourself and your friends by being honest with yourself about your motivations for doing something differently, and continuing to communicate your limits clearly as they are re-established.
Let empathy rule.
Attitudes about what social interaction should look like vary widely right now, so differences of opinion are practically unavoidable. Navigating those differences will always go more smoothly if you express empathy.
If a friend has planned an in-person gathering that you’d rather not attend, start with validating what they’re after in the first place, even though you’re saying no: “I know you must be so sick of being holed up, and tired of being disconnected. I really get it. But I’m just not personally ready for this yet.”
You may never totally know where your friend is coming from, and that’s OK. Even when simply listening to a friend vent, empathy goes a long way toward strengthening your connection. Saying “I can imagine that is really frustrating,” or, “That sounds so hard. I’m really sorry to hear it.” can help your friend feel understood—even when you don’t have the answers for how to make things better.
If there’s conflict between you and a friend, try not to be too quick to place blame on them—or on yourself. None of us can ever be completely objective about our roles within certain interactions and relationships, because we all have subtle biases in terms of how we justify certain actions, or how much we are bothered by certain behaviors. If your friend snaps at you when you miss a text from them, for instance, remind yourself that their hurt or stress affects how they see things—and extend compassion to both of you.
You can’t know exactly what your friend is going through, but the more you try to understand their emotional experience, the more your responses will be grounded in kindness and caring—and help keep you connected.
Use a couples-therapy trick.
Conversations with friends right now may feel difficult; it’s natural to be uncomfortable when emotions are complicated. It takes vulnerability to express that you don’t agree with someone, or that someone is making you feel upset, especially when you care about that person. But that makes those conversations all the more important. In these situations, it’s helpful to default to “I” statements—ones that start with your own feelings, expressed calmly and openly.
For example: “I was hurt when you suggested I wasn’t there for you,” or, “I sometimes worry about your getting mad at me if I don’t respond right away, and it makes me stressed,” can be the opener to a respectful conversation. “You lash out at me too much” or “You need to check yourself,” on the other hand, are prone to disconnecting the two of you from the get-go, with the other person immediately forced to defend their own behavior, taking their attention away from being able to understand where you are coming from.
Stressors in friendships can be similar to those in romantic relationships: feeling like you're in a rut, where neither of you are very interested in what the other has to say because your interactions have grown too predictable. And, if your friend is feeling lonely or disconnected from you, they would likely feel appreciative if you suggest an activity that brings a little novelty and also helps re-establish a sense of positivity and appreciation within the friendship. Why not send something funny in the mail? Surprise them with an old photo over text? Start a mini book club together? Suggest you both watch a tutorial for the most bizarre hobby you can find on YouTube (soap carving, anyone)?
Your friend became your friend for a reason; the fact that one of you is lonely doesn't change that. You likely know them well enough to think specifically about what can bring them some joy—and offer some consistency and closeness in a time when things can feel so unpredictable and fast-paced. Keeping up with unprecedented social circumstances within our personal lives and friendships is practically and emotionally taxing—but we can find new, and grounding, ways to show up for one another and ourselves by being empathetic and forthright as we go.
Follow Andrea Bonior on Twitter.