Benjamin and his university mate, Joe* were more like brothers than friends. They met studying the same course two-and-a-half years ago, and would spend most of their time together outside of classes. Then, in March of this year, coronavirus hit. Benjamin and his housemates decided that for a few weeks, visitors – including Joe – would not be allowed to come to the house, as per the government guidelines. As the pandemic swept across Britain, separating friends and family, tensions between Benjamin and Joe started to rise.
“We told him he wasn't allowed to come round for a week or two because of what was going on, and he got a bit upset,” Benjamin tells me over the phone. “Then I RT'd something on Twitter about how you notice your true friends during a pandemic. He assumed it was about him, got very angry and kicked off at me. He then blocked me on everything and hasn't spoken to me since.”
The coronavirus pandemic has thrown a proverbial spanner into every aspect of our lives, whether that’s our work, family or relationships with the people we live with. This is certainly true when it comes to friendships, too. Group hangouts at the pub were replaced with scheduled Zoom meetings – until they became too much of a burden. Casual coffees and catch-ups with mates are now either non-existent or totally digitised. Last week, the government changed its guidelines to allow for “support bubbles,” permitting people to meet others outside their household in small groups – another shift in how we navigate our friendship circle. And if you don't live within walking or cycling distance of friends, your capacity to socialise is greatly reduced. Throw in all the additional stress of the lockdown, and friend drama seems sadly inevitable.
For Benjamin, his fall out with Joe was made harder to deal by being trapped inside all day. “It was really upsetting,” says Benjamin. “It was more upsetting because of social media and stuff. He started telling people, so while I was sitting in the house and I couldn't really get away from it, I had so many people messaging me asking about it and I just felt kind of trapped.”
Not only did the pandemic cause the breakdown of Benjamin's friendship, but it also stopped the possibility of physical reconciliation. “Before the pandemic, Joe and I were sort of forced to see each other through friends and university and social activities, and if the pandemic wasn't on I would have gone to see him,” says Benjamin. “If the pandemic hadn't happened, we could have met up in person and got it out. You can't really sort anything online – you sort of have to be together to understand.”
Not all friendships have worsened during coronavirus, however. Yazz James and her friend Alesha had followed each other on social media for years, but never met in real life. During the lockdown, their online friendship blossomed.
“Since lockdown started, because both of us had to move home, neither of us really know anyone in our hometowns, so we've sort of just become a lot closer to each other,” James tells me over the phone. “Now it's like, we text every day, even if we're out and see something that reminds us of the other. We FaceTime once a week or every other week. There's not much to report during lockdown but it's not like the conversation goes quiet – maybe we've just got a lot in common.”
As a 21-year-old who grew up on the internet, James says that it doesn’t feel weird to develop a friendship with someone you haven't met IRL. In fact, she thinks that the lockdown has strengthened these kinds of friendships.
“I think because everyone's spending so much time on their phones, and if you've got a friendship that's only ever been established through the internet and through messaging and through social media, then I think it's natural to dive into those ones more,” explains James. “With my friends that I've made at uni, we still chat, but our friendships have never been about constantly texting, so it feels alien to do that.”
“I know everyone young has probably grown up on the internet,” she adds, “but I've had fan accounts and stuff since I was 13, so I've got lots of friends I've made online.”
However, the increased connectivity required to maintain a friendship during the pandemic – more WhatsApp messages, more phone calls, more video calls – can cause issues for other people. Marcus*, 26, had been close friends with Simon* for over three years, until recently, when they stopped talking.
“We did everything together – went on holidays together, helped with house moves, went clubbing, went to the cinema, went to restaurants,” Marcus tells me over the phone. “That kind of closeness led to quite a bit of tension. Every so often, we would need to reconcile and talk things through face-to-face, and that just was not possible in this instance. It's led to an irreparable breakdown on the friendship, which is really upsetting.”
Marcus believes that the anxiety he felt due to the pandemic accelerated the breakdown of his friendship with Simon. “I felt as if I was being a little bit more intense because I was concerned about what was going on around the world and my reaction to it was to try and draw people closer who was close to me, and that wasn't received well,” says Marcus. “I was being too intense and too communicative, and it was just a case of, ‘Look, this is too much.’ It wasn't able to be resolved in person and it just led to a complete breakdown.”
“You feel a sense of grief over it,” adds Marcus. “I've gone through different stages of denying it, and then eventually learning to accept it. There is no chance of recovery.”
Friendships are always filled with ups and downs, and the pandemic has only intensified these two poles. While some may make an easy transition to Zoom and WhatsApp, others find that not being able to read a friend's body language or hear their voice leads to miscommunication.
Marcus doesn’t think there’s any hope of him and Simon becoming friends again, but he says that the experience has helped him look more honestly at his friendships.
“It's made me realise and reflect on the people that have made an effort,” says Marcus. “It's made me perceive the way I handle friendships in a different way as to what's important.”
“So many people have so many people they connect with, but often there are only a few true people,” he adds. “It takes something like this to see that.”
*Names have been changed.