How to navigate having different Covid social boundaries to your friends

Even now, months into post-lockdown life, we all individually are figuring out what ‘feels right’ to us.

And with that, what doesn’t.

Where someone before might have been a party animal, nowadays going to outdoor restaurants might be all they can stomach.

That could work the other way too, with people wanting to make up for lost time and thus raring to go to festivals, clubs and holidays.

Many social circles are now facing the issue of being out of sync with each other, having different boundaries and ideas around socialising in a pandemic.

Jade, a 25-year-old working in design, tells us: ‘I’m completely happy to never see a club again.’

This difficult when her friends keep mentioning a certain venue they used to go often, that’s currently closed.

‘I’m just praying it stays closed for as long as possible so I don’t have to keep making excuses not to go,’ she adds.

This has put a strain on her friendships, due to the different expectations they now have on what constitutes a good time.

‘I think the pandemic made me realise how unnecessary going to clubs is,’ Jade says. ‘I’ve decided they’re just not for me anymore but I know my friends love going, so I’m a tad worried that I’ll end up missing out on things because of this.’

Jade isn’t alone here – Charlie*, 30, recently had a tough talk with her friends to explain why her drinking habits, and her social preferences, have changed in the last 18 months.

‘I barely drink now compared to before Covid,’ Charlie tells us. ‘Put simply, getting drunk makes me really anxious and it just wasn’t fun any more, so over Covid I massively cut back.

‘Now if I go out I have one glass versus the several I would have had pre-Covid.

‘My friends are still up for boozy sessions and big nights, and before I spoke to them about it I felt like a bit of an outsider, unsure of how to navigate wanting to leave early or questions about why I wasn’t drinking much.’

Thankfully, her friends have been understanding and try to find a balance of scheduling in alcohol-free activities.

‘Taking control of the situation has felt very empowering,’ Charlie adds.

While changes in any friendship are inevitable – as things such as moving, marriage, babies and sick relatives come into the dynamic – the pandemic has sped this process up.

People took stock in lockdown and didn’t necessarily come out the other side as the same person they were before.

Caroline Plumer, founder and lead therapist at CPPC London, tells us: ‘Any successful friendship will have to navigate changes and differing boundaries over the years.

‘Although the morals around Covid can feel very black and white at times, it is in fact no different.

‘Friendships grow and evolve over time and we don’t have to maintain all the same interests in order to enjoy time together,’ though it can be hard to find peace in that, especially when the change feels unexpected or sudden.

Josie*, 25, from London, is navigating this now, as she’s found herself in the minority of her friendship circle in wanting to still go out. She says: ‘I feel like friends have just given up and accepted middle age?! Bore off.’

She’s found that the friends who kept up socially distanced walks and phone calls over lockdown are more likely to want to go out now, while other friends have closed off many of their old channels for socialising.

‘Multiple lockdowns have have affected most of my friendships,’ says Josie.

‘I noticed quite early on that my friends have withdrawn into themselves and their “main circle”, such as boyfriends, siblings and parents, which doesn’t include friends.

‘Those who used to prioritise a night out with the girls now would choose to stay-in a watch telly with the boyfriend – wholesome but I notice I go weeks without seeing or even talking my closest friends I used spend the whole weekend with.

‘I’ve given up reaching out to people also.’

Even though Josie, too, has a boyfriend, she feels that many of her friends are now ‘quieter and less outgoing’.

Though boundaries on both sides need to be respected, it seems on Josie’s side the situation is a recipe for loneliness.

‘I haven’t broached it them exactly, more like mentioned in passing out much I how much I am looking forward to doing more and they’ve been like “nah”,’ she adds.

‘I said to one in particular “close” friend that I miss her and wish we could do more together, like old times, dancing and singing but she saw it as an attack on her.’

Caroline says it’s possible that many friends can feel pangs of ‘rejection’ when once mutual desires no longer remain.

She notes: It’s possible if your friends are used to you saying yes, they can feel rejected when you start saying no.

‘If this seems to be the case, gently explain that whilst you totally respect their decisions, you’re currently working with a different comfort level and don’t feel ready for certain activities.

‘Suggest an alternative activity that you are comfortable with so you can still spend time together.’

Although, it can be hard if you’re outnumbered and everyone wants to resume as normal – Vrushali tells us his friends get ‘angry’ when he turns down playing basketball (something he once did daily) due to fears around spreading Covid to his family.

‘My friendships have changed where they feel I am not someone who can come down and hangout at any time and be just care free and attend to them,’ he says.

So how can you find a new, mutually enjoyable pathway to socialising?

If you don’t feel it’s a case of outgrowing each other, Caroline says: ‘It’s really helpful to try and understand the other’s perspective, so approach any conversation where there might be differing opinions with empathy and curiosity.

‘Ask questions and acknowledge their concerns. Friends don’t have to agree on everything but they do have to respect each other’s boundaries.

‘If this is a person you really value and want to keep in your life, you’ll find a new approach to your relationship,’ even though it might take some extra effort at first to carve out a new routine.

‘Remember this has been a challenging time for everyone, and it’s impacted people in completely different ways,’ Caroline adds.

‘What you need right now for your mental health and wellbeing might be very different to what your friend needs.

‘At the start of the pandemic there was a real outpouring of appreciation for others – we suddenly realised how much we needed not only doctors, but refuse collectors and retail workers.

‘However, this kindness seems to have gotten somewhat lost. I really wish we could bring this back, but we can at the very least start with how we treat our friends.’

Friends, especially the closest ones, are typically the easiest to feel annoyed with, given the sense of security strong connections have.

We must remember however, to maintain the same level of understanding we would with people we’re on less stable terms with.

Caroline stresses it’s vital to communicate concerns and listen, regardless of which side you fall on of wanting things to be how they were pre-pandemic or different to cater for Covid anxieties and personal changes.

If both sides want the friendship to continue, compromising is key – and surely, the company counts for more than the activity.

*Names have been changed.

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