Can we still be friends? Coronavirus means working at formerly easy relationships

MaryLouise Patterson and her friend

Retired pediatrician MaryLouise Patterson (left) and her friend, on their walk along the Hudson River in New York City. (Courtesy of MaryLouise Patterson)

Leora Eisenberg worries that the coronavirus pandemic might have cost her a best friend.

The 21-year-old Slavic languages major, who just graduated from Princeton University, had to move back to Minneapolis in March when the school moved online. Her friend, 23, stayed back at school.

She texts him and emails him, inviting him to play games or just catch up. But mostly she’s gotten silence in return.

“It just seemed like he wasn’t able to include me in his life if I wasn’t physically there and he couldn’t interact directly with me,” Eisenberg said. “This is my best friend we’re talking about. This was someone who was a constant presence in my life. It felt like our friendship was being taken apart by something I really couldn’t control.”

When she was on campus, Eisenberg said, she was surrounded by friends. Shabbat dinners and movie nights just happened naturally. Back home in Minnesota, it’s frustrating to have to schedule friendship time online, whether it’s a Zoom chat or playing Battleship. It takes a lot more energy.

Leora Eisenberg
Leora Eisenberg (second from left) with some of her Princeton University friends.

COVID-19 has affected relationships in big ways and small, as families are forced to be together 24/7 and friendships are challenged by social distancing. Even as states start to loosen up, some even opening bars and restaurants again, people say they aren’t sure if they’ll be getting together face-to-face with friends for a beer anytime soon.

Friendships naturally wax and wane over time, said Kory Floyd, a professor of communication at the University of Arizona and author of “The Loneliness Cure,” but the pandemic has put a different kind of stress on the relationship, as everyone is struggling simultaneously.

While friendships are usually maintained by common situations — work, seeing each other at kids’ soccer games — those events might no longer be happening, and it takes an extra effort to continue the relationship, Floyd said.

“It’s really across the board,” he said. “Some are really struggling with their friendships right now, and others are finding creative ways to maintain them, and I think some people’s friendships will come out of quarantine even stronger.”

Technology helps … sometimes

One obstacle is that as communication has moved online or on the phone instead of face-to-face, people have had to accept that others might have different levels of comfort and accessibility with technology. (Floyd calls it “computer-mediated communication.”) One person might not see it as a big deal to chat over Skype or Zoom, but it might be a new experience for the other.

The person who is always doing the initiating might feel a little resentful, as if having to shoulder the burden of continuing the friendship. It’s probably not because the other person is lazy or unappreciative, Floyd said, it’s about the level of comfort with technology.

“It brings home the level of patience, and the importance of being understanding right now and giving each other a lot of leeway,” he said, adding that it’s OK to let a friendship chill while life is in chaos right now. “There may be times when a friendship just has to go dormant for a little while, and that’s not unusual.”

For Bob Bond, 65, an optician now on furlough in Paoli, there’s no computer-mediated communication that takes the place of his boys’ night out. For the past 23 years, he and a group of guys from the neighborhood have gone over to someone’s house to watch television and drink beer and give one another a hard time.

After eight weeks of sheltering at home, a friend finally came over, and they sat on the patio six feet apart with masks on. It was something, but it wasn’t the same, Bond said.

“I’m not that computer literate,” he said. “I can do Facebook and I can buy something online and that’s about it. I don’t even have email.”

Facebook allows Bond to keep up with his friends and have a little back-and-forth conversation, he said, but mostly he spends “12 hours a day sleeping and 12 hours a day watching television.” His wife works for an environmental company doing water and soil testing. She’s considered an essential employee, so she’s been out of house a lot.

“I’ve never had so much time off, and I don’t know what to do with myself,” he said.

For MaryLouise Patterson, a 77-year-old retired pediatrician in New York City, living through COVID-19 has brought people back into her life she hasn’t heard from in decades, concerned that she is living in the epicenter of the pandemic. One day, she said, she received a message on Facebook from a friend she hadn’t seen since high school.

“I’ve become a Zoomer, you know. Who knew?” she said, and laughed. “We do Zoom cocktail hours, and I have young friends in California and we played Bid Whist on Zoom, and I see my other friends and we tell stories. We just want to see each other and make sure that we look OK and we sound OK.”

She walks with a friend along the Hudson River for two hours every day, she said, because it’s easy to get caught up in Zoom meetings and webinars and spend all day in front of a screen.

And while the pandemic has brought many dark days, it has also inspired her and her friends to form their own version of the 1950s civil rights group Sojourners for Truth and Justice. Patterson said her seven-woman group is focusing on what the members want the world to look like after COVID-19 — a vision that includes affordable housing, universal child care, preservation of the ecosystem and eradicating homelessness.le

“We want to contribute,” Patterson said, “and we want to do everything we can to make the world — our immediate world, our local world, and the larger world — a better place for everyone.”

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Dawn Fallik, a medical reporter and associate professor at the University of Delaware, reported this article as part of a series on loneliness supported by NPR and a grant from the National Institute for Health Care Management Foundation.

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