Friendships under pressure: how lockdown and opening up has affected the way we connect

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With easing social restrictions, friendships are being put to the test as pressure to reconnect leads some to reassess their social circle. Millicent Spencer and Emily Spindler-Carruthers report

After talking to a friend about the pressures on friendship groups during COVID-19, Callum Mackay took to a Facebook community to ask: are you satisfied with your friendships?

Over half of the respondents to the post in the Carlton Good Karma Network said no, prompting a larger discussion about the impact lockdown has had on the way people connect with one another.

As restrictions across Australia continue to ease, many are rushing to catch up with friends they haven’t seen since possibly the start of the year, putting extra pressure on social circles and individuals.

“People are very quick to say their social life rocks,” the 31-year-old Melburnian says. 

Callum Mackay came out of lockdown questioning his friendships. Picture: Millicent Spencer

But they often feel uncomfortable acknowledging that their friendships aren’t as satisfying as they could be, particularly after an extended period of social isolation, he says.

“Sometimes you can still have a good friendship group, but maybe you seek more.”

Desany Phanoraj says she was going through a breakup when restrictions were first introduced, and thought she was going to struggle to stay connected with friends.

“It’s a special brand of feeling a little bit alienated and like that you might be alone, but you find that your friends and people who love you will find ways to connect with you,” she says. 

Mr Mackay says in his experience, a lot of social groups have a “leader” who organises all the events. As restrictions ease, this can mean pressure being put on that person to set the social wheels in motion.

Melburnians share their views: What impact did lockdown have on my friendships?

“My phone didn’t go off the hook [when restrictions started to ease], but my mates, I suppose, are expecting me to organise and plan things, so there’s a little bit of pressure there,” he says.

Nineteen-year-old university student Belle Murphy says she is not rushing to arrange large group catch ups. 

“I’m in no hurry for really big social events at this stage. I’m more looking forward to more intimate and personal settings to have really soulful conversations and catch-ups,” she says.

“My personal motto is quality over quantity.  I truly appreciate the handful of close friends I do have.”

Melburnians share their views: the pressure to organise catch-ups

Mr Mackay says he has been thinking about how satisfied he is with his social circles for some time, and was prompted to make the post now that his friends are looking to him to organise gatherings again.

He says that while he has taken on the role of event organiser in his social circles, he has a desire to be in groups where the responsibility is more evenly spread out between friends.

“With my friendship groups, it’s always been fine…but I suppose a lot of people aren’t satisfied with fine,” he says.

Through his Instagram OfflineAve, Mr Mackay asked his followers if they were satisfied with their friendship circles.

Professor of Jennifer Martin, in the social work field at Swinburne University, says while some people are reconnecting with friends, others are struggling.

“You’ve got a whole range of different people,” she says.

 “There are some people who have really struggled during the COVID lockdown, who would not have had a lot of online social contact and may have become increasingly isolated.”

She says people often seek out their friends and family first to provide support, which has been difficult during the pandemic.

Melburnians share their views: What impact has the end of lockdown had on social dynamics within friendship groups?

“We’ve had people with major stressors during COVID, and a lot of which have not really been spoken about because people are trying to be … positive and get through it all, but it’s not been easy for a lot of people.”

She says the extended period of isolation may have tested friendships – particularly if there has not been much contact – and that it may take more time for some people to readjust to in person interaction again.

Lauren Harnett, a 23-year-old university student, says dynamics may be different as people start catching up in person.  

“I think other dynamics will shift a bit because it was so many months [of] only seeing people online,” she says.

“I feel like it’ll be a bit of a period of weirdness and then I think things will get back to normal.”

Social gatherings are on the agenda as restrictions ease. Picture: Unsplash by Rod Long

Social media has played an important role in maintaining connections with friends during lockdowns, but as people begin posting about gatherings again, it could be causing some to feel more isolated than before.

During the height of lockdowns in Melbourne, Mr Mackay felt that he wasn’t missing out in the same way he might have been in pre COVID times.

“You realise everyone’s at home doing the same thing as you, so you didn’t feel like you’re missing out on anything, because there’s nothing to miss out on.”

“There wasn’t the same highlight reel that you usually get … it put everyone on a level playing field.”

Melburnians share their views: on the impact of social media during lockdown, and after.

Now that people are posting about their catch-ups again,  it’s made him feel more conscious about what he’s posting and who might be on the receiving end of those posts.

 “People idolise what their life’s like, and people naturally compare.”

Prof Martin says that one of the downsides of social media is it can lead to people feeling like they’re not doing as well as their friends.

“It’s not a reality, and if people see it as a reality … it can be quite challenging for them,” she says.

“One of the challenges with online media is that you don’t get as much empathy … you don’t get the body language beyond an upper body head shot. If someone’s upset, you can’t provide that support, and you don’t have that spontaneity, generally, that you do with face-to-face interactions.”

Melburnians share their views: on choosing who to catch up with first.

Prof Martin says it’s human nature to seek out social connection, and as lockdowns end, “maybe we will value these face-to-face relationships more than we have previously”.

Ben Guest says the time apart has “almost made [his friendships] stronger”.

I’ve been contacting people more online, when usually I wouldn’t hang out with them as much … so suddenly, when we get back out of restrictions, I’m hanging out with them.

Mr Mackay is currently retooling his pre-pandemic dating group idea – Offline Avenue – to focus on creating opportunities for people to connect offline and create new social circles as gatherings start again.

“[At first] you’ll probably see a real spike of people going out and trying to see everyone and do everything … because people will long for the things they haven’t had for a year,” he says.

“[But], I think people will go back to normal pretty quick.”  

While friendship might look a bit different over the next while as people readjust, Mr Mackay’s knows what he’s looking for.  

“My focus at the moment is probably developing new connections.”