Could lockdown have lasting effects on our friendships?

Bonnie Evie Gifford
By Bonnie Evie Gifford,
updated on Aug 26, 2020

Could lockdown have lasting effects on our friendships?

New research has revealed friendships can deteriorate in as little as three months without the right levels of investment

Lockdown has been tough for us all in a myriad of different ways. The changes to our routines, the sudden switch from freedom of movement to carefully planned trips to the supermarket and small bubbles with select households - it’s something none of us has ever experienced in our lifetimes, and many of us dread experiencing again. Yet for all of the stress, anxiety, and uncertainty it has caused, many have enjoyed the break from the day-to-day stresses of commuting, awkward office banter, and social get-togethers we just don’t want to go to (but can’t think of a reasonable excuse to avoid).

However, according to evolutionary psychologist, Professor Robin Dunbar, the social strains placed on our relationships by lockdown could have long-term consequences for our friendships.

Published today in the Royal Society Journal, Proceedings A, new research has looked into the ways in which our social connections may have been changed by lockdown. While we may have been using House Party, Zoom meetings, and WhatsApp chats to keep our friendships going to mixed feelings of overwhelm and connection, the actual roots of our friendships may lie in the social lives of non-human primates.

Historically, strong social bonds and being part of a stable group has meant protection from rivals and predators alike - meaning that, evolutionarily speaking, that feeling that we can rely on our friends to support us no matter how bad things get is there for a reason. However, in order for these bonds to feel strong for us both, these relationships need a great deal of maintenance.

According to research into both human and money relationships, how likely others are to step up and defend us is directly dependent on the amount of time we have invested with them. In other words: in order to maintain our friendships, we need to spend significant time and focus nurturing those bonds, leading to a limited number of meaningful connections.

Limited connections

As explained by Professor Dunbar, lockdown may have affected our casual friendships more than we might think. “In lockdown, many people are forming new friendships with people on their street and in their community for the first time. So when we emerge from lockdown, some of our more marginal friendships might be replaced by some of these new ones.”

Research published in July of this year looked at the concept of ‘funnelling’. Observed by social scientists in France during their highly restrictive lockdown, it was revealed that while many of us prioritised and strengthened certain friendships thanks to the added care and communication put in to keeping in touch with eachother digitally, other connections were likely to ‘fizzle out’ - particularly amongst the friendships of older generations who may struggle to make new friends.

Around 60% of women and 52% of men spoke more often with family during lockdown, while 22% of women and 27% of men spoke less often with friends. Respondents with children were overwhelmingly more likely to contact family members over friends or colleagues.

In the short-term, research has suggested that our continued digital connections with friends and family should, for now, have a positive impact on our ongoing relationships. However, many worry that these methods of communication offer lower quality time than face-to-face interactions. This is thought to be due in part to the lack of physical touch, which can lead to skin hunger.

Why is touch so important?

Physical closeness can be an important factor in developing or maintaining emotional closeness. It’s thought to be a crucial part of building (and maintaining) healthy relationships, as well as directly benefiting our overall sense of mental wellbeing. A simple touch can stimulate the production of oxytocin, the love hormone, as well as serotonin - a natural antidepressant - and dopamine.

Touch, whether in the form of a hug, sitting close to someone, or casual contact we have over the course of a regular conversation with a friend or loved one, can help to release chemicals that reduce our overall stress levels, boost happiness, and increase our sense of connection. Without these physical touches, we can feel a decrease in our sense of wellbeing, increased loneliness, and may see an impact on how close we feel to friends and family.

As explained in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, “Percieving gentle touch as a human appears to promote pleasure possibly because this serves to reinforce interpersonal contact as a means for creating and maintaining social bonds.” In other words - we’re wired to enjoy casual hugs from friends, thanks to the positive impact it can have on our relationships.

Touch isn’t our only means of stimulating our brain’s pleasure centres. Laughing, dancing, eating, and singing can all give our overall sense of wellbeing a much-needed boost. While some of these activities may still be tricky with social distancing measures in place, online outlets can help to bridge the gap in the meantime.

What does this mean going forward?

Things may still be uncertain, with local lockdowns in effect in various parts of the country, confusing messaging leaving us unsure of when and where is safe to venture out, and frequent policy u-turns leaving heads spinning. However, it’s good to be prepared to spend time during this transition period, and beyond, repairing the relationships that may have fallen to the wayside over the past few months.

Our friendships can help to improve our moods, increase our sense of self-love, keep us motivated, and decrease feelings of loneliness. Most importantly, strong friendships can be there to help support us when we need it the most. The positive effects of our friendships on our mental health and overall wellbeing truly are amazing.

If you’re worried you may struggle to maintain friendships due to increased anxiety or uncertainty following lockdown, find out more about the art of maintaining friendships. If making new friends as an adult is a real concern, find out more about how you can expand your social circle at 30 and beyond with the help of events, classes, friendship dates, and more.

Letting go of a friendship can feel impossibly tough, but it’s worth acknowledging that, sometimes, our friendships run their course. It may not be anyone’s fault - time and distance can play key roles - but it’s ok to say goodbye to friendships that are no longer providing comfort, support, are actively draining you or having a negative impact on your wellbeing. Find out more about how to survive a friendship breakup.

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