Any traumatic experience — like a breakup, health scare, death in the family or financial crisis — has a way of destabilizing social networks. We instinctively gravitate toward those who provide comfort and support and reflexively withdraw from those who drain and drag us down.
It was no different at the height of the pandemic, except that the risk of infection meant we had to be more intentional, and maybe even a little calculating, about who we allowed in our orbit. For many, the pruning process was illuminating, if not a little liberating. Covid-19 provided an excuse to shed unsatisfying and unfulfilling relationships, while giving people the time and space to strengthen bonds with those they truly cared about.
As pandemic restrictions ease in the United States and we may once again belly up to an all-you-can-eat buffet of social activity, the question is: Will we pile our plates and gorge, or be more selective and stick to what nourishes and sustains us? Psychologists, sociologists and evolutionary anthropologists say it behooves us to take a more curatorial approach when it comes to our friends because who you hang out with determines who you are.
“We take it for granted, but having friends is exceedingly rare in the animal kingdom,” said Dr. Nicholas Christakis, a professor of social and natural science at Yale University and author of “Apollo’s Arrow,” a book about the impact of Covid-19 and past plagues on society. (Other members of the friendship club include chimpanzees, elephants and dolphins.)
Friendship is an evolutionary advantage, he said, that allows us to form alliances, cooperate, exchange ideas and learn from one another. Having friends who encourage, stimulate and support you is associated with improved immunity, lower blood pressure and higher cognitive function. Having no friends, toxic friends or superficial friends not only can make you feel insecure, lonely or depressed, but also can accelerate cellular aging and increase your risk of premature death.
It seems as if it should be easy to distinguish between true and false friends, but that’s not always the case. Research shows that only half of our friendships are mutual. That is, only half of those who we think are our friends feel the same way about us. Blame egoism, optimism or, perhaps, the fact that social media has turned “friend” into a verb.
Or it could be that we are socially slothful. Friendships take a significant amount of time and effort to develop and maintain, so we often settle for whoever happens to be around or is pinging us online. It’s inertia that keeps you tied to friends whom you find tiresome because it’s easier and less anxiety-producing to keep them around than it is to cultivate new friendships.
The pandemic shook us out of our social ruts, and now we have an opportunity to choose which relationships we wish to resurrect and which are better left dormant. Ask yourself: “Who did I miss?” and “Who missed me?” Also think about friendships forged during the crisis — maybe with people in your pandemic pod or neighbors who regularly came by to commiserate. If you thrived and found solace in their company, commit to keeping them close.
Rather than thinking about who you want to keep or purge from your social network, Suzanne Degges-White, a professor of counseling at Northern Illinois University, suggested imagining how you want to arrange your “friendscape,” where people inhabit the foreground, middle ground or background depending on how much time and emotional energy you invest in them.
It requires daily or weekly attention to maintain foreground friends, so there are necessarily a limited number of slots (four to six, maximum). Some of those may be filled by your romantic partner, parent, sibling or child. Because they are front and center, foreground friends are the ones who have the most profound impact on your health and well-being, for good or ill.
Indeed, depressed friends make it more likely you’ll be depressed, obese friends make it more likely you’ll become obese, and friends who smoke or drink a lot make it more likely you’ll do the same. The reverse is also true: You will be more studious, kind and enterprising if you consort with studious, kind and enterprising people. That is not to say that you should abandon friends when they are having a hard time. But it’s a good idea to be mindful of who you are spending the majority of your time with — whether on- or off-line — because your friends’ prevailing moods, values and behaviors are likely to become your own.
What are the hallmarks of good foreground friends? Foremost, they make you feel better about the world and about yourself. They are there for you, listen to you and, while they may not always agree with you, they get you. There’s a sense of mutuality and reciprocity in terms of helping and engagement. And crucially, you fundamentally enjoy being with them, just as they enjoy being with you.
People who do not belong in your foreground are those who don’t seem genuinely pleased when something good happens to you and show a glint of schadenfreude when things go wrong. Another clue is they are boastful, self-righteous, faultfinding or prickly in conversation — or they always shift the conversation back to themselves. And steer well clear of anyone who doesn’t defend you when someone else maligns you, or worse, piles on.
Susan Heitler, a psychologist and author of “The Power of Two,” which looks at friendship in the context of marriage, cautioned that you also want to look at yourself when making decisions about who you want to populate your post pandemic world: “It may be you, not necessarily the other person, who’s making the relationship asymmetrical” and unsatisfying.
You can’t have good friends if you aren’t a good friend yourself. Do you get in touch only when you want something or have nothing better to do? Are you the one who is argumentative or always talking about yourself? Are you saying or doing things to diminish your friend’s joy? Are you too demanding? Judgmental? Emotionally unavailable?
Certainly, no one is a perfect friend all the time. We all have our less than admirable moments. But a solid and good friendship is one where both of you are able to work through intentional and unintentional slights.
“It’s not the lack of conflict that determines a relationship’s success,” said Mahzad Hojjat, a professor of psychology who studies friendship at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. “It’s how the conflict is resolved.”
In fact, repaired rifts are the fabric of relationships rather than patches on them. “As you go through issues and resolve them, you become closer because you get to know each other better,” Dr. Hojjat said. You figure out each other’s lines in the sand, what in your histories makes certain offenses particularly hurtful, as well as what needs to happen for healing to occur.
Sometimes all it takes is just letting the other person know you don’t like it when things aren’t right between you — that you care.
But sometimes you’re just not feeling it. It happens. And usually it’s not because of some breathtaking betrayal. More often it’s an accumulation of dings that wore you down over time. Or, possibly, you and your friend may have just outgrown each other. This occurred during the pandemic when people reflected on what was meaningful in their lives and found it diverged from what mattered to others in their circle.
“As a person, I’m growing, so if a relationship can’t flex, it can’t survive, it can dissolve, or just snap,” said Dr. Degges-White from Northern Illinois University. “You feel guilty but you have to remember, if you’re changing, so is the friend, and they may be having similar feelings.”
Of course, your personality and your history with the other person will determine how you disengage, but often the best course is to just slowly back off. Politely decline the other person’s invitations and don’t extend any of your own. Ghosting is almost never a good strategy. Unless someone is irredeemably toxic, it is better to be gracious. Let the person gradually recede into the background, rather than erasing them entirely from your friendscape.
You never know. Just as you can outgrow friendships, you can also grow back into them.
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