Love and friendship in a post-pandemic world: what are the new rules? | Pirelli
< Back To Home

Love and friendship in a post-pandemic world: what are the new rules?

The pandemic has changed each of us – and has affected our relationships with family, friends and partners immeasurably. As we emerge, bruised and blinking, from more than a year of shielding, self-isolating and social distancing, feelings of anxiety experienced during the prolonged periods of isolation will not instantly disappear. Few of us will return to our previous mindsets as if nothing has happened. Life in lockdown has been tough on romantic relationships, as well as friendships, making the transition to the “new normal” something to navigate for many. Even Esther Perel, arguably the world's best-known psychotherapist, whose TED Talks have garnered more than 30 million views, has admitted to anxiety at the prospect.

Love and friendship in a post-pandemic world: what are the new rules? 01
Love and friendship in a post-pandemic world: what are the new rules? 01

“I know I'm not the only one struggling with how to open back up to others, even though it's what I so desperately want,” she wrote in her blog. “But after we've lived so long in a state of prolonged uncertainty, how are we meant to reconnect safely with the unknown in a way that invites excitement rather than fear?”

Perel, whose hit podcast Where Should We Begin? allows listeners to tune into actual couples' therapy sessions, believes that our “collective trauma” has left us with a deep mistrust – of the world, our institutions, our bodies, each other and ourselves. To rejoin society, she says, we must all take “leaps of faith” and “calculated risks” in order to rebalance our fundamental need for both security and freedom.

“We're beginning to make out a vision of a near-future of family gatherings, parties with friends, kissing on first dates and being able to once again experience the kindness of strangers,” she says. “Whether you are desperate to be around people, wanting to keep the solitude you found this year, or somewhere in between, this new liminal phase is an opportunity. We are entering a period of risk assessment that, I hope, will help teach us how to build back trust in the world and with each other.”

The need for socialising with levels of loneliness reportedly soaring during lockdown, evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar believes the sooner we start face-to-face socialising again the better. The endorphins triggered by the presence of friends, he explains, are essential in creating feelings of relaxation, pleasure and calm that we now need more than ever.

“The shot of endorphins you receive through engaging with somebody socially is the best anti-depressant you will ever get,” says Dunbar, author of Friends: Understanding the Power of Our Most Important Relationships (Little Brown). In addition, endorphins tune the immune system, activating our natural “killer cells”. People with better social support networks are more likely to recover after heart attacks or strokes, and will be better armed to deal with the continuing uncertainties ahead. “The single best predictor of your mental health, physical wellbeing and even how long you live is the number of close friendships you have, and the quality of those friendships.”

Fractured friendships

Even close friendships have been tested, however. Coronavirus has exposed some fundamental differences in values, attitudes and priorities, and many of us have seen friends, family, even romantic partners in a new light. Those we assumed would be rule-keepers, for example, have emerged as rule-breakers, sparking moral and political friction. How, for example, do we now feel about the long-time pal who believes Covid is a hoax, when we may have seen its terrible consequences first-hand? And how do we clink glasses with the friend who has merrily flouted lockdown's raft of rules and regulations while we have abided by every government guideline, including not to visit elderly loved ones?

How do we mend those fractured relationships? “In a sense, the genie that's been let out of the bottle can be quite hard to put back,” says psychotherapist Hilda Burke. “Perceiving a friend as having taken a cavalier attitude to the restrictions and maybe acting selfishly and putting others at risk can be a bitter pill to swallow for some.”

For others, feeling judged by their friends will have been incredibly unwelcome. “Ultimately, though, it's about weighing up the value of the friendship overall, whether a person should be judged harshly on their behaviour during an incredibly difficult time,” she adds. “For some, what they witnessed in the behaviour of people they loved will have been a deal-breaker. But I think many are now realising that for a friendship or any relationship to endure there is a need to be respectful of differences.”

Rethinking social circles

The value of certain friendships has been put under the spotlight by the period of enforced separation and reflection and given some people the opportunity to edit their address books. South Africa-based private equity specialist Claire Harcourt-Cooke says she has used lockdown to re-evaluate her social circle. “I have chosen to only put effort into the friendships that bring me joy, and in which I feel both parties are committed to maintaining the friendship,” she explains. “In the past, I may have kept unhealthy friendships going in order to maintain status or to feel less lonely.”

She's not alone. Mahzad Hojjat, professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and co-author of The Psychology of Friendship, suggests that, going forward, we might only have the mental energy to maintain relationships that mean more to us. “This pause that was created by Covid has changed everything – it has made us think twice about what matters, which friendships you want to keep, and which are not worth keeping,” she says. “It's been a test for the world on many different levels and people are re-evaluating their lives, including romantic relationships.”

Couples under pressure

When it comes to love in lockdown, evidence suggests that the pandemic has made good relationships better and bad relationships worse. Richard Slatcher, an expert in behaviour and brain sciences at the University of Georgia, has been researching the impact of Covid on relationships among adults of all ages across 30 countries. Couples who were in stable and happy romantic relationships at the start of the pandemic have done remarkably well, he says, partly because they have had more time to spend with one another. “However, for those who were struggling prior to the pandemic, being cooped up together has pushed them to dissolution.”

Other couples have relished having social pressures taken away and have thrived in the enforced simplicity of the past year, according to Kate Thompson, couple psychoanalytic psychotherapist at Tavistock Relationships. “They quite like this feeling of a nest that they've created together, and of being removed from the distractions and insecurities that can come from outside friendships. Those pressures have been stripped away so they are reluctant to come out. For them, there is a real chance to negotiate something new, a time to reappraise what they want.”

Love and friendship in a post-pandemic world: what are the new rules? 02
Love and friendship in a post-pandemic world: what are the new rules? 02

Dating priorities

For single people looking for love, it's been difficult, too. When it comes to finding romance, stay-at-home measures and safety protocols have proved a sure-fire passion killer. Touch expert Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, believes that single people might fundamentally alter how they interact on first dates after the pandemic passes. “An entire generation will think twice before hugging a stranger on a first, second, even third date,” he predicted to Time.

Sara Konrath, who directs the Interdisciplinary Program on Empathy and Altruism Research at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, is more optimistic. She suggests that we might be witnessing a watershed moment when it comes to dating. “Even before the pandemic, kindness was the top trait that men and women wanted in a romantic partner,” she wrote in The Atlantic. “But the importance of kindness seems magnified now, in how people portray themselves and in what they are looking for in a partner.”

Konrath works as a scientific adviser at the dating app OKCupid, and has seen noticeable changes in daters' attitudes towards relationships over the past year. While the number of people seeking a quick hook-up declined by 20 per cent during the pandemic, the number of users prioritising deeper emotional connections and less superficial interactions – so-called intentional dating – has increased, with 58 per cent looking for more meaningful encounters.

The way ahead

Whether people are looking to form long-term attachments or enjoy casual flings, Slatcher confidently expects society to return to pre-pandemic norms “as swiftly as possible”, likening it to the immediate aftermath of the 1918-19 flu pandemic. “Our desires for dating are fairly unconscious, and pretty hard-wired,” he says. “I am not sure we are going to change 100,000 years of evolution in terms of what makes people want to date and be with other people.”

As for what we want from friendships, “this is going to be the Roaring Twenties”, predicts Hojjat, “especially for young people who get energy from interacting with others. Older people might be a little more cautious. But my hope is that the pandemic will make us all more intentional about our friendships and that we will build deeper relationships.”


Author: Genevieve Fox





Genevieve Fox is a former features editor of the Daily Telegraph and has written for the New York Times, Times, Guardian, and Psychologies magazine, among other publications. She is the author of Milkshakes and Morphine: A Memoir of Love and Life (Vintage).