Back in the spring, parts of the country implemented lockdowns to control the spread of COVID-19. As a result, people were forced to find creative ways to sustain close relationships — via video chats and socially distanced walks, among other activities. But without clear and consistent guidelines for how the US as a whole should tackle the virus, people have also been winging it, choosing to do whatever felt safest for them personally. Understandably, this approach has created divides among people who have known each other for years. “My relationship with one of my best friends ended,” Reilley, a 30-year-old living in Seattle, told me recently. Last July, Reilley attended the wedding of her friend, a person who has since “leaned in to” life coaching, but by this past May, she said, they were no longer talking. “She refused to talk about COVID because it ‘wasn’t affecting her.’ It didn’t take long to realize she was only concerned about herself,” she said.
Because of the pandemic, the way we communicate and relate to one another changed almost overnight. In a recent callout, hundreds of BuzzFeed readers submitted responses about how their closest relationships have either evolved or broken down over the course of the last year.
Some relationships disintegrated because of a simple lack of proximity, according to Ashlee, 25, from Long Beach, California, who said some of her “crucial” friendships have become strained. “I felt like because there was not the constant face-to-face interaction that required more active participation and planning — like going out — the line of communication has been reduced to group chats and Zoom calls.” This was fun and innovative earlier in the year, she said, but now “it does not seem worth the effort.”
Kat, a teacher living in Union City, California, said she’s always been a homebody and rarely went out before the pandemic, save for small group gatherings and once-a-week activities with her family, like mini golf and going to the movies. Kat, who is 32, said she’s been pretty diligent about maintaining her social bubble, which consists of her immediate family and her parents. Her cautious approach to safety caused a “huge blowup” with two of her in-laws though. “They came over for a socially distant, backyard gathering for my kids’ birthdays. It was just going to be my household and them two, separated [in] different parts of the backyard, so they could see the kids and wish them ‘happy birthday.’” However when the relatives arrived, “they immediately broke down,” she said. “There was crying, yelling, and storming off. They wanted to hug the kids and didn’t understand why we were separating them. They completely took it personally, and we’ve barely talked since.”
Similarly, Elizabeth, 27, of Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, said she has two relationships that “have suffered dramatically” this year: one with her mother and the other with a best friend. The root cause? COVID-19. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Elizabeth said her mother has refused to take the virus seriously. “She even went to bars when they opened up again despite warnings from the CDC and other family members.” As a result, Elizabeth and her mother went from talking frequently “on the phone to only talking every few weeks over text messages.” Meanwhile, with Elizabeth’s best friend, tension arose from the fact that her friend doesn’t want to wear a mask or let other people around her wear one.
Elizabeth’s group of friends, six people who live in four different households, were going to do a Friendsgiving, but those plans were thwarted by her best friend. “Most of us felt confident that we would be fine if we wore our masks and stayed socially distant while eating. Since my best friend refuses to wear a mask and my house has a mask rule, we decided to have it at her house to accommodate her. She agreed but canceled when she realized that the rest of us were going to wear masks. She stated she didn’t want people to wear masks around her because they make her uncomfortable. We tried to reason with her, but it didn’t work.”
With the upcoming holidays, the CDC has suggested that in order to slow the spread of the virus, people should stay home this holiday season. “My brother has not changed his social habits at all, and it’s caused a lot of friction,” said Alyssa, 23, a theater student in Los Angeles. She said her brother lives in New York and goes to “raves, brunches, and weekends on Fire Island.”
“She didn’t want people to wear masks around her because they make her uncomfortable. We tried to reason with her, but it didn’t work.”
Yet, despite his active social life, she was fully prepared to have him visit this coming Thanksgiving, until he attended a rooftop party in celebration of Joe Biden’s presidential victory, where 17 people subsequently tested positive for COVID-19. Alyssa’s disappointment with her brother’s actions stems from the fact that she knows people who have died from the virus. “I told him I absolutely would not see him, and it’s been an uncomfortable fight. We don’t see eye to eye. I think he’s selfish. He thinks COVID is overblown and his actions aren’t dangerous and damaging.”
These kinds of risk-taking — and rifts — are not unique to the US either.
“Familial relationships took a hit because of the misinformation being spread,” said Meryska, 25, who lives in Durban, South Africa. “Some of them are so ignorant about safety measures, and unfortunately boomers believe all the garbage fake remedies they get off WhatsApp.” Caroline 20, who lives in France, got into a fight with her friend who, despite acknowledging the virus’s existence, refused to curb her social life. “I am her roommate, so her decisions impact me directly,” she said. “It is not even that she does not believe in COVID: She simply wants to live her ‘life to the fullest.’ That is why we ended up going our separate ways after only two months living together. This pains me, as she was a very close friend before.”
At the start of the pandemic, people were urged to “stay home, save lives.” But this enforced isolation, for the people lucky enough to be able to work from home, comes with mental health consequences that some people aren’t willing to endure.
Donald, 48, who lives in Minneapolis and is a psychiatrist, described himself and his partner as a “liberal gay couple.” He said he’s less worried about the virus and has chosen to keep up with his social life in much the same way he did pre-pandemic. He and his partner still “travel for fun and eat out every day,” though he said these choices have “not been accepted by many of our friends.” He added, “We don’t support the masks or the social distancing, and this has led us to be on opposite sides from most of our friends who view us as petri dishes who are killing their grandma. We just feel that you have to live your life.” (Health officials highly recommend wearing masks, for the protection of yourself, as well as those around you.)
Donald said he continues his active lifestyle in part because his husband attempted suicide earlier in the year when lockdowns and other restrictions were commonplace. “As a psychiatrist, I know how damaging social distancing is and feel it is much more harmful than the virus,” he said. This position has caused the couple to lose friends. “But we consider the trade-off OK as the friends we lost were not true friends,” he said.
The psychiatrist isn’t the only person who doesn’t want to self-isolate for mental health reasons. J, 25, and who lives in Virginia Beach, Virginia, characterized herself as “a very social person” and that “being with people is necessary for my mental health.” (J did not want her name published because her actions and opinions “are not completely in line with the outspoken majority of people.”) Before the virus struck, she was active in the performing arts community, doing productions at a local theater, and would often attend parties and game nights during the week. But after her brother’s girlfriend contracted COVID-19 and survived “with no issues, I wasn’t very concerned about self-isolating.” Instead, she’s adapted her life, attending outdoor gatherings and smaller meetups. And while some relationships with friends she’s known for some time initially waned, they have all made a conscious effort to keep in touch, scheduling weekly video chats and working out together. Likewise, there’s Erin, 24, who said, “I believe that the virus is real, but there is a point where my mental health is also extremely important to me.” Erin, who lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, knows two people who have contracted the virus — her cousin, and her partner’s grandmother, who died of COVID-19. Erin completely isolated from the spring until August, but has since started to attend “open-air breweries and well-spaced indoor dining on occasion.”
“It all boils down to how willing are you to text, email, Zoom.”
According to people who participated in the callout, though some relationships, both casual and long term, have diminished over the last year, there are others that have blossomed. Canadian Kacy, 32, said she has been “FaceTiming old friends who’ve moved away,” and has “strengthened some old gems.” Allie, 21, of Seattle, said she feels “more present” with friends. “We stay in and watch movies or play games instead of going out and getting drunk,” she said, whereas the relationships that have fallen by the wayside dwindled “because the effort wasn’t put in any more.”
Jennifer, 42, has made “temporary friends while doing online plays.” Though she still has real-life friends, a lot of them have “drifted off,” which she said has been upsetting to her. “It all boils down to how willing are you to text, email, Zoom. I don’t want to be a naggy bitch harassing people to talk to me, but it really, really bothers me that some people are drifting away and only surface once in a while, briefly, every few months.”
For some, however, this year has been a good time to practice respecting the personal boundaries set by friends, which ultimately can make those relationships stronger. Maggie, 35, lives in Toronto and said her relationships with friends aren’t “strained,” but they “are in different places emotionally.” She added, “I invited close friends to my home for remote viewing during the Toronto International Film Festival, and they did not want to come inside my house. I had a hard time not letting that hurt my feelings. We need to accept that everyone has their own level of risk tolerance.” ●