As the Country Reopens, Friendships Are Tested Over What It Actually Means to Return to Normal

The only way to save your friendship may be to put it on hold

For days, the words “you’re being irrational” rang in Liv’s ears. 

Not merely because it’s never a good feeling when someone questions your intelligence, but because the words were delivered in a condescending tone from one of her closest friends, who disagreed with Liv on how to handle the ever-changing nature of the pandemic. A person, Liv says, who knows that she’s been extra cautious because Liv’s mom — “the only family” she has left — is at greater risk of a severe COVID infection. “I knew as soon as I left, they were going to say I was being ridiculous for not wanting to go sit at a restaurant with them.” “They” and “them” are the rest of Liv’s closest friends who’d recently gotten together to “hang out.” 

Like most everyone else, Liv’s been mostly isolated these past few months per the nationwide stay-at-home orders. But last week, she attended a Black Lives Matter protest. “I just needed to be there,” she says. “I wanted to show my support.” A few days later, Liv decided to go see some friends at one of their apartments. “We were just supposed to hang out,” she says. “I wore my mask, but I could tell the mask was making everyone else uncomfortable. So I left.”

There’s nothing necessarily new in Liv’s recent lived experience. There is a growing divide in this country: On one side there are those who adhere, to varying degrees, to the social-distancing protocols that help mitigate the number of infections — wearing a mask, keeping a six-foot distance, not convening inside a restaurant. On the other, there are those obsessed with imposing the opposite. For every mask wearer, it seems, there is an equal and opposite friend or family member who wants to give you a hug, not because they love you or miss you, but because they physically want to impress their truth on you. 

And thus, in an era where nothing is alright, lifelong friendships, too, are on the cusp of breaking. 

Liv understands, of course, that there is a slight glitch in her logic: She readily accepts the risks of attending protests with thousands of strangers, but is wary of sitting at an otherwise empty restaurant with her closest friends. “The way I see it, it’s an additional risk that I don’t need to take right now,” she says. “I don’t fault my friends for wanting to go, but I’m not ready to do that yet.”

It’s a sensible approach: According to the Wall Street Journal, recent data shows that the protests haven’t led to an uptick in COVID transmissions. Alternatively, it’s been well-reported that dining at restaurants isn’t yet safe. “Ventilation systems can create complex patterns of airflow and keep viruses aloft, so simply spacing tables six feet apart — the minimum distance that the CDC advises you keep from other people — may not be sufficient to safeguard restaurant patrons,” per the New York Times. Also, unlike attending a protest, you can’t eat with a mask on.

But the facts, here, are beside the point. Amidst a once-in-a-century pandemic, the disagreement between Liv and her friends, like those that exist in so many other friendships and romantic relationships, has little to do with logic. People are stressed, afraid, angry and frustrated, points out Stephanie Smith, a licensed clinical psychologist. “As a result, many of us are finding that our resilience and patience levels have decreased,” says Smith. “And now we are trying to manage the new challenges: differing approaches and opinions about re-entering the ‘normal’ world.”

To that end, clinical psychologist and friendship researcher Miriam Kirmayer told the Atlantic that, even among friends, being isolated for the past few months means any discourse — but especially conversations around social distancing — are likely to be more hostile. “So we then have less patience for those around us,” she said. “This is obviously true in romantic relationships; we take out our frustrations on the people that we’re closest to, because we have a certain level of felt security. To some extent, that can also happen in friendships.”

I, too, have experienced a recent divide amongst my own friends regarding how to keep safe amid a pandemic. Many of my friends are ready to get on with their lives. They want to live as though the pandemic has ended, or live as though it will never end. The people in my pod (small groups of people seeing each other during the pandemic) have exited the group in favor of a different, larger pod that includes strangers in bars and restaurants. 

All of which is fine. Except, like Liv, I too feel like my reticence to join them makes them uncomfortable and therefore antagonistic. To them, I’m the hall monitor. The narc. The person that shows up to the party and tells everyone to turn the music down so we don’t upset the neighbors.

This is why Smith suggests that it’s so vital to keep in mind — as we try to navigate differences of opinion between family and friends — that everyone is operating to the best of their ability, “within our own individual circumstances.” “Is there a way to extend grace to others, whose opinions and actions might be different than our own? Can we work to appreciate others’ circumstances, challenges, risks and needs and that they might be very different from our own? It’s not necessarily comfortable, but certainly possible to allow space for good, thoughtful people to come to different conclusions.”

But again, I’m doing most of this. So is Liv. And yet, amidst an unprecedented level of social isolation, those of us who have decided to keep ourselves inside a little while longer are the new pariah. The ones who, as Liv tells me her friends said to her, “need to get over it already.” 

Smith says this sort of unexpected contempt amongst friends is likely because emotions almost always run extra high when the health and safety of ourselves and our loved ones are concerned. She recommends that rather than end a friendship over this particular disagreement, “a better approach would be to take a break from someone you find yourself disagreeing with.” “Something like: ‘Hey, I really cherish our relationship and would like it to stay intact,’” she advises. “‘However, we seem to have a difference of opinion about how to manage this time safely. I wonder if we should take a break from the disagreements, and re-group when life gets closer to normal.’”

Liv is trying to do just that. “I’m not going to see them [her friends] if I’m just going to be anxious the entire time,” she says. “If wearing a mask and not wanting to go to restaurants annoys them, that’s fine. More than 120,000 people are dead.”

And she’s right — the pandemic is far from over. Here’s hoping our friendships, complicated as they may be during this time, can outlast what is shaping up to be the most significant health challenge of our lifetimes.