I’ve known Bridget since we were kids. We’ve seen one another through so many chapters of our lives. When my seventh grade crush wanted to ask me to the school dance, she made it happen. When she was nervous to move to a tiny town for college, I talked her through it. When I gave birth to my first child, she coached me through it over the phone.
It's so bizarre to me that the COVID-19 pandemic is what brought us down.
While the coronavirus crisis has taken more than 600,000 lives, altered what school and work look like, crushed the mental health of so many and more, it didn’t stop there. There’s another element it took with it: relationships. As we’ve seen one another take different approaches to the pandemic, it’s shifted how so many of us look at one another, and subsequently feel toward one another.
“People are second-guessing some of their friendships and relationships based on how people behaved during the pandemic,” Racine Henry, a marriage and family therapist, told TODAY. “A lot of questions were called up around what your belief system is, how much of a conspiracy theorist a person might be or how someone can use critical thinking skills.”
For me and Bridget, it started during the summer of 2020 when she began sharing anti-mask and anti-vaccine content on social media. I tried to politely and privately correct some of her posts, but was met with hostility.
As the pandemic continued, so did her posting. By the time the new year rolled around, the only thing I felt when I saw her was a rising heart rate and frustration. How could she believe that Bill Gates was out to install a chip in her body through a vaccine? Why can’t she understand the importance of wearing a mask? Our family had to leave our home in New York City due to COVID-19, death tolls were increasing rapidly and I became resentful that she, having had to sacrifice far less in the face of the pandemic, was pushing so hard against basic, scientifically-proven facts that would safeguard her community.
“Clients I've had talk about having to address their parents and their loved ones around these issues and feeling like people I knew and love, I don't know them anymore,” Henry said. “I don’t know why they would hold these beliefs or what it means about how I relate to them.”
It’s not only that the friendships changed, but they did so at a time where so many of us — especially younger people — felt increasingly alone.
In a 2020 study by researchers at Making Caring Common, a project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, 61% of respondents aged 18-25 reported feeling lonely either “frequently” or “almost all of the time or all of the time.” Not only were we isolated due to social distancing, but the relationships that we once leaned on for support were evolving, and in some cases disintegrating.
“It further damaged those who were already struggling with feeling lonely and isolated and cut off from their usual groups,” Henry said. “Now that things are opening back up again, people are struggling with how to socialize and how to behave or perform in their groups because everything’s different now. Am I still being the person my people know me to be?”
It doesn’t have to be OK
Bridget and I have barely talked since last summer, and I’m not sure that will change. For a long time, I beat myself up about this. After all these years and all that we had been through, this, THIS, is how it ends?
“It’s not enough to say ‘we’re sisters,’ we should be able to have a relationship,” Henry said. “That’s unfair because that’s the nature of interpersonal relationships, there’s a constant checking in that you have enough in common to maintain that bond.”
At this point, I’m not sure we have enough in common anymore. I’m disappointed and heartbroken, but I’m also making peace with that. We no longer follow each other on social media, our Marco Polo messages have stopped and our birthdays passed this year without exchanging well wishes. I'm accepting that not all friendships have to be lifelong, and it's OK to step back when it's no longer serving one another. On the other side, it’s plausible that people whose beliefs are different than mine, like Bridget, have been feeling the same way — helpless as friendships we thought were solid start to slip away.
Actress Jennifer Aniston told InStyle that she has distanced herself from those in her life who wouldn't receive vaccinations.
"I've just lost a few people in my weekly routine who have refused or did not disclose (whether or not they had been vaccinated), and it was unfortunate," she said. "It's tricky because everyone is entitled to their own opinion — but a lot of opinions don't feel based in anything except fear or propaganda."
When I pressed Henry on how relationships could repair, she seemed hesitant.
“Some relationships can be worked on. Some can be massaged and reconciled. And there’s a way in which you can respectfully disagree,” she said. “But if your opinion or stance on something threatens me or my physical safety, that can't be repaired.”
And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? It’s not just about friends or family deciding whether or not to wear a mask. It’s about doing what it takes to protect others.
And finding out friends or family aren’t willing to do that, well, how does one look past that? Maybe it’s OK not to, for now.