In the early days of the pandemic, Siddiqa Sadiq would pour herself a glass of wine, log on to her computer from her home south of Montreal and enjoy a weekly virtual hang-out with nine close friends.
They’d chat about their day, talk about the stresses of working from home and share stories of how their children were doing.
But as the weeks and months passed by, that list of friends was eventually whittled down to just two.
“We don’t even have a group chat any more,” says Ms. Sadiq, a 41-year-old who works for an insurance company.
There were no fights or disagreements that ended those friendships for Ms. Sadiq. She simply realized she prefers “quality over quantity,” and that having a smaller number of friends makes her a better friend.
“I’m going to be more available to you. If you need me to hear you out, I’m actually going to hear you out,” she says. “I’ve realized I don’t need a big group of friends. It’s just a lot of work.”
The pandemic narrowed our social circles in many ways, putting a spotlight on all kinds of relationships. Lockdowns meant much less opportunity to spend time with large groups of people at social gatherings and celebrations. Bubbling required us to pick the loved ones we most want and need in our lives. People who worked from home lost touch with their office friends, and the shutdown of spaces such as gyms and rinks meant losing regular connections from pick-up sports teams and fitness classes. Consequently, many of us reshaped how and why we value our friendships.
“The pandemic has made us go through a friendship audit,” says Kate Leaver, author of The Friendship Cure: Reconnecting in the Modern World.
“We have a finite amount of energy, and we have to dole it out between the people in our lives and the tasks we have to do. That has been more and more depleted by the task of having to survive through a global pandemic,” she says.
Just as the pandemic has put constraints on the time and energy we have to devote to others, so too has it made the friendships people are maintaining deeper, richer, more meaningful, Ms. Leaver says.
“Going through difficulty or conflict or emotional upheaval is one of the great bonding agents between human beings of all time,” she says.
Olivia Crossman, a 31-year-old public servant living in Ottawa, has bubbled since the beginning of the pandemic with a friend she has known since she was in grade school.
Talking to her about how difficult it has been to raise her two young children during COVID-19 has made them closer than ever, Ms. Crossman says, owing to the vulnerability of those conversations.
“It’s not just how much time we spend together, it’s what we’re going through and talking about,” she says.
Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist at Oxford University, is famous within the social sciences for what’s known as “Dunbar’s number.” His research indicates that human beings are only capable of maintaining a maximum of 150 friendships.
Those friendships are composed of different layers best thought of as concentric circles. The innermost circle is typically composed of the three to five people with whom we are closest, usually including our spouse.
“We refer to them as the shoulder-to-cry-on friends,” Prof. Dunbar says. “They’re the ones who will drop everything when your world drops into crisis.”
Typically, about 40 per cent of our available social time is spent with that inner core, he says. Another 20 per cent is spent with the 10 people in the next layer out. And just as we spend less time with the friends in each subsequent layer, so too does our emotional connection to them diminish.
In terms of numbers of friends, most people will probably end up with the same as prior to the pandemic, Prof. Dunbar says, because our drive to be social is simply too strong.
However, that is not to say we’ll go back to having the same relationships with all the people we were friends with before. The number may be constant, but the people occupying those concentric circles are in continual flux. Friendship dynamics often shift because of life events: job transitions, moving to a different locale, marriage, parenthood. And the pandemic may have brought about the biggest churn any of us have ever experienced.
Friendships are formed thanks to shared interests, whether it’s a love of sports or even disliking the same person at work, Ms. Leaver explains.
“At the core of successful friendship is just something that you have in common. That’s where the spark begins.”
But over time, friends must almost always share core values, she says, and nothing has both revealed and tested people’s beliefs the way the pandemic has.
Even some very close friends have discovered they disagree on issues such as masking or vaccine passports.
“That can be very confronting,” Ms. Leaver says.
On a more positive note, the pandemic may help us readjust our understanding of friendship in the real world, versus chasing “friends” online, says Adam Poswolsky, author of Friendship in the Age of Loneliness.
“I think people have realized that depth is more important than breadth, which I think is really healthy for the next generation,” he says. “Friendship takes time. It’s not something you can swipe right for.”
The friendships Ms. Crossman hasn’t been maintaining aren’t over, she says, describing some as simply “on pause.”
“When would we see each other? At weddings. What have we not been doing? Going to weddings. Or baby showers or bachelorette parties.”
As for Ms. Sadiq, she plans on maintaining a small number of friendships for the foreseeable future.
“You know how we’re supposed to have 10 people from two different households?” she says. “I think that’s just going to be my life norm now.”
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.