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A year and a half of physical boundaries during the pandemic has forced us to evaluate our personal relationships.

STEVE DEBENPORT/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

If you’re feeling a mixture of anxiety, dread and excitement about life inching back to normal, you’re not alone, says Ottawa-based clinical psychologist and friendship expert Dr. Miriam Kirmayer.

Over the course of the last year and a half, we’ve all had to make tough calls on many of our romantic and platonic connections. Some friendships grew apart under the pressure of social distancing; other relationships blossomed, aided by long hours in lockdown.

Through counselling patients through the rocky road of an impending post-pandemic life, Kirmayer is sure about one thing: A year and a half of physical boundaries has forced us to evaluate our personal relationships.

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Here, the clinical psychologist lets us in on how we can streamline our social lives, manage reuniting anxiety and, most importantly, rediscover the nourishing qualities of relationships that have been weighed down by a global health crisis.

How have the dynamic of friendships changed over the last year and a half?

There are so many nuances to individual struggles and circumstances. Some people are becoming closer and recognizing the importance of specific friendships and choosing to invest in them in a way they hadn’t before. Others are losing touch and ending friendships because of practical obstacles or hardships that have come up over the pandemic. And sometimes, we just haven’t had the energy to invest in our friendships in the way we’d like. Different approaches and feelings about the pandemic itself have created a lot of emotional distance too.

We haven’t necessarily gone through these conversations or experienced these kinds of challenges in our friendships [before the pandemic], but the consequences are obviously very wide-reaching and can feel very personal. It’s not uncommon to feel that a friend is acting in a way that we wouldn’t, but it might not affect us personally.

I emphasize in my work that it’s okay to have [serious] conversations, just like we expect in our romantic relationships; to be open to disclosing and negotiating conflict or disagreement. Practising those difficult interpersonal skills can be hugely rewarding.

We’ve all had to navigate unforeseen solitude, but not everyone has felt this in the same way. What’s the difference between being alone and being lonely?

The two are so often conflated. Being alone can be the pathway to loneliness, but they represent two distinct experiences. We can be alone but feel connected to ourselves and to a community. We can also be alone and feel lonely, but there’s nothing lonelier than being surrounded by a group of people and not feeling seen.

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Social distancing has made it incredibly hard to cure loneliness.

Yes, and the pandemic has really brought existential feelings to the surface. We’re much more aware of time that’s been lost, which leads us to reflect on and re-evaluate our relationships.

Ottawa-based clinical psychologist and friendship expert Dr. Miriam Kirmayer says it's okay to have serious conversations in our friendships, just like we expect in our romantic relationships.

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With these feelings and our imminent return to normal, have you noticed a general increase in anxiety?

This state of re-entry brings a new type of anxiety that not everyone will experience. Some people are keen to jump back in. Others are apprehensive and nervous, not only for a re-entry into society, but into relationships. That causes anxiety, when we’re mismatched with our loved ones about going back to normal.

We know that avoidance increases anxiety, and for the past year we’ve been in a state of forced avoidance. We haven’t been able to see each other in person, so many of us feel out of practice with certain social skills. I recommend people start small and build that familiarity and confidence over again.

How do you recommend people talk to their friends if they have mismatched levels of readiness?

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Phrases like, “I’m not comfortable with that right now,” or “that’s not right for me or my family,” can work well. Those types of boundaries are so important for our own well-being and relationships. If it’s a close friend, giving a bit of context can be helpful, too. “I’m not comfortable with this because,” or “here’s what I’m feeling,” [can] help us arrive at a place where there’s an arrangement and an expectation that fits everyone’s needs. Those types of comments can be helpful because sometimes our friends will personalize a boundary and feel rejected.

Having re-evaluated our values during this forced alone time, some of us might feel a need to “spring clean” our social lives.

I see it as less of an annual routine and more of an opportunity for reflection when it feels right. It’s normal and inevitable to lose touch with some friends.

One thing I hear often is that people are left feeling confused by the loss of a friendship, or feel they’ve done something wrong. With those breakups, it’s important that we normalize that for ourselves – that this happens, and is expected, and that other people are going through hard times as well.

Our friendships are so closely connected to our physical and emotional health. It’s vital we stay connected to the people who support us in being the person we want to be in life. Ask yourself: How do I feel about my friendships? How do I feel in my friendships? How are they supporting me in being the version of myself that I want to be?

How do we know when a friendship has run its course?

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We really want a roadmap here, but unfortunately there isn’t one. My non-negotiables may be very different from yours. But one big piece here is reciprocity and being honest with ourselves on what we’re able to give, and what we’re getting from a relationship.

There is, of course, a natural ebb and flow. It’s easy to place the burden on other people when you feel they’re not doing enough, but there’s a lot of closeness and satisfaction to be gained from thinking about what we ourselves are bringing to our relationships, as well. I do caution against using the current situation as a marker of relationship health because people are struggling in ways that have nothing to do with our friendships. It’s helpful to look at overall trends.

It doesn’t necessarily make sense to cut somebody out of our life because they haven’t shown up in the best way right now, because they themselves are going through something challenging – something we maybe don’t even know about.

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