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Infectious Diseases

Updated 04 September 2020

Lockdown may ruin friendships in only three months

The social strain of lockdown could have long-term effects on friendships, says an Oxford University researcher.

  • The social strain of lockdown has affected thousands of friendships worldwide.
  • According to an Oxford University professor, some marginal friendships will be completely lost during this time.
  • Other friendships will, however, require work if they are to continue post-lockdown.

Apart from wreaking medical havoc across the world, the Covid-19 pandemic is also wreaking havoc on families and relationships.

According to a paper published in the Royal Society journal, without the right levels of investment, friendships can deteriorate in as little as three months.

The paper – authored by the University of Oxford's evolutionary psychologist, Professor Robin Dunbar – looks at how social connections worldwide are being impacted by lockdown.

And if you think Zoom meetings and WhatsApp chats are enough to keep your friendships going during this time, Dunbar says, it goes a little deeper than this, and that the actual roots of our friendships may go back to the social lives of non-human primates.

Dunbar writes that for many of these primates, strong social bonds (and being part of a "stable group") means protection from predators and rivals. Evolutionary speaking, this means that we rely on our closest friends to support us no matter how bad things get.

But these close bonds require a large deal of maintenance, says Dunbar.

Meaningful friendships require consistent maintenance

According to previous research into both monkey and human relationships, how likely a fellow monkey or human will be to step up and defend another, is directly dependent on the amount of time we have invested with them.

Simply speaking, if you spend quality time nurturing these bonds, your friendships will have meaningful connections.

"We have to see people surprisingly often to maintain a friendship," Dunbar explained to the BBC. "And, because nurturing friendships requires all that time and cognitive capacity, we can only keep up a limited number of social connections.

"In lockdown, many people are forming new friendships with people on their street and in their community for the first time," he added.

Dunbar explains that when we emerge from lockdown, we should expect some of our more marginal friendships to be replaced by some of these new ones.

Funnelled relationships

Through a large survey earlier this year, French researchers also looked at relationships during lockdown and said one of the effects of lockdown was "relationship funnelling", where marginal connections just "fizzled out" during the lockdown.

The survey results indicated that around 60% of women and 52% of men spoke more often with family during lockdown, while 22% of women and 27% of men spoke less often with friends.

Participants with children were found to be more likely to contact family members over friends or colleagues.

Unfortunately, a major problem resulting from this "fizzling" is a lasting impact on older people's friendships, especially because they may struggle to make new friends, explains Dunbar.

"When we're older, we generally find it more difficult to make new friends. And the biggest single factor affecting health, well-being and happiness – even the ability to survive surgery or illness – is the number of high-quality friendships you have."

Digital connections: lower-quality time

Digital dependence is growing in lockdown for keeping in touch with loved ones. But, according to Dr Jenny Groarke from Queen's University, Belfast, these methods offer lower quality time than face-to-face interactions.

Groarke has been studying loneliness during the pandemic and told the BBC her research shows that this lower level of satisfaction with the quality of digital social contact was actually associated with greater loneliness.

These findings are thought to be caused by the lack of physical touch, which can lead to "skin hunger", also known as touch deprivation. It occurs when we feel deprived of physical contact.

According to a previous Health24 article, those who are genetically predisposed to being more affectionate may especially be struggling with skin hunger during the Covid-19 pandemic, considering the implementation of strict measures, such as lockdown and physical distancing.

Can we salvage fizzling friendships?

While we may not know exactly when life will return to normal, humans are fortunate, says Dunbar, as there are other social activities that can release endorphins and help us to feel good. Best of all, these activities can be done during lockdown, such as laughing, singing and dancing.

It is also worth acknowledging that this time of physical distancing is a temporary frustration, adds Dunbar, further commenting that we may have to put in the time to repair certain relationships post-lockdown.

However, if certain friendships feel like they have run their course and are too draining to maintain, or may have a negative impact on our well-being, it's probably best to accept that salvaging the friendship is not worthwhile.