They live in Abu Dhabi and they had been friends for years. Before Covid-19, they spoke on a daily basis and made sure to meet up at least once a week.
But as lockdown hit, and personal contact became restricted, they found themselves starting to drift apart. Even when restrictions began to lift, Zainab still didn’t feel safe enough to venture out, and refused to meet up with Soraya, who was eager to get back to “normal.”
“She was worried about getting Covid-19 from day one, whereas I was convinced that the media was making things look worse than it was,” says Soraya. “This situation made us grow apart. I was living my life normally and still doing everything that I love like nothing had changed, but she stopped doing many things.”
The conversation around vaccinations caused further problems.
“I haven’t taken the vaccine as I’m against it, but her husband has had it and last I heard she had booked her appointment too. They’re so worried about the virus that we’ve just grown apart, and I think it’s happening to a lot of people.”
In fact, a small Livehealthy survey carried out on Instagram found that 67 percent of those questioned across the UAE said that Covid had affected their friendships. Of those who responded, 39 percent said conversations about vaccinations had impacted a friendship, and 50 percent said differing views on pandemic restrictions had caused friendship issues.
Research further afield is in agreement. A cross-sectional online survey of 4,301 participants conducted in Jordan in May 2020 found that Covid-19 was negatively affecting social relationships, with around 31.6 percent of participants reporting their social relationships were affected to “a high degree.” A European study carried out in November last year found that 35 percent of Danish respondents had seen friendships end or become strained during the outbreak. The figure was 21 percent for Swedish respondents and 18 percent for those living in the UK. But it wasn’t all bad news, with six percent of Italian respondents reporting that they had made at least one new friendship during the pandemic.
So, why has Covid had made such an impact on our relationships?
“Social distancing, isolation, financial stress, learning and working from home, job loss, and lack of home-life balance are just some of the reasons,” explains Nardeen Turjman, clinical psychologist at the German Neuroscience Center in Dubai. “Friendships were tested due to the differing views regarding Covid-19 and with that, people drifted apart, realizing that their friends may not share the same values as them. Covid-19 has caused additional stress and anxiety that meant some individuals may have found themselves reacting negatively toward others more quickly. On a practical level, lockdowns required some to live closer for longer periods than they may have been used to, while others further apart.”
It’s something that Elsa from Dubai knows all too well.
“My friendships have totally swapped around during, and now toward the end, of the pandemic,” she explains. “Spending all those hours in lockdown with flatmates has just been too much — even though we were really good friends before we moved in together. They both annoyed me with various bad habits, as well as voicing negative views around [Black Lives Matter] that I don’t share. I have actually moved out to live alone and have started spending time with new friends that I met on Instagram while I was avoiding my flatmates during lockdown — by hiding in my bedroom!”
Turjman is not surprised by Ella’s story. “The lockdown, and the pandemic in general, not only gave way for people to reflect on their friendships and their values, but it also encouraged people to connect with others with similar values,” she explains. “Social media platforms allowed them to relate and develop interpersonal relationships that were more aligned with their personal views.”
But should we be trying to hang on to our older friendships too?
“It’s natural for some of the relationships to have grown distant, and whether one would like to recover the friendships is a personal decision,” says Turjman. “However, friendships benefit both our physical and mental health. Communicating and relating to others positively can enrich our lives and in most cases, true friendships have the ability to pick up where they were left off — though people have begun getting used to isolating and having a small number of friendships.”
This is something Jonathan, originally from the UK, can relate to.
“I’ve decided to leave Dubai and move home to be closer to many of the friends and family I left behind in Scotland three years ago,” he says. “During lockdown, I spent most of the time video-calling pals back home and even when restrictions lifted, they were the people I wanted to talk to rather than spend endless nights out with my friends in Dubai — like I had done previously. It made me realize my friendship priorities.”
Jonathan is not alone: 77 percent of respondents to the Livehealthy survey said that the pandemic had made them realize which friendships were most important.
“It may have become evident that some relationships were actually based on habit and convenience but lacked any real depth,” says Turjman. “The pandemic likely had a pruning effect, leading to some relationships being lost. As we start to come out of Covid-19, people may be experiencing social anxiety to a certain degree, so not all friendships will return to normal.”
Turjman offers some advice on how to get things back on track.
“Start off by reaching out, just as you may have experienced stress during the lockdown, it is important to remind yourself that the other individual may have experienced similar stress,” she says. “Be supportive and empathize, just as you would like others to be supportive to you. Talk about memories with each other while providing comfort and a safe place to open up. Good communication will enable you to deeply understand each other and form a healthy positive relationship.”
Names have been changed.
Devinder Bains is journalist of 20 years, working as a writer and editor on some of the biggest national magazines, newspapers and online publications in the UK and the Middle East. She specialises in women’s empowerment, fashion, race, culture and travel, and as a qualified personal trainer and nutrition coach, she is an expert in health and fitness. She splits her time between freelance writing and running Fit Squad DXB – Dubai’s largest personal training and wellness company.