“Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind?”
by Robin Stern and Hannah Herbst
The above line from the well-known song attributed to Robert Burns ushered in the New Year a few days ago, like it does every year at the stroke of midnight. And perhaps there is an extra layer of meaning to consider this year.
As this ‘return-to-normal’ new year is upon us, many of us are taking stock of our friendships. The pandemic transformed all of us, in large and small ways. Many of us felt stuck on a hamster wheel of fight or flight as we faced daily fear and uncertainty. Now, with the pandemic largely behind us, we are feeling some cautious optimism. But, not everything is as it was before.
In living into our new year and new lives, post-pandemic, many are thinking deeply about who will populate that life with us. Who do we want to spend more time with, and how can we deepen those friendships? What friendships have withered, which became less important, and which do we just want to just let go?
Science tell us that friends matter. Quarantine and isolation made this truth crystal clear. Some people reserve the label “friend” for their deepest relationships. Others have a wider definition and larger circle of friends.
Regardless of how many we have, our true friends brighten our days. They see us for who we truly are, and they have our backs. Friends can bring out the best in us. They inspire empathy, they are our companions, and many share our interests. In fact, it turns out that friendships are important to our well-being. Now that we are again getting together in person, many of us are experiencing renewed interpersonal connections and greater well-being as a result.
Many of us are taking time to consider which friendships matter the most to us. We are asking ourselves who leaves us feeling positive, comfortable to be ourselves, who shares our interests and values, and who brings out the best in us.
For years, Martha was one of Aparna’s best friends, especially when it came to having a good time. Aparna has countless memories of crazy nights out with Martha. When she wants to let loose or celebrate, Martha has always been by her side. Overnight, the pandemic decimated Aparna’s nights out — and nights in with friends, for that matter. She and Martha continued keeping in touch via text and pining for their next epic get-together post-COVID. But as the pandemic continued, communication grew sparser. Aparna really liked Martha and wanted more from her friendship. She didn’t want their only common ground to be a carefree night out. But what did Martha want? Aparna really didn’t know. She was prepared just to let the friendship go, but first, she decided she had to try, and she took the risk to share more with Martha. As she did so, she found they had a deeper connection. Instead of dancing and having nights out, they fell into a pattern of discussing issues important to them both for hours. The friendship was stronger by the pandemic and the pivot they both took the chance on.
Now, post pandemic, Martha and Aparna’s friendship is flourishing even though they are not back to ‘letting loose’ and crazy epic get togethers. It turns out they really enjoy each other beyond their nights out.
Some of us though, have had very different experiences with the pandemic and friendships. We have been forced to face a hard reality that in some cases we’ve become more distant from our friends, not closer.
Jeremy counted on his friends. They met for lunch in the school lunchroom at least twice a week, and they texted about sports in between. He looked forward to those times together as a welcome break in the weekly routine. The pandemic closed their school and shut down their lunches. For awhile, he and his friends Zoomed and gamed on line once a week. Then suddenly, Peter always seemed to be busy. Soon Glen was too busy, too. Jeremy felt lonely without his friends but decided the fact that they weren’t seeing each other every day accounted for changing dynamics between them. But, now that everyone is back in school, his friendships with Peter and Glen are anything but “normal.” Although he sees them again several times a week, neither seems to have time (or interest) to go back to their old routine, despite how friendly they are when they see him. Jeremy has taken the initiative several times to suggest plans, but each time was met with an offhanded “Wish I could, sorry man!” He misses his friends and lacks motivation to move on and make new connections.
Peter and Glen each have new priorities. During the pandemic, they just didn’t miss spending time with Jeremy. But Jeremy is having a tough time accepting this hard truth.
Jeremy is not alone. It seems like ‘ghosting’ and certainly moving on is happening a lot after the pandemic. That does sometimes happen in the course of friendships, if we outgrow friendships or our interests change. It is ok for people to move on.
Friendships are not always forever. Even close friendships can change. You may be lucky to have a few “forever friends” (though that relationship will likely undergo changes through the years), but, time, distance and circumstance bring some people into our lives and leaves others out of them.
Friendship recalibrations happen to us all, whether triggered by a move, or a change in pursuits or lifestyle. There are no rules for how we spend our time or with whom we spend it— we are our own personal guides. There is no right or wrong. The only obligations we have are to ourselves and to the people we choose to spend time with.
That said, here are a few guidelines.
1. Check in with your feelings using a science based new app, How We Feel, when with your friends. Do you feel comfortable and respected? Do you feel cared about? Are you seen and heard and valued? Are you having fun? After spending time with a particular friend, do you feel lifted, connected, and content — or discouraged, disconnected, and judged? It makes a difference. Relationships either add to your well-being or take away.
2. Give yourself permission to move on if the friendship isn’t working for you. But first, ask yourself if taking a risk to change or deepen it could be more satisfying.
3. It’s ok to hold onto friendships that are meaningful even if you don’t actually want to spend as much time with them as you used to. Friendships have phases when we are closer and then phases when we are further apart.
4. If friendships have changed, it’s alright to miss them, but don’t wallow in ‘what was.’ Take a moment to think about how to move on, have the grace to let go, and look for friends who share your interests.
5. Express gratitude to the friends you have.
“For auld lang syne, my dear, For auld lang syne. We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet, For auld lang syne.”
Robin Stern, Ph.D. is the co-founder and associate director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, a psychoanalyst in private practice and the author of The Gaslight Effect. [robinstern.com]
Hannah Herbst is completing a year long research internship focused on the emotional and psychological lives of teens and young adults. She has held several leadership positions in her Connecticut community and will enter college in fall 2023.