The pandemic and social distancing forced many people to narrow their circle of friends or limit interactions to those in their immediate family or their “pod.”
But now that mask mandates are being relaxed and people are moving closer toward normal social interaction, it might be time to reconnect. Think about broadening your social circle and reestablishing contact with people you may not have seen since COVID-19 put lives on lockdown.
While it’s exciting to think about gathering with friends again, it can be unnerving to reach out. If years have passed since you’ve been in contact, it takes courage and a willingness to be vulnerable enough to do so. And, after all this time, will the other person still want to be friends?
“The act of reconnecting means putting yourself out there, putting yourself at a bit of a risk,” says Geoffrey Greif, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work. “You may need to be open to how things may have changed in the friendship over the last two years. You may have missed important stuff that's happened in that person's life.”
The act of “catching up” can almost feel like meeting someone for the first time, notes psychologist and friendship expert Irene S. Levine. So be prepared for some awkward moments.
Levine recommends tempering your expectations and taking things slowly. You’re exercising “friendship muscles” that haven’t been used for a long time, and the fear of rejection may mean it takes more patience and effort to return to that comfortable, familiar vibe you enjoyed prepandemic.
That said, the effort should be mutual, so be prepared to consider how hard you’re working to reestablish a connection.
Levine puts it this way: “If your friend isn't sympathetic and understanding of the hiatus in your friendship, you have to wonder about whether that person is really a friend, and whether your friendship had a strong foundation to begin with.”
Take the first step
What if you sincerely want to resuscitate a once-cherished connection?
“You have to take the first step, especially if you've pushed them away like I did,” advises Peggy Mazeikas, 51, from Mesa, Arizona. “I have had to force myself to bring my friends back into my life.”
Mazeikas, a project manager for a forensic investigation company, enjoyed the solitude that came with pandemic-induced isolation. When friends asked to get together, she typically used her high-maintenance, cancer-stricken dog as an excuse for choosing to stay close to home.
Until, she says, she started feeling lonely and depressed, and realized she needed to make a change before seeking professional help.
Mazeikas called a few people, starting with a “Hey, how are you doing?” Sometimes the conversation took off from there. If it didn't, she’d follow with, “Let’s get together” or “Can I drop off some homemade cookies?” Delivering cookies once led to an invitation inside and an hour-long visit.
“Just a little foot in the door was all it was for me,” she adds. “But it was hard.”
Part of the difficulty came from making herself vulnerable, especially after what she had been through over the past year. In that time, Mazeikas grieved the deaths of 12 people—those lost to the pandemic and other causes. She also became a COVID-19 “long-hauler” after contracting the virus in December 2020, suffering from daily headaches, joint and muscle pain, and other ailments.
She wondered how her outer circle would react once they discovered she’d been keeping her health and losses a secret.
The good news? “None of them have made me feel awkward,” she reports.
Show up for the friendship
When trying to reconnect, the more concrete the invitation, the better, says Levine. For example, ask someone whether they’re available to catch up at a particular location at a particular time on a particular day. If your proposal doesn’t work out, don’t give up.
“Your friend’s time may have gotten usurped with other responsibilities or relationships, so if they aren't available on the spot, don't take it personally,” says Levine. “Try again at another time, or reach out to someone else.”
And, if plans are made, do your best not to cancel and ask for a rain check later, recommends Laura Whitney Sniderman, founder and CEO of Kinnd, a friendship app launching this summer.
“This is your opportunity to show up for the friendship,” she says, which starts with showing up for the agreed-upon rendezvous.
Embrace any discomfort, which may happen if one of you feels upset by a lack of communication from a friend during the pandemic.
“Allow space in the conversation for grievances to be aired,” Sniderman says. “Only once these feelings have been expressed can you move forward and rebuild.”
Be open and get creative
To protect his elderly mother from COVID-19, Gary Piccirillo, 65, of Auburn, New York, kept his inner circle small — limited to four friends — during the worst of the pandemic. Except for social media exchanges, he effectively lost all contact with his second layer of friendships.
Earlier this year, he decided that had to change.
“It sounds cold, but these friends are the people who fill in the gaps of my life,” says Piccirillo, who has a more flexible schedule than many of his closest friends who, unlike him, are married and raising children.
Even before mask mandates were lifted, he organized walks through the park, parking lot coffee chats in side-by-side cars, and phone conversations at convenient times so neither party felt rushed to get off the line.
He also found success by picking up the phone after reading something an old friend posted on social media. “I did that knowing that reaching out to them in that way might create or advance a dialogue that’s more personal, more intimate, than just another Facebook comment,” he says. “People appreciate that because they know you're reaching out to them and only them.”
According to Greif’s research, men, by and large, are far more adept at picking up friendships where they left off, whereas women need more time to process emotions.
That’s not to say that men don’t feel ambivalent about the pauses that have interrupted some friendships since March 2020.
Piccirillo says the biggest lesson he's learned through the pandemic is that “we're physically vulnerable, obviously, but emotionally needy.”
He explains: “Your core friends are like your family; they’re always going to be there. But there's a fear of losing these other people long term, maybe forever, so you do what you have to do to get back to where you were.”
When efforts don’t go as planned
What if your best efforts to rekindle a friendship are unsuccessful? Accept the loss.
“It really sucks to lose a friend, and you must take time to grieve the relationship,” says Sniderman.
Resist the urge to put pressure on your friend to revive the relationship. All you can do is express your sincere desire to reconnect and hope the gesture is reciprocated. If not, it may be time to move on.
“When you're ready,” Sniderman says, “put the energy you would've put toward them into making new friends.”
Robin L. Flanigan is a contributing writer who covers mental health, education and human-interest stories for several national publications. A former reporter for several daily newspapers, her work has also appeared in People, USA Today and Education Week. She is the author of the children's book M is for Mindful.
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