You may leave 2020 with fewer friendships. You’re not alone

Genevieve Metson’s close friendship of 11 years weathered the stresses of grad school and a move across the world.

She didn’t imagine a global pandemic would end it. 

Metson is Canadian but lives in Sweden, one of the few countries in the world to not impose major restrictions on life during COVID-19. Still, she said she counted herself among the more cautious of her friends, sticking to her household and isolating herself if she suspected she’d come into contact with anyone who tested positive.

During the summer she planned a work trip to another city — and shared those plans with a friend living in the U.S. who she had texted with regularly throughout the pandemic. The friend reacted with incredulity that she was even considering travelling.

“She actually stopped talking to me entirely. I haven’t heard from her in many months now,” said Metson, who has reached out several times since the initial falling out.

“I’m still really sad about it. But I think it reflects how stressful this pandemic is — it has really put people in a position where there are things that they will not accept.”

Two friends chat while maintaining distance from each other in Vancouver in April. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Dozens of people responded to a CBC News request about tales of friendships strained and lost during the COVID-19 pandemic.

One man wrote about confronting a childhood friend after finding out he’d hosted a party with dozens of guests in a small apartment. One woman said she cut off a friend who refused to quarantine after travelling, tested positive for the virus, and spread it to several others.

Most people said they wanted their story shared but didn’t want their named used, for fear of causing more damage.

Conflicting desires

COVID-19 has forced an unprecedented level of disclosure on friendships, with people juggling to manage social bubbles, different views of personal responsibility, and frequently shifting restrictions on gatherings — a potent mix in an already turbulent year.

“People have conflicting desires to be good friends and to accommodate other people’s wishes, but also a desire to follow the rules,” said Lara Aknin, an associate professor of social psychology at Simon Fraser University.

“Sometimes those things align, and sometimes they don’t.”

Metson said she hopes her friendship can be rebuilt, even though she felt “super judged” in the moment.

“That’s not necessarily a bad thing — I think in a friendship you should be able to tell your friends ‘Hey, I disagree with you’ or ‘Have you really thought this through?'” she said.

“With family and close friends, you’re almost more likely to lash out because maybe you expect more from them — you really expect to be on the same page on these big life decisions and to find out that you’re not, to find out you don’t have the same risk tolerance, really shakes that friendship.”

One CBC reader says the logistics of handling social bubbles have forced friends to have conversations around exclusivity, and personal issues like testing — topics usually reserved for more intimate relationships. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Tammy Chesman, 50, made the decision to delete Instagram earlier in the year, saying she was getting riled up by the number of people whose social lives and travel itineraries did not appear to slow down despite the pandemic.

Chesman, who lives in B.C., said she didn’t want to be the “judgy friend” — but the stakes of saying nothing felt incredibly high.

“You can’t tell people how to live their lives and you don’t want to be the person that’s wagging your finger, but on the other hand, people are dying,” she said.

Chesman said the logistics of managing social bubbles forced friends to have conversations around exclusivity, and necessitated disclosure around how people are handling personal issues like testing — topics usually reserved for more intimate relationships.

“Trust is the issue of the day. You have people who say they’re doing everything right — but then you find out that that’s not the case or they’ve gone to an event. And then it’s like — I thought we could be in the same pod.”

‘What’s their COVID score?’

Travis Mitchell, 35, an essential worker in B.C., said he’s witnessed close friends react to the pandemic in completely opposite ways — with some believing it’s been blown out of proportion, and others refusing to meet up, even outdoors, even in the summer when restrictions were loosened.

“Some of my friends will rank people on ‘what’s their COVID score?’ There are so many extremes and I’m having a hard time maintaining my normal friendships if people aren’t moderate in their view of COVID-19,” he said.

“But I can understand and appreciate people who are very careful much more than people who deny it.”

Mitchell compared clashes around how to handle the pandemic to political disagreements — but COVID-19 is a harder topic to brush under the rug if a conversation starts to get uncomfortably heated.

“There’s not even an elephant, there’s a giant balloon in the room and you can’t move without touching it. And whether or not you believe that there’s a balloon there, you can’t avoid it,” he said.