2020 Was the Year of Lost Friendships

·6 min read
Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

I was always skeptical of the adage, “You can probably count your true friends on one hand.” That blunt sum felt impossibly restrictive to someone who prides herself on having formed and maintained many meaningful friendships. And then in 2020, my world became drastically smaller. Everyone’s did in various unexpected ways. Last year wasn’t only a period of self-isolating, social distancing, and seeing less of our loved ones; it also culminated in a number of ended friendships. However they played out—in the form of intentional breakups, passive dissolutions, or conscious “unfriendings”—last year’s stressors were an almost undeniable factor in these demises.

It’s taken me nearly six months to fully confront, but I lost a best friend last year. She was a daily presence in my life. We shared private pet names for each other, and hours-long hangouts invariably ended with dozens of ensuing text messages just moments after one left the other. She was the first person I called when a terrible tumble with my bike left me bloody and limping—and she was there by my side before the blood had dried. It was the kind of friendship that felt too familial and solid to fail. And then, inexplicably, our few in-person interactions during the summer turned strained and awkward, and for whatever reason, neither of us wanted to address the uneasiness.

In retrospect, I was trudging through a brief, depressive funk at the time, and I resented her for not recognizing it—for not asking if I was okay. For all I know, she may have been mired in her own troubles induced by the annus horribilis—I didn’t ask her either. There were birthday texts and a few other friendly but stiff communiqués, and then that was it. We stopped being friends.

For another one of my friends, Julia, conflicting priorities around safety precautions were the rupture point in an increasingly strained friendship. “This last thing was it for me. She basically lied to my wife and me about traveling during COVID, putting us in danger, so she could have dinner with us a few days after.” Perhaps that close girlfriend was struggling for connection, or maybe her selfishness would have manifested itself another way eventually, Julia wonders, but she says that the zero-tolerance quagmire laid out by the pandemic didn’t allow her that kind of emotional thinking at the time. After calling out her friend for her dishonesty, Julia says that she “not so subtly avoided” any attempts on her friend’s part to reconnect.

In other instances, friends simply didn’t—or for their own reasons, couldn’t—show up in the ways they used to. “I was going through something rough in my professional life in a public way, and someone I considered as one of my best friends couldn’t give me the support I needed,” Nicole, an author and consultant in upstate New York, explains. “I expressed my pain and how terrified I was—multiple times—but still, no real empathy. I knew I had to set the friendship free,” she recalls. Nicole adds that she left the door “ajar” for a possible reconciliation, but she’s ambivalent. “After what I’ve been through, I’m not sure I even want it.”

Only now are many of us assessing our emotional balance sheets of 2020, especially as the prospect of socializing and seeing friends again becomes more realistic: Who are the ones we want to see most? Or at all? “In July last year, this all still felt pretty new. It was being talked about as a much shorter-term moment, and I think that we’re all in a place now of having done some serious evaluations of which friendships are serving us,” notes Ann Friedman, who co-authored Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close with her best friend, Aminatou Sow (they also host the popular podcast Call Your Girlfriend). There’s this intentional “take it or leave it” mindset, she acknowledges. “It feels like there’s not a lot of middle ground right now.”

And now it’s 2021. I’m hopeful that this year will be better than the last. But as life continues to normalize and anniversaries of traditions and rituals I’d typically share with my former friend arise, the void of her absence is finally hitting me, hard and unexpectedly, in painful waves of grief and guilt.

Why couldn’t I acknowledge this unraveled friendship and process my grief at the time? Admittedly, I was ashamed, both for my perceived failure as a friend, and then for feeling badly about it, especially with everything else going on: in my own life, yes, but mostly in the world at large. How could I bemoan a dissolution in which I’d participated when friends and siblings were fighting for their jobs (or, in some cases, their marriages) and adopting the roles of at-home teachers, and as the country was flaring up in protests? Or what about the devastating toll of the pandemic on those who lost loved ones forever—and often without a chance for goodbye?

“Part of it is specific to this collective trauma—what we’re all going through—and how easy it is then to invalidate our own experiences and felt losses,” Miriam Kirmayer, a clinical psychologist and friendship expert, says. She’s seen a rise of similar issues within her practice this last year, however she notes that the challenging grief around friendship loss is also universally constant. “So many of us have internalized this belief that we should just know the ins and outs of adult friendship, that we should have figured out how to maintain our friendships. And because of that, we end up personalizing the experience and thinking that there’s something wrong with us.”

So what’s next? First, acknowledging my feelings and knowing that I’m not alone in having them, Kirmayer tells me. “The starting point for coping with any kind of relationship challenge is focusing on the relationship we have with ourselves,” she says. Connecting with others helps, too, most especially if we can identify what we need in the moment, whether it’s a good listener, a friend who can offer humor or levity, or someone to join in an activity. If anything, bringing more vulnerability and authenticity into those relationships could be a meaningful investment. “We can see it as an opportunity to focus on the quality, not the quantity, of those connections,” Kirmayer adds.

She’s right. The friendships I’ve maintained and made during this time, though few, feel stronger and more genuine than ever. The number hasn’t shrunk to a handful yet, so I’m holding on tightly.

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