Is Lockdown Making Our Friendships Decay?

Zoe Beaty

In a little park in south London, two friends and I are taking turns peeing in a ditch. “It’s fine!” the first shouts over as she clambers through the overgrowth. “I think I got stung, maybe,” she continues, more quietly, “but it’s okay!” Our other friend goes. “Lovely!” she concludes. And then I bounce back, relieved, and open another beer. 

We rely on friendships for many things: happiness, confirmation that we have value, validation (or the opposite) of our views, health, and wellbeing. There has been no period in human history where this has not been the case. 

“Communication is health; communication is truth; communication is happiness,” Virginia Woolf wrote in an essay published in 1925 in The Common Reader. “To share is our duty; to go down boldly and bring to light those hidden thoughts which are the most diseased; to conceal nothing; to pretend nothing; if we are ignorant to say so; if we love our friends to let them know it.” 

In 2020, in the midst of a pandemic, we take a piss in a bush near a park for our friends. So we can see them. So we can hear them.

Friendship has been through a plethora of trends since the beginning of lockdown: the Houseparty phase (an indubitable nightmare), the era of the Zoom pub quiz and, more recently, the rise of the WhatsApp voice note essay. But as the novelties wear off one by one, month by month, a more permanent effect could be taking a toll on our friendships. 

Friendships decay when you don’t see people, and they decay quite fast.

Professor Robin Dunbar

Each of our friendships has a so-called ‘decay rate,’ according to Robin Dunbar, professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Oxford. And right now it’s the highest it’s ever been.

“Friendships decay when you don’t see people, and they decay quite fast,” Professor Dunbar explains. Dunbar’s prior research on friendships made global headlines in 2014 when he calculated that our capacity for friendship is limited to a specific number: just 150 people. “Our social world is still very, very small,” he explains. “Even within that your total time investment is devoted to just 15 people — 10% of your already very small social network.

“But you really do depend on them. And your wellbeing, happiness, your physical and mental health, even your risk of dying is all affected by the number of close friends that you have. And therein lies the dilemma of lockdown,” he adds.

Right now we are severing those links — albeit for necessary reasons like staying safe, social distancing, and saving hospitals from being overwhelmed – and the decay rate of our friendships is increasing as a result. That’s because friendships depend on constant investment of time, Dunbar says. If they aren’t afforded that, they will “inexorably decay until that friend becomes an acquaintance”. 

Friendship decay is hardly unusual; people roll in and out of our lives continuously and cyclically. We seek out friends who feel comforting at different times in our lives, sometimes to suit the needs of a particular moment, however long that lasts. The sadness of a friendship ending, or just slipping away, is familiar to us all. 

You depend on friendships for your wellbeing and happiness, your physical and mental health. Even your risk of dying is affected by the number of close friends that you have. And therein lies the dilemma of lockdown.

Professor ROBIN DUNBAR

What is unusual is lockdown? The process of decay, Dunbar explains, has essentially been sped up because of it. And while FaceTime and WhatsApp video might help put the brakes on that decay, they can’t stop it completely. 

“Digital media has helped bridge spacial gaps, as it were,” Dunbar tells me, “but none of it — not Zoom, not FaceTime, not WhatsApp — seems to replace face-to-face contact completely, in terms of their effect on emotional wellbeing and satisfaction of life. There is something about being able to stare into somebody’s eyeballs. There is something about being right there, in front of someone — probably because it involves a lot of physical touching: taps on the shoulder and all these things that we do without really thinking about it. They are actually much more important than we realize.”

Some sociologists also say that friendships rely on what’s known as a ‘kinship premium‘ — the idea that family will always rank above friendship, no matter what happens. “Perhaps with the exception of your very, very best friend,” Dunbar concedes. 

There is also the 30-minute rule. Very simply, this decrees that for a person to be a close friend, they have to live within 30 minutes of you. “That doesn’t seem to matter whether it’s 30 minutes walking, biking or driving,” says Dunbar, “as long as you can get to them within 30 minutes somehow, you’ll do so and that will then increase the frequency and quality of the friendship. If they’re outside of that, they almost automatically fall into a lower friendship band.”

Instinctively I want to rally against this — 30 minutes seems arbitrary and, especially when living in a large city like London or New York, unrealistic. Wouldn’t we all be chronically lonely all of the time, not just in lockdown, if this were the case? Wouldn’t friendship feel fickle and baseless? Then again, surveys have consistently found that big city dwellers do feel lonely (this one on London, for example, found that 55% of those polled said the city could feel like a lonely place to live). And of course, while we’ve been unable to travel to meet friends these last few months, those who are within walking distance have, for many, become lifelines. 

I have certainly found this and some recent surveys appear to show others have, too. Multiple polls have documented an upsurge in neighborly connections, with heartwarming stories of communities coming together and forming (or solidifying) friendships in great numbers. 

Throughout the Covid-19 crisis, we’ve all been forced to audit our friendship circles. Remember when people were saying we might need to choose our “best 10” people? Now we have “support bubbles.

But even without the government edicts, even without a pandemic, we were prioritizing who to speak to and see all along. The question is, once lockdown ends, will we be able to fix any decay that has ensued? 

“What will almost certainly happen as soon as lockdown is properly lifted is that people will make a big effort to go and see the friends they want to keep – but others may perish,” Dunbar says bluntly. “The same thing will happen that occurs if someone doesn’t phone for a while – if the gap between calls is much longer than would normally be the case, the following phone call is always much longer. Because we’re trying very hard to repair the damage to the friendship.” 

Consciously or subconsciously, because of coronavirus we’ve seen which friendships we are willing to allow to dissolve, decay, and fade away. Are there greater lessons to be learned from this? Perhaps. For now, though, what’s certain is that lockdown has been a litmus test for who and what we value and why. There are just some friends for whom you’re more willing to pee in a ditch.

Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?

My Trauma Was Unlocked In Lockdown

Why I'm Not Sure I Want To Leave Lockdown

Please, Stop Hugging Me

More From

  • 11 Eco-Friendly Masks That Are Kinder On Faces & The Planet

    Although wearing a face mask in public is the responsible decision during a global pandemic, let's not allow the need for such a precaution to overshadow our eco-conscious judgments when deciding what type of non-medical covering to buy. As discarded single-use face masks pile up on beaches and nature trails, the environmental threat posed by these COVID-19 essentials is a fast-growing concern. Luckily, there are sustainable-style alternatives to help curb the impact of this issue — and if your current face covering (fashion-forward or otherwise) is washable and reusable, then you're already on the right track. Things like breathability and personal expression matter when picking out a mask that's best suited to our particular lifestyles (and faces) — but it's also important to consider how a mask is made, what materials it's crafted from, and, ultimately, what impact that has on the environment. By paying attention to the fabrics and production methods used to create these masks, we can make more eco-friendly choices when it comes to protecting ourselves, others, and the planet. A handful of top sustainable-retailer favorites (like Nisolo and Collina Strada) are already a step ahead of us; offering durable options made from up-cycled materials, deadstock fabrics, and/or natural fibers that are designed to last longer. Even a quick Etsy search will direct you towards an impressive selection of handmade face masks from smaller vendors — which translates to less energy and resources wasted. We've rounded up 11 such sustainable styles ahead that are ready to get the germ-shielding job done — without harming the planet in the process. At Refinery29, we’re here to help you navigate this overwhelming world of stuff. All of our market picks are independently selected and curated by the editorial team. The product details reflect the price and availability at the time of publication. If you buy something we link to on our site, Refinery29 may earn commission.Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?The Most Breathable Face Masks For Hot Summer DaysHere's Where To Shop Fashion-Forward Face MasksHere's Where To Buy Non-Medical Face Masks Online

  • Try Pull-On Boxer Shorts For A Cool & Comfy Summer

    We’re here today to talk about the penultimate summer-wardrobe sleeper item: the baggy boxer short. We didn’t realize this was an item that our warm-weather rotation needed, but now that our eyes have been opened to the possibilities, these workhorse shorts are everywhere we look. There are so many reasons why these are the every-short: they’re athletic, effortless, a throwback. Most importantly, they’re cool, comfortable, and available in a host of options, from a crisp poplin chino-style to a nylon iteration worthy of soccer practice circa 1998. We feel strongly that there's a boxer-baggy out there for everyone, so click on through to find your new summer short. At Refinery29, we’re here to help you navigate this overwhelming world of stuff. All of our market picks are independently selected and curated by the editorial team. The product details reflect the price and availability at the time of publication. If you buy something we link to on our site, Refinery29 may earn commission.Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?11 Items People Are Adding To Cart This WeekThe Best Under-$150 Buys Of The MonthYep, The Bike Shorts Trend Is Still Going Strong

  • Is The Trump Tower Black Lives Matter Mural Meaningful — Or Just Performative?

    Even before the 2016 election, New York City’s Trump Tower has been a site of protest, with people gathering on Fifth Avenue to protest everything from gun violence to the nomination of Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh. As of today, though, this stretch of Fifth Avenue will look a little different, thanks to the addition of the words “Black Lives Matter” painted in giant, yellow letters on the street directly in front of Trump’s Midtown Manhattan building.Earlier this month, Mayor Bill de Blasio authorized the mural to be painted in front of the Trump headquarters, and the project kicked off today with Mayor de Blasio painting alongside dozens of city employees. Predictably, Trump is against the mayor’s plans. In a tweet on July 1, Trump said, “NYC is cutting Police $’s by ONE BILLION DOLLARS, and yet the @NYCMayor is going to paint a big, expensive, yellow Black Lives Matter sign on Fifth Avenue, denigrating this luxury Avenue.” Trump also called the move to paint the sign as something that will “further antagonize New York’s finest,” referring to the NYPD, and said that the words Black Lives Matter are a “symbol of hate.”In response to the president, Mayor de Blasio said, “President Trump said we would be denigrating the luxury of Fifth Avenue. Let me tell you: we’re not denigrating anything, we are liberating Fifth Avenue, we are uplifting Fifth Avenue.” New York is not alone in painting Black Lives Matter in large, bright letters on city streets — a similar painting exists just outside of the White House in Washington, D.C. Proponents of these signs say they send a serious message of solidarity, and communicate that local leaders and communities are prioritizing the anti-racist movement. And, the decision to make the message inescapable to Trump, in particular, is important considering that the Black Lives Matter movement has sustained many attacks from the president, who recently called protesters “hoodlums” for trying to take down racist statues. Of course, affixing murals in Trump’s periphery is not a solution or real response to the ongoing crisis of police brutality in America — and many activists don’t support the murals at all. After the Black Lives Matter mural was painted outside of the White House, the D.C. chapter of the Black Lives Matter Global Network called it a “performative distraction from real policy changes.” And let’s not forget that the painting outside of Trump Tower comes after the New York City council voted to change the NYPD budget, but failed to meet protesters’ other demands. Though there are undoubtedly purely performative aspects to this mural, the message to Trump — which is loud and relentless — still stands. Mayor de Blasio has maintained that, “When we say ‘Black Lives Matter’ there is no more American statement, there’s no more patriotic statement, because there is no America without Black America. We are acknowledging the truth in ourselves and in America. By saying ‘Black lives matter’ we are righting a wrong.” It remains to be seen how de Blasio and other local leaders across the country plan to put their words into real action, but all eyes are on them to see if they can make good on their promises.Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?The Housing Crisis Is A Black Lives Matter IssueTrump Tweeted A Video In Support Of "White Power"Protests Haven't Led To A Spike In COVID-19 Cases

  • Face Shields: What To Know & Where To Buy Them

    So, you want to keep yourself and others protected but you need a literal breather from your face mask? We get it — we're still adjusting to having our noses and mouths covered in fabric, sweating it out in the hot summer sun, too. Luckily, cloth masks (in some cases) aren't the only option for helping prevent the spread of the coronavirus. If you're looking for a fresh way to responsibly set the bottom half of your face free, meet: the shield. There are more than a few benefits to swapping out your mask, breathable as it may be, for a face shield. In addition to being easy to clean and reuse, face shields allow us to see and react to one another's expressions. The protective alternatives can also help cut down on instances of touching our faces while wearing a mask — think anything from clearing off lens-fog from our glasses to readjusting our masks in order to sip a drink. However, it's important to note: according to a recent report from the Journal of the American Medical Association, in order for a face shield to act as an effective substitute, it should extend below the chin and out to the ears (with no exposed gap between the forehead and the headpiece). If your shield doesn't offer proper coverage for keeping respiratory droplets at bay, then it may be better served as an extra form of protection during instances where you may need to remove your mask in public. Ahead, find a lineup of face shields that you can readily add to your COVID-curbing collection of protective accessories today. At Refinery29, we’re here to help you navigate this overwhelming world of stuff. All of our market picks are independently selected and curated by the editorial team. If you buy something we link to on our site, Refinery29 may earn commission.Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?Eco Face Masks That Are Kinder On The PlanetThe Most Breathable Face Masks For Hot Summer DaysHere's Where To Shop Fashion-Forward Face Masks