Last month, on the first sunny weekend of the year, I took myself to the park with some snacks and a bottle of water. I’d been working all day, which meant I couldn’t get out in time to meet my friends, who were soaking up the sunshine by the marina in Manchester. As I got ready to leave the flat, I called my friend Mary. She lives in London and happened to be going to spend a few hours in her local park by herself, too. As we sat nattering away on our respective patches of grass, more than 200 miles apart, it felt like we were right next to each other. In fact, it felt like we’d never been apart.
I only get to see Mary around once a year but we talk on the phone all the time. When we’re not talking on the phone, we’re sending each other elaborate voice notes on WhatsApp or working out how and when we can next see each other. It hasn’t always been like this. Before the COVID pandemic, we’d only talk in the group chat we had with our other two besties — who also live outside of Manchester — and even those conversations were few and far between. We were all too busy going out into the real world with our actual, human friends who we could hug and kiss and dance with IRL.
Then lockdown happened. Soon enough, we were speaking in our group chat all day every day, supplementing those short, snappy messages with (now defunct, thankfully) Zoom quizzes. In the first lockdown, I was rarely off my phone. My eyes would light up at the flurry of notifications I’d receive when everyone was active, chatting about some nonsense pop culture moment or the state of the world. We’d have much deeper chats, too, about our relationship issues or waning mental health, the realities of isolation.
What was really beautiful about that time was that it brought me closer to my long-distance friends than I had been in years. And because nobody was seeing each other in person, bonding over memes and group chats felt extremely natural for me. Rather than taking away from the friendships, these online interactions made them stronger than ever.
The truth is, when the real world was open, digital interactions felt secondary to face-to-face conversations. I’d much rather have met up with my local friendship group than spend the night in on the phone, even if the person I was calling was my best friend in the world. With my preferred option snatched away from me, though, I learned just how fulfilling those phone conversations can be. These days, I’ll actively choose them over meeting up with a huge group of friends IRL. The pandemic forced me to nurture my long-distance friendships and my life is all the better because of that.
Eileen, 33, had a similar experience. She’s known her best friend since they were born but now they live in completely different countries and have done so for years. “I don't think the pandemic changed much for us,” she tells Refinery29. “If anything, especially from someone who has moved lots and mainly has long-distance friendships and connections, the pandemic actually encouraged us to do more Skype and calls than before.” While she says it's been more difficult to meet up since the pandemic, she isn’t too bothered. “When friendship is real, distance doesn't change it that much,” she says. “You get used to it.”
Unfortunately, not everybody had this experience. For some, like Fran, 27, the pandemic made managing long-distance friendships much more difficult. “I realised that I can’t do high-maintenance friendships. I’ve outgrown them,” she tells Refinery29. “Now, the conversations I have with my long-distance friends are just small talk and, although that means we’ve grown apart, I’m happy with that.” For Fran, the fact that there was a need to stay in touch more even though it was more difficult than ever to see each other in person felt unnatural. “Because of that, I just don't put in as much effort as I used to,” she says. “It’s never been the same since and, eventually, I just accepted that we drifted apart.”
It’s true that the pandemic made a lot of people realise that they didn’t have the capacity to always be on hand to reply to WhatsApps and FaceTime requests. It’s also true that low-maintenance friendships work much better when you live nearby and can rely on being at the same house party or gathering without ever communicating about it. When you have to fork out hundreds of pounds to travel halfway across the country or to another continent, it’s a bit trickier. Without regular catch-ups, it's inevitable that some people will drift apart.
Granted, my long-distance friendships work so well because they are quite high-maintenance, which isn’t something that bothers me. I’d much rather chat to my friend than listen to music while I potter about the city or walk to the gym. Not only that but our lives are quite similar. For example, Mary and I are both self-employed, meaning we aren’t bound by the time constraints of working a 9-5. One of us can call the other at 10am or 2pm or 9pm and it's likely we’ll be available, which makes keeping in touch much easier.
For others, like Dani, 26, it's difficult to maintain a real connection without seeing each other in person. “For me, long-distance friendships are hard because I find without in-person connection you grow distant,” she tells Refinery29. “I've had some good friendships peter out and we just follow each others’ lives on social media. Maybe it's just me but without regular physical contact it's like you're living in different worlds.”
This is something psychotherapist Eloise Skinner believes was one of the biggest issues for those in long-distance friendships during the pandemic. “Some of the main issues in long-distance friendships include difficulties in communicating effectively (for example, communication can be misunderstood or misinterpreted), or a difficulty in communicating on deeper, more meaningful topics (online or virtual communication can sometimes feel like a more challenging medium than face to face),” she tells Refinery29.
For others, though, she says that the pandemic may have actually made broaching those deeper topics slightly easier. “The pandemic perhaps made some of those issues less intimidating, because of the shared nature of the pandemic experience,” she says. “For example, it might have actually been easier to communicate about meaningful topics in a long-distance friendship during the pandemic, simply because of the shared or communal nature of the challenges experienced.”
This is something I relate to. During the pandemic, my friends and I had common ground, despite being worlds apart. But even without that, living in different worlds is part of the joy of my long-distance friendships. We’re never short of something to talk about — and we rarely resort to gossip — because we’re never doing the same thing. It also means we can learn so much more from each other.
Another factor that caused long-distance friendships to fizzle out during the pandemic — one which can’t be understated — was its impact on mental health. Lexi, 26, met one of her best friends, who lives in Brazil, through her dissertation tutor. They’ve always been long-distance, save for a few months during the pandemic, when meeting up was still just as tricky. “A lot of the time when the pandemic was at its peak and we were talking online, and even when she was here, it was difficult for us to do because we were both struggling,” she says. “There’s that aspect of social anxiety that can really affect reaching out to people and that can have a knock-on effect on your friendships, too.”
Clearly, the pandemic has had a real impact on the way we view friendship and how we choose to spend our time. In reality, as Skinner notes, it's impossible to say how the pandemic changed friendship, because everybody is different. Our individual experiences of, and responses to, the challenges of the pandemic were extremely varied.
For some, friendships became deeper while, for others, they were lost. Personally, I learned that you get out what you put in when it comes to friendships, and maintaining one over hundreds or thousands of miles is no easy feat.
One way you can try to maintain your long-distance friendships, says Skinner, is to keep small but consistent communication going. “If huge gaps arise between communication, it can sometimes feel difficult to get the rhythm of the friendship started again,” she says. “This can sometimes be alleviated by regular, light-hearted communication — sharing a social media post, sending an article that you feel might resonate to them, dropping regular photos or notes into your chat that let them know you're thinking of them.”
If you do go a while without catching up, reaching out might feel daunting but if you care about your friendship, it’s important that you let that go and simply try. “A good approach here could be to jump in with a short message that lets the other person know you're thinking of them, and to suggest that you catch up soon,” says Skinner. “This way, it can feel less intimidating but still allows the other person to know they're on your mind, and that you value their friendship.”
It isn’t lost on me that it would be infinitely better if my long-distance friends lived a short walk away from me, but there’s something about not having easy access to the people you care most about that makes you value them much more highly. It makes those fleeting moments you do get to spend together all the more enjoyable. The pandemic highlighted this for me and, for that, I’m genuinely grateful.