During lockdown, some people barely kept in touch. How do I re-evaluate my friendships?

During lockdown, a couple of people who’d say they’re good friends have barely kept in touch. Both live a few minutes from me and know I live alone. I’ve always made time for them over the years; one has a grown-up family, the other is single. I’ve gone weeks sometimes without even a text message, I’m the one who initiates phone chats (rare), and seem to be the one largely initiating a walk/coffee outside (also rare). One only contacted me recently to ask a favour. I probably need to reassess who I spend time with in future; can you offer me any help to re-evaluate my friendships?

Eleanor says: Do you know the original EH Shepard illustrations for the manual of friendship, Winnie the Pooh? I’ve always been especially fond of this one: Piglet and Winnie the Pooh in a howling wind, holding paws. I think it looks just like friendship should: natural, unstudied, sturdy against battering forces.

It feels awful to reach out in a storm and find that no one else is reaching back. I think a lot of us are here with you in this phase right now, emerging bleary-eyed into the post-lockdown world and finding that resentment and mismatched expectations have accrued in friendships that used to feel natural and sturdy. Many of us got left in the dust of other peoples’ work and relationships and “Sorry! It’s been a crazy week”.

The trouble is it has been a crazy week/month/year. I suspect lots of people have seriously neglected those they truly love and care about since the pandemic began, just through the aggregate effect of day upon day, too exhausted or scattered to reach out. I know “you were always low on their to-do list” isn’t exactly comforting – it’s in fact exactly what you’re objecting to. And you’re right to be stung. But their behaviour doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t value you – it might just mean that for a long stretch of time they were irrational in a way we’ve all been: they didn’t make time for what they value.

The real test – for these friends and any new ones – is how they react to knowing what you need to feel respected and valued. Very unfortunately, the people who care for us don’t always know when they’ve made us feel wounded. But the ones who matter will always care that you feel that way. If they know they’ve hurt you, anyone worth keeping will try to change that.

It’s irritating to have to say how you feel, I know – it would be better if people thought about us enough to figure it out for themselves. But sometimes people just don’t; their attention is stretched, or they let go of us accidentally. At that point, candour is your best strategy for distinguishing a scattered friend from someone who doesn’t care: if they know how these patterns affect you, continuing them looks deliberate. A true friend will be glad to know that you feel unequal if you’re the only one initiating, or that small texts mean a lot to you – it’s not a burden to know what concrete steps we can take to make sure our loved ones feel loved.

A lot of us sidelined relationships we wish we hadn’t this year. I think you can find your way back to the friends you had before, if you want to – I think we all can – as long as we’re brave enough to point out that we’ve been sidelined and we’d rather not be. Like the silly old bear said: “If the person you are talking to does not appear to be listening, be patient. It may be that there is a piece of fluff in his ear.” The pandemic was fluff in a lot of people’s ears. Be noisy enough to counteract that and the people worth keeping will listen.

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