The Current

How to repair friendships strained by different perspectives on the pandemic

Canadians have the chance to reconnect with friends and family they might not have seen through successive lockdowns, but the pandemic strain on relationships has some people wondering if they want to.

Friendships can feel 'disposable,' but talking — and listening — can bring reconciliation, psychologist says

The pandemic has tested some friendships, leaving many people wondering if they want to reconnect now that restrictions are easing. One psychiatrist says for those who do want to repair strained relationships, listening is the key. In this photo, two friends speak to each other while physical distancing in Vancouver on April 6, 2020. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

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Like many health-care workers, Katie O'Byrne has seen the worst of the pandemic's sickness and death.

But in her personal life, she's had friends and family "willing to double down" on the argument COVID-19 is just a flu, overblown by the media, she said.

"It's really straining the relationships, and I find myself losing connection with a few friends or family," said O'Byrne, a registered nurse in Peace River, Alta. "I find that really hard."

As restrictions ease across Canada, people have the chance to reconnect with friends and family they might not have seen through successive lockdowns. But the pandemic strain on relationships has some people, including O'Byrne, wondering if they want to.

I don't know at this point that I really want to pursue the friendship.- Katie O'Byrne

O'Byrne said she's become frustrated and drained by repeated arguments with people who "refute the science," around COVID-19 strategies, especially since members of her own family have been seriously ill with the virus. She said she doesn't believe the difference of opinion comes from a place of malice, but perhaps a disconnect between the public's experience with COVID-19 versus that of health-care workers.

"I don't know at this point that I really want to pursue the friendship afterwards," she told CBC's The Current

"We may come back together at some point, but . . . if COVID is still the driving force in our lives, I'm finding myself less willing to expend the energy into those kind of relationships."

Katie O'Byrne, a registered nurse in Peace River, Alta., says relationships with some of her friends and family have been strained over their arguments that the pandemic is overblown. (Katie O'Byrne)

LISTEN | Katie O'Byrne describes tensions with friends who argue COVID-19 isn't real:

Pandemic has highlighted unforeseen differences in values

Ottawa-based clinical psychologist Miriam Kirmayer said the pandemic has highlighted unforeseen differences in people's perspectives and values.

"When we suddenly find ourselves in a situation where our friends don't think like us [or] don't have similar views or perspectives, that can be very jarring and hurtful," said Kirmayer, who has studied friendship.

The stakes of the pandemic, including individual safety and broader public health concerns, could add to tensions.

"In the past we might not have seen eye to eye with somebody else, a family member, a friend, but the consequences might not have felt as significant," Kirmayer said.

Friendship therapy is an option

Kirmayer offers counselling to friends having difficulties — sometimes in a group session, similar to couples therapy. A good friendship benefits our well-being, she said, but we often see friend relationships as secondary to family or romantic relationships, and "a little bit more disposable."

That perspective can make us more likely to opt to end a friendship rather than work through conflict, Kirmayer said.

We often presume our friends' views will align with our own, so it can be jarring to discover otherwise, says Ottawa-based clinical psychologist Miriam Kirmayer, who points out the pandemic has highlighted unforeseen differences in people's perspectives and values. (Miriam Kirmayer)

For O'Byrne, in some cases where people have broken pandemic rules, but don't argue COVID-19 is a hoax, "the friendship is salvageable," she said. "We're just kind of in a weird place." 

She hasn't had those conversations yet, because she thinks everyone is too exhausted.

But Kirmayer said the time is coming when "a lot of people are going to have to decide ... 'Do I say something, or not?'"

Differing vaccination views 

Taryn Meles gave birth to twins a couple of months ago, and is concerned about her children being around people who aren't vaccinated. 

She's not alone. An online survey conducted by the Angus Reid Institute this month found 46 per cent of Canadians surveyed said they are unlikely or very unlikely to spend time in person with people who are unvaccinated. The results were based on 2,040 Canadian adults who responded from July 9 to 13.

Taryn Meles had twins during the pandemic, and still isn't comfortable with the idea of them being at big gatherings. (Taryn Meles)

"Everyone's entitled to make the choice that they want, but they have to deal with what the consequence of that choice is," said Meles, who lives in Toronto and has three young children.

"If I decided not to get vaccinated and someone said to me, 'You know what? You're not vaccinated. I'm not comfortable being around you inside,' of course, that would hurt," Meles said.  "But at the same time, I'm making a choice for me and my body. They're making a choice for them and theirs."

Meles expects she'll have to have those conversations in the months ahead. She said she has tried to keep her circle small since the twins were born.

"We were really lucky that family and friends were understanding — [but] they didn't like it, you know, because it was a different experience than they were used to."

A conversation can help build a 'richer' picture

Early in the pandemic, Aoibhinn Finnegan was annoyed to see friends post vacation updates on social media, especially as she chose not to visit her parents in Ireland, heeding government advice.

"We stayed in our house. We did all the things that we were supposed to be doing," she said. "But you can't control what anybody else does."

But when Finnegan spoke to those friends, some explained they needed a break for their mental health and were taking precautions.

You'd be stressed out of your mind if you're worrying about what everybody else is doing.- Aoibhinn Finnegan

Kirmayer said it's a personal choice whether to address pandemic tensions, depending on the people and situation, but a conversation can be helpful if conducted with mutual respect. 

Listen to what they have to say

She said it can be beneficial to explain to friends why you're uncomfortable with something they've done, as well as listening to what they have to say.

"It's less about changing our friends' behaviour, which can be very difficult, if not impossible," she said. "But it's more about working to feel heard and respected." 

It's easy to make assumptions about why someone is acting a certain way, but talking about it can make the story "a lot richer," Kirmayer said.

"No longer is it just about this person doing something that I disagree with, and I don't like that," she said.

"It's 'I don't agree with this, this is still hard for me to see,' but I can understand this one small piece of it — their motivation."

Not every problem needs to be solved in one sitting, she added.

Finnegan said she took a break from social media, "muting any accounts that I thought were making me feel negative."

She said putting in that safeguard has helped protect her mental health, but also her friendships.

"You'd be stressed out of your mind if you're worrying about what everybody else is doing," she said.

WATCH | Exercise group sparks new friendships in pandemic:

Pandemic exercise group leads to unlikely friendships

9 months ago
3:15
As lockdowns and safety protocols force people inside and into isolation, we look at a special friendship that developed as women met for light exercise and social interaction in Toronto's High Park. 3:15

'Not all friendships last'

Kirmayer said many people will be able to overcome their differences as the pandemic fades, but warned unresolved issues could breed resentment.

"Six months, a year from now [with] some friendships, the conflict continues or seemingly comes out of nowhere because these feelings have been festering," she said.

Ultimately, "not all friendships last," which is a part of life that "we could do a much better job of normalizing," she said.

O'Byrne said the past year has made her re-evaluate her idea of friendship. She has "drawn a line in the sand" about some things.

"It's definitely made me realize that, you know, you don't want the quantity of friends, you want quality," she said.

"You want people that are going to be in your corner when a pandemic hits."


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Padraig Moran and Amanda Grant. 

Editor's note: We cannot accurately calculate a margin of error for online surveys. For comparison purposes only, a probability sample of this size would carry a margin of error of +/- 2.0%, 19 times out of 20.

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