Evolving New Normals of Social Relationships

The pandemic obviously has changed the way we interact with friends, as described by executive coach Brad Stulberg in his NYT essay, One Part of Your Life You Shouldn’t Optimize.

He says that we necessarily went into isolation during the pandemic and that we may need to make a conscious effort to come out of our shells as the pandemic recedes.  He encourages people to do so, arguing that our personal relationships are important parts of our lives.

This post is part of a series about “new normals” evolving due to the pandemic.

Here are excerpts from Mr. Stulberg’s essay:

Even before Covid, a stark and disconcerting trend was underway: a decline in meaningful relationships and a rise in social isolation. … Among the top reasons adults have an especially hard time making friends is that they are less likely to trust new people — and because they say they don’t have time.

It’s not just that extra work leaves us less time for socializing.  In the age of Covid and social distancing, we have become, by necessity, risk-averse.  As the boundaries between work and life have blurred, we’ve said no to social invitations to protect our time, as well as our mental and physical health;  we’ve cut people out of our lives who hurt us or bring us down;  and we’ve prioritized family and our closest friends over casual acquaintances.

No doubt, there are some real benefits to this shrinkage of our social circles, and perhaps even in the culling of certain relationships.  Saying yes to everyone and everything, and overextending ourselves in the process may be a good habit to shed.  Many of us during the pandemic have embraced solitary joys such as reading or gardening, and that is all well and good.

Earlier in the pandemic, people with the privilege to do so streamlined their entire lives. We got our groceries delivered.  We exercised in our basements.  We ate lunch at our kitchen tables, which had become our desks, and scheduled our virtual interactions in half-hour increments.

To be clear, much of this was for good reason.  We had to protect ourselves and others from the virus and, for those of us with kids, we had to protect our sanity during whack-a-mole school closures.

But now that offices are calling workers back and socializing is returning to something resembling normal for many of us, we have to decide which pandemic-era habits to hold on to, and which to ditch.  It might be tempting to retain some of these social efficiencies — especially if you’ve found you’re crushing your to-do lists and enjoying the Netflix catalog.  But there is an inertia to an optimized way of life in which time for building and rebuilding friendships can all too easily get cannibalized.

It was hard enough to make and maintain friendships as an adult beforehand.  In our new, streamlined way of life, it’s even harder.  While the research is unequivocal that relationships are key to both mental and physical health, meaningful relationships are neither productive nor efficient, at least not in the short term.

Building a community of friends, even if it starts with a feeling of obligation, boredom or mild irritation at the time invested in it, is a part of how we protect ourselves and our families from the vagaries of human existence, as the writer Jonathan Tjarks wrote movingly in The Ringer recently.  Facing his own cancer diagnosis and thinking about who would be there for his young son if he dies, he describes the investment of time he has made into making friends in a “life group” he attends regularly at his church: “Life group is a different kind of insurance,” he writes.  “People talk a lot about medical insurance and life insurance when you get sick.  But relational insurance is far more important.”

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