Friendships end for many reasons, among them Covid differences
In romantic relationships people believe they can resolve issues through debate, but this does not apply to friendships
Friendships change over time. As people and their circumstances change, small disagreements and misunderstandings arise. Ultimately, friends who considered themselves close come to realise their paths have diverged. And the friendship could end with a bang or a whimper.
Conflicts and disagreements are inevitable in relationships. The ubiquitous advice from experts and laypeople when it comes to addressing conflict is to “talk it over” or, as academics put it, “engage in a constructive discussion”.
This advice is generally directed at couples. However, in a recent book titled How to Break Up with Your Friends, Canadian life coach Erin Falconer encourages her readers to have frank and open conversations when things go “off the rails” with their friends.
But research shows that when conflicts and disagreements arise, the most common response is to “do nothing”.
Psychologist Cheryl Harasymchuk and I presented research participants with a scenario in which they were asked to imagine being dissatisfied in a romantic relationship and then respond in four different ways. These were: a positive, active response, in which they engaged in a discussion of the issue; a positive, passive response, in which they did not raise the issue, but stood by and hoped things would improve; a negative, passive response, which involved withdrawing and ignoring or neglecting the person; or an active, negative response that saw them ending or threatening to end the relationship. Next they were asked to predict how the other person would react.
We found people expected their friend would reciprocate a passive rather than active response. However, in the context of a romantic relationship, people expected that if they responded in an active manner, their partner would do the same.
It is easy to suggest friends should simply talk it through. What that well-intentioned advice fails to take into account is that friends are not in the habit of talking things through.
Why do friends shy away from open, active discussions of conflict? In another phase of this research we asked participants what outcome they expected depending on their response to dissatisfaction. It turned out people anticipated that if they engaged in an active, constructive discussion with their romantic partner, the issue would be resolved.
In contrast, they believed if they spoke up in a friendship, the issue would not be resolved. Participants believed issues in friendships were more likely to be resolved by not actively discussing problem issues — in other words, using passive responses.
This culture of passivity also means that unless there is a major turbulent event in a relationship, such as a betrayal of trust, friendships tend not to formally “break up” in the way romantic relationships do. Rather, friends tend to drift apart when there is disagreement.
Friends also drift apart when there is no malice. Sometimes circumstances, such as moving away, make it more difficult to maintain the relationship.
Unfortunately the pandemic has brought into sharp focus the differences friends may experience, especially in terms of fundamental values, such as the priority of individual rights over the “greater good”. Friends may find themselves on opposing sides on issues such as vaccine mandates and compliance, mask wearing, support for protests that oppose Covid-19 restrictions and so on.
The discovery of dissimilarities can hasten the death of a friendship, especially if those dissimilarities revolve around core values.
It is easy to suggest friends should simply talk it through. What that well-intentioned advice fails to take into account is that friends are not in the habit of talking things through. This is not to say friends cannot benefit from discussing issues, but merely to point out that people expect that even if they bring up an issue their friend will not engage and, furthermore, the issue will remain unresolved.
So where does that leave friends who find themselves on opposite sides of pandemic-related matters? Friendship dissolution seems almost inevitable. It can be difficult at the best of times to find the time and energy to maintain one’s friendships. Commitments to work and family are generally given a higher priority.
Thus, any issue that rocks the boat can be enough to sink a friendship. For those who are motivated to retain one, despite the divide the pandemic has created or highlighted, it can be helpful to focus on the similarities you share. You may want to remind yourself of what you and your friend have in common, take time to reflect on your shared experiences and history, and think about all you have invested in this relationship.
Even if the gulf is still too wide, allowing the friendship to wither, rather than actively dissolving it, leaves the door open for future reconciliation. A withered friendship is more easily resuscitated than one that has been officially terminated.
Beverley Fehr is a professor of social psychology at the University of Winnipeg.
This article was first published by The Conversation.