Rather than focusing on widening our social networks, this time of no new friends has been marked by efforts to preserve the relationships we already have, and in ways we never would have imagined pre-2020. "Zoom hangouts" and "socially distant walks" would have sounded like word salad until four months ago. And since the future timeline of the pandemic remains uncertain, with states in various stages of re-opening (and re-closing), these strange new efforts of COVID-19 socializing may well drop the "new" label and become something we just have to—gulp—accept as normal. But what are the effects of not socializing as we're accustomed to or making new friends? And what implications may that have on our relationships and plans once we're finally allowed to go about business as usual with our our loved ones?
According to mental-health professionals, the effects of not socializing the way we're used to isn't necessarily all bad news. “Quarantines, social distancing, and physical disconnection have illuminated people’s deep-seated feelings about their relationships and social connections,” says psychotherapist Dana Dorfman, PhD. The absence of how we previously connected has led some people to long for more human interaction and reach out to more people than normal (even if only digitally). It's led others to experience loneliness, and still others to feel unexpected attachment to seemingly insignificant relationships, she says.
Obviously, our habits have changed as we've slowed down, canceled plans, and warmed up to using the phone for more than just texting. But when the time does come to reconnect with those already in our network and venture even further by striking new social ties with complete strangers, are we more likely to be super-friendly or completely antisocial? Will pre-existing personality types have anything to do with how we approach socializing?
Connection counselor, coach, and speaker Joe Kwon predicts that on the whole, this extended period of isolation will most likely heighten a person's natural inclinations, whether they're introverted, extroverted, or ambiverted. “The people who are normally antisocial and closed off will probably be even more so, whereas the social butterflies will be roaming free and connecting like never before,” he says.
“Generally, we are resilient beings, and over time, most will return to socializing in the manner they did prior to the pandemic.” —Jaclene Jason, psychiatry program director at South Oaks Hospital
Those immediate effects may not last for long, though. Consider jumping in a pool instead of getting in slowly. The first few seconds after submerging are a shock to the body, but eventually, the regular state of comfort is restored. In applying that analogy to reintroducing our social patterns, Dr. Dorfman suspects that although each person may have adapted in their own way to the pandemic's social realities, they’ll also eventually resume their pre-pandemic social styles and preferences as time goes on. Jaclene Jason, psychiatry program director at South Oaks Hospital in Amityville, New York, agrees. “Generally, we are resilient beings, and over time, most will return to socializing in the manner they did prior to the pandemic.”
A new wrinkle in certain relationships, however, may emerge from the very way in which people re-introduce certain pre-pandemic habits, says clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD. As restrictions are loosened at different rates in different places, some people are taking it upon themselves to evaluate their social behaviors—in regards to work, family, friends, and strangers—and create personal guidelines that cater to their own respective comfort levels. “Others, however, seem oblivious to or unconcerned about the effects of the pandemic and are already returning to pre-pandemic social behaviors,” she says. “While others may have different beliefs or needs, it’s important to stay aligned with your personal truth.”
That means, if you aren't comfortable with a family member or friend's choices (specifically those Dr. Manly points out as acting oblivious or unconcerned about pandemic threats), you may have to set new boundaries with them moving forward. This might mean keeping your relationship to digital-only and/or agreeing to not broach issues relating to social habits. For instance, if your grandma insists on getting manicures because the salon near her is open, but you don't agree with that choice, you can let her know that the thought of her being there makes you worry for her safety and that you don't want to hear about her experience there.
Ultimately, though, the experts agree that there's nothing inherently worrisome about not making new friends during this time. Furthermore, the effects of not socializing in pre-pandemic ways likely won't have long-lasting effects on the ways we interact. What we can do right now to fill our social fuel tanks as best as we can is lean on the support systems already in place. “This pandemic has taught us as a society that connection and appreciating the connections we already have is the greatest gift we can possess,” says Kwon.
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