How can I make friends in the new normal?

Elva Mankin

Sarah Dawson has recently moved to a new town with her baby daughter, four-year-old son, and husband
Sarah Dawson has recently moved to a new town with her baby daughter, four-year-old son, and husband

Making friends as a grown-up can be tricky. Throw in the fact we’re now living in a socially distant world – and that my family had moved to a part of the UK where we knew no-one just months before lockdown began – and it’s become even harder.

In January, my husband and I found ourselves priced out of the Cotswolds, where we’d rented for almost 15 years. There really was only one other option – a move back to the county where I grew up, where buying a rural family house for our four-year-old son and baby daughter was actually achievable. Leaving behind friends we’ve known for decades and the tight-knit mum crew I’d built up was tough, but I felt confident that once we got into the swing of things in our new home, forming a new circle would come naturally. What I wasn’t expecting was a global pandemic to sweep in and crush any chance of meeting new friends whatsoever.

Research released last month from the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex found that one third of women in the UK have suffered from loneliness during lockdown – up from 11 per cent from before Covid-19 hit – with diminished social relationships being the biggest factor. “Women are more likely to report multiple numbers of close friends,” explained Ben Etheridge, one of the paper’s authors; limits on how many people you can see, and where and when, has thus made us vulnerable to a “decline in mental wellbeing”.

With my husband working full-time as a graphics manager and me juggling  freelance writing around childcare, there wasn’t much time to dwell on my lack of local friends when lockdown began. As the nation’s social lives moved online, I got to see my old friends more than ever – weeks were punctuated by quick FaceTimes while making the kids’ tea, to long, boozy, Zoom chats in the evenings. Distance wasn’t an issue. So what if my friends live hundreds of miles away? It made no difference – we were all inside our own four walls. But my lockdown bubble couldn’t last forever, and now I’m having to face an uncomfortable truth: I’m lonely. Really lonely.

For many who have felt cut off over the last few months, restrictions lifting have been a blessing. But I’ve found the opposite: I didn’t have any friends here before, so how am I meant to make them now? Baby groups are cancelled – my failsafe for meeting other grown-ups desperate for some non-toy tractor related chat – and everyone is keeping their distance at the playground. The pandemic is still here, and I can sense people’s hesitancy to interact with a stranger – especially one who is having to restrain her baby from climbing up people’s legs. I do wonder if it’s a lost cause even trying to reach out to new people at the moment, but I can’t carry on like this.

Being a mum to young children can be lonely and relocating always means starting over, but experiencing this during a pandemic has been a whole new level of isolation. It’s different for my children – they’ve never been happier now they have Mummy around all day – and my husband is only just coming to realise how non-existent our circle here is, having been consumed by work over previous months. Admitting you are lonely is hard, but figuring out how to turn it around is equally tough: even talking about it is challenging, as I don’t want to be a burden to family and friends.

Sarah Dawson
Sarah Dawson

But the question remains: how do you meet new people and build a relationship from a distance, in a world with new rules? Making friends offline has its issues, not least the cringe-inducing introductions from a safe two metres. Proactivity, I am coming to realise, is my only solution. A few days ago, when walking my dog, I asked if I could give my number to a fellow mum I’d been chatting to. Inside I was dying of shame, but it turns out she’s lovely, didn’t instantly block my number and we’re meeting for a cup of tea soon.

More and more people in my situation are turning to social networking apps – there’s City Girl Network, for lonely adult women seeking friends – or Mush and Peanut (UK registrations for which have jumped nearly 90 per cent from April to May) which connect mums with local like minded women. For me, though, going digital has felt like online dating; a lot of swiping and talking until things eventually fizzle out. I don’t know if it’s because, at 38, I’m older than most of the people I encounter on there, or because nobody wants to bite the bullet and suggest that first meeting, but perhaps the onus is on me to stop looking for the one and just make connections. There’s comfort in just knowing I’m not alone in wanting to feel less alone. With a little more swiping, I hope, I’ll soon find my wine-drinking, dog-loving bookworm with a GSOH match.

How to navigate post-lockdown loneliness – by Dr Terri Apter

The lockdown may have eased, but social contact remains restricted: without someone to share ideas or compare views with, we are at greater risk of illnesses from the common cold to heart disease. How can we satisfy our cravings for companionship?

  1. Maintain the friendships you already have, checking in with top tier friends regularly. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have “news” – whatever you are feeling is news. And just making contact will give the rewarding message, “I am thinking of you.”

  2. Propose to members of groups you are in, like book clubs, that you restart in-person meetings (if they have been paused) or continue them virtually, if others aren’t yet comfortable with social gatherings. If you have an area of interest as yet unexplored, join a local group to meet like minded friends.

  3.  In the old days, going to a film together or watching something together was a good connector. In the absence of theatres and cinemas reopening, use technology that syncs films so that you watch together, texting or phoning during the intervals to trade thoughts. Or you can agree to a time slot afterwards to discuss: this is much more stimulating and comforting than watching alone. However, don’t expect screen time to be the same as person-to-person contact; the rhythm and the flow of conversation will have a different beat. The window that displays your own face on the likes of Zoom is distracting, and you may want to switch it off.  

  4. Make use of outdoor meetings. It’s a good idea to go beyond the face-to-face across the table talk – it’s too much like the screen – and, instead, picnic in a park or wander around an outdoor market.  

  5. Discriminate. At a time when friendships require extra thought, it’s a good idea to pare away those that are tedious or draining. There are, after all, some friends we need less of.

Dr Apter’s most recent book, Passing Judgment: Raise and Blame in Everyday Life, is available to buy now

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