Amid an epidemic of loneliness, some friendships grow stronger

Marie Fiebach (left) and Kelly Schoeppner (right) found their friendship got deeper over the course of the pandemic.

(CNN)For over a decade, Marie Fiebach and Kelly Schoeppner took weekly walks after dropping their kids off at school in Wichita, Kansas. The two women enjoyed the ritual, but each had four kids and busy lives, with family, work and plenty of other friends.

When the pandemic hit, that busyness receded, as did many friendships.
Fiebach, 45, had always spent a lot of time chitchatting with pals at the gym, but it closed. Schoeppner's husband was furloughed, and their oldest daughter lost her job and moved home. As the shapes of their lives changed — got harder, got stranger — their friendship strengthened. Fiebach and Schoeppner's once-weekly walk became a weekly phone call, and the tenor of it changed.
"We had a lot of conversations that were a lot deeper," Schoeppner, 47, said. "It was just a relief to know that she was there whenever I needed her to be."
    "Kelly became my window to the world, and I became hers, even though our worlds were much, much smaller," Fiebach said.

    Fewer but deeper friendships

    Loneliness was at epidemic levels before the pandemic, and isolation is a common byproduct of Covid-19; adults are reporting significant declines in mental health since March.
    But some people have found that as their worlds shrank, they also recalibrated, and a few things were simpler, and sometimes even better. Many women, especially those with jobs, young kids and frenetic schedules, found they had fewer friendships, but deeper ones. They replaced quantity with quality.
    "Loneliness is not usually from not knowing enough people," Shasta Nelson, an author and friendship expert, said. "It's from feeling not known by a few people."
    The pandemic is affecting friendship in a number of ways. Real friendship, Nelson said, is based on three things. Consistency: how often and reliably friends interact. Vulnerability: feeling seen and safe. And positivity: feeling good about the interactions. The pandemic knocked out a certain kind of casual friendship, one based more on consistency — running into people at school or sports or the market — than vulnerability and positivity.
    "It took out our busy social life and left us with, 'Who do I actually want to be scheduling and interacting with?'" Nelson said.

    Some friendships are fracturing

    Some friendships are fracturing beneath the strain of our time, not bringing enough positivity to continue. "A lot of relationships right now are struggling with how people are responding to the pandemic differently," Nelson said. "They feel judged, or they feel guilty, or they feel judgmental of the other person for not wearing masks or putting their kids in certain situations." People don't have the bandwidth, she said, for relationships that drain more than sustain.
    The pruning of some friendships made space for others to grow. As our schedules cleared, and technology connected us, more consistency became possible with people who hadn't been casual, reoccurring parts of our lives. "It was easier to line up schedules, easier to feel like we could commit," Nelson said.
    Nelson herself began Zooming weekly with her already close friends. "I'm not waiting for our next girls' trip to tell them about what happened during the pandemic for me," she said. "We're doing it more regularly and we're actually being able to impact and support each other in real time and feel supported and seen and loved and encouraged."

    Isolation is easier to discuss

    At the same time, because isolation is so pervasive, it has become easier to talk about. "(Covid-19) removed a little bit of stigma of loneliness," Nelson said. Suddenly it wasn't weird to reach out to someone you missed and tell them you wanted to connect.
    "It allowed us this cultural permission to stay in touch with people," Nelson said. And it allowed us to be more vulnerable. "We're willing to go deeper and say, 'Oh, my gosh, this is hard.' And we're all in this together."
    For Sandra Newsome, 60, of Queens, New York, the pandemic provided an unexpected path to intimacy. A homebody and an introvert, she valued her close-knit group of friends, but rarely enjoyed going out to see them, which left her with a constant feeling of guilt.
    "Every time we spoke it was always, 'Girl, we need to get together,'" Newsome said. "But in the age of the pandemic, now the way you express your love to someone is that you stay away from them."
    Newsome began weekly video calls with those friends. "Zoom has been everyone's lifeline. Seeing them digitally removed the pressure of getting together in person," she said. "We're really freer in our conversation. It's just pure love."
    Newsome and many of her friends embarked on creative projects and life dreams, and they check in regularly and hold each other accountable. "It's not so much that it was because we realized life was short," Newsome said. "We realized life was for living."
    The pandemic, she said, "allowed the people who really mattered to come forward and the people who matter less to retreat."
    For Newsome, those who retreated included some family members and work friends. She worked for 25 years at the New York State court system but has spoken regularly to only one friend from work.

    Acquaintances blossom into friendships

    Other people have found acquaintances unexpectedly blossoming into full-blown friendships. Artist and educator Diane Moroff, 56, had moved from Brooklyn, New York, to a small town upstate in 2019. But she had only engaged in brief conversations and a few dinners with her neighbor across the street, a woman with some different political leanings who is a decade older.
    "She asked me very early on, after the pandemic started, if I wanted to take a walk one morning," Moroff said. It became a daily ritual, leading them to form a makeshift pod, sharing dinners, joys, woes, support and intimacy. "We come from very different backgrounds," Moroff said. But, "When you're sharing a common present momen