The Editing of Address Books

As we continue our practice of physical distancing and social isolation during this time of COVID-19, certain things are obvious…we miss seeing our friends and family members in-person; Zoom parties have lost their novelty, and many of us feel lonely. I noted in a previous post that we are all grieving–and grief changes our relationships.

Secondary Losses–Our People

People who have experienced grief after the death of a loved one, often report that they are amazed at the changes in their family/friend group–people they thought would be there for them are ‘nowhere to be found’, while acquaintances step up and provide tremendous support, understanding and enduring care. This isn’t unusual.

Megan Devine, in her book It’s Ok That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand suggests that grief edits our address book. Devine writes:

“And–it’s one of the cruellest aspects of intense loss: at a time when you most need love and support, some friends either behave horribly or they disappear altogether. There are disappointments and disagreements. Old grudges resurface. Small fault lines become impassable distances. People say the weirdest, most dismissive and bizarre things. Grief changes your friendships.”

The author suggests that this happens for a variety of reasons: seeing someone we care about in pain is difficult for us–our pain rubs up against their pain; in our grief-phobic culture, they don’t know what to say; or ‘real’ life takes over and they drift away.

So Now That We’re All Grieving…

I suggest that our time “of the big bug” is giving us a glimpse into, not only what we care about, but whom. It takes more effort to stay in touch with others, and frankly, some relationships won’t survive. I don’t mean the ones where spending so much uninterrupted time together is stressing already fragile bonds. Instead, I’m thinking about the casual, repetitive relationships that are based on habit. The relationships where one side put in more effort to stay in touch than the other and that pattern wasn’t obvious. Friendships that may have outlived their connection may quietly end.

While this may sound harsh, it’s not meant to be. I see it as a function of the COVID ‘reset’ that some say we are experiencing. And, we will all be on both sides of the keep/lose equation. We will let some people go, and be let go of by others. And it will be painful.

The Levels of Relationship

One way to put this ebb and flow of our relationships into perspective is the concept of the Levels of Relationship. I suggest that there are four levels–each with its own characteristics and levels of intimacy:

  • Level 1: Relationship you may have with the barista at your favourite cafe. Interactions are purely transactional and there is no level of intimacy. If you’re Canadian, maybe you talk about the weather.
  • Level 2: Relationship with a distant co-worker. While more than transactional, little personal information is shared. For example, you may need to let them know that you are going on vacation in order for them to do their job, but you probably won’t share where you are going or who with.
  • Level 3: Friendships. There are many sub-levels in this section, but all include the sharing of personal information and mutual support to varying degrees. If one of these relationships ended, we would feel their loss.
  • Level 4: Our 24/7 people. These relationships are rare and hard to find. These people tend to be our best friends, spouses, and maybe family members. These are the ones that we know have our back 24/7, and we have theirs. 24/7 people are the ones we can call in the middle of the night when things go wonderfully good, or horribly bad; and we know that they will always answer the text.
Moving Up and Down the Levels

These levels are not carved in stone…they can be fluid. For example, let’s say that you go to your neighbourhood cafe every day on the way to school. You like the barista who usually fills your order, as well as the cafe’s warm environment (Level 1). After a few months, you notice a ‘help wanted’ sign and decide to apply. After starting to work at the cafe, you and Barista Bob become co-workers (Level 2) and this relationship develops into a friendship (Level 3). Over time, you and Bob become best friends–knowing that there is mutual caring, trust, and respect on a deep level (Level 4).

We can also move up the levels from 4 to 1–we move away or change jobs, maybe a close relationship ends due to outside circumstances, perhaps someone we thought had the emotional intelligence to be a 24/7 person didn’t.

If we think about it, we may notice that this has happened a lot in our past, usually at a fairly slow pace. But now, in the time of Zoom meetings and social distancing, the relationship patterns are speeding up.

What Does This Mean Going Forward?

Honestly? I’m not sure. I only know that as a therapist I’m seeing this happen and am curious about how it will affect us in the future. Will our relationships become less in number yet emotionally deeper because we have weeded out the ones that really didn’t need to be there? Will we be more choosy about who we let into our lives going forward as we want to give them the time and nurture that they deserve? Will we recognize the importance of being our own best friend? All this remains to be seen.

In the meantime, please be kind…when we let others go, and when we, ourselves, are released. It’s normal.


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