A few months ago, Amber Smith was texting her friends about something utterly unimportant - the latest "Real Housewives" episode, she said, or some other small drama. It was the kind of interaction that had been getting her through the pandemic: quick banter, a lot of laughter.
Then her friends stopped responding.
The minutes ticked by: no new messages. Smith, 41, lives alone in New York City. Since the pandemic hit, she has only seen a handful of friends in person.
Staring at her phone, she said, she started to wonder, "Did I do something?'"
From there, her mind jumped to an even more distressing thought: "Maybe all my friends hate me."
For many women, "friendship doubt" has proliferated in the pandemic, especially during the colder months, when it may have gotten harder to see friends in person. Alone in our apartments, we're spending more time in our own heads, replaying whatever limited social interactions we're able to have, experts say. This isolation can make us doubt our friendships, leading us to wonder: Do my friends like me as much as they used to?
There is an ambiguity in friendships that doesn't exist in other kinds of relationships, said Marisa Franco, a psychologist who specializes in friendship. Relationships with family members and romantic partners come with a societally recognized commitment: When you say you're somebody's wife, or somebody's sister, there are certain expectations.
Friendships operate without these kinds of official promises, Franco said. A friend could be in your life forever, or "just for a season."
That ambiguity can lead to insecurity, she said.
Mahzad Hojjat, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth who studies friendship, put it this way: "You agree to be friends, but at any moment one person might decide, 'I don't like this person, I don't want to be her friend.' " No breakup is necessary, Hojjat said - you can usually slide off the grid. Especially during the pandemic, she said, "that fear is always there."
These friendship doubts could be driven by loneliness. Studies show that lonely people are more self-critical and less trusting, Franco said, and are inclined to believe that others like them less than they actually do. Stripped of normal interactions with friends, she added, our social anxiety increases.
Humans have evolved to protect ourselves from strangers when we're on our own, Franco said - an adaptation that does not serve many well in the pandemic. "When you were separated from your tribe, your goal was to mitigate threat," she said. And the best way to do that was to be skeptical of others.
In the early days of the pandemic, there was a rush to socialize in novel ways. People were connecting on Zoom, playing virtual board games with high school friends and college roommates they hadn't talked to in years. But for Smith, sometime in early summer, friends seemed to grow tired of video calls, opting instead for the occasional park hangout or stroll around New York. But once summer ended and her friends went back inside, the social Zooms never resumed.
"Everyone is just mentally over it," Smith said.
When social activities dropped off, Smith started spending more time in her own head, she said, wondering why no one was reaching out. "I conjured up all the ways that people were mad at me," she said.
Smith knows she could reach out to people herself, she said, proposing a call or outdoor activity - but a year into the pandemic, the prospect is daunting. These days, she is too emotionally exhausted to do much of anything outside of work.
Kris Nova, a 33-year-old living in San Francisco, said she has also been overthinking friendships in the pandemic. After she spends time with friends, online or in person, she analyzes every little interaction, dwelling on anything she said that might have come off the wrong way.
"I'll think, 'Oh god, I'm a horrible person,' " Nova said. "I'm going to focus on this little thing that happened and beat myself up for it."
As Hojjat put it, in self-quarantine, "you're stuck in your own little cave." While some people have been busier than usual in the pandemic - like parents at home with their kids - many young or single people have more time to kill. If you're socially anxious, Hojjat said, that extra time can fuel destructive thoughts.
"Unfortunately, sometimes these ideas just continue to exist in your mind and there's nothing to interrupt them," Hojjat said.
Franco said the pandemic hasn't just left us alone to dwell on the negative - it's also deprived us of many of the things that typically make us feel good about ourselves. In more normal times, she said, in-person interactions with friends provide an enormous amount of "identity affirmation." Friends tend to affirm the version of ourselves we would most like to embody, Franco added, which is good for our self-esteem: If you spend a day with a friend, and you leave each other upbeat and laughing, you'll probably feel better about yourself, knowing you made the other person happy.
"We don't have access to that now because we're not seeing each other," Franco said.
While Zoom has been a critical social tool in the pandemic, it's a poor substitute for in-person interaction, Franco added. Without normal social cues, like body language, it's harder to tell how the other person is responding to you, she said.
When Rachael Yeomans, who works in musical theater, talks to her colleagues on Zoom, she worries about how they are perceiving her. Many of them are her friends. But because they've all muted themselves, she said, she is left to imagine what they're thinking. This leads to a "spiral," she said, where she convinces herself that they don't like her very much after all.
"I'm a big body-language person. I pay attention to the energy a person is bringing into the room," said Yeomans, a 25-year-old based in Los Angeles. In person, she said, it's easy to tell when a colleague is just having a bad day. But if someone isn't overly enthusiastic on Zoom, she said, she'll often process their bad day as frustration toward her.
If you and your friend aren't together in-person, assumptions can abound, Hojjat said: Any hint of conflict could get blown out of proportion. Maybe a friend and colleague misses a Zoom happy hour. Pre-pandemic, when you saw each other every day in the office, you might have swung by your friend's desk to ask where he was the night before, she said. Because there's no opportunity for that kind of casual interaction, Hojjat said, people "make judgments about their friends' behavior," jumping to conclusions that aren't necessarily correct.
In these cases, it's important to give your friends the benefit of the doubt, Hojjat said - especially right now. Everyone is dealing with their own unique struggles in the pandemic. If your friend isn't responding, she said, they might be busy with a child at home, or pandemic-related stress at work.
If you have the time and energy to reach out yourself, Franco recommended doing so: "Be the security you wish someone would be for you." With close friends, she said, you could even be honest about your friendship doubt. When you open up, she said, you give your friend the opportunity to say, "Me too."
Yeomans has her own strategy for dealing with her pandemic insecurity. Whenever she catches herself doubting her friendships - convinced she's a bad friend, too annoying or "too much" - she'll look in the mirror and repeat one particular phrase: "My friends love me."
"I will literally sit there and say it out loud to myself as many times as I need to."
After a while, Yeomans said, she starts to believe it.