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What makes friendships tick in your 20s?

The mid-twenties are an especially interesting time for forging platonic relationships

There is no singular commonality still between different means of being, remaining friends. Photo: Unsplash

By Raunaq Saraswat

LAST PUBLISHED 26.10.2023  |  01:00 PM IST

Malavika Venu sensed a dearth of friends in her life most acutely during her stay in Germany in 2019 for her masters degree. She was 24 then and didn’t know how to break into the pre-existing groups as an intern. Her breakthroughs in her evolutionary biology laboratory notwithstanding, she could not find a set of people to fall back on outside the realm of her research work. “I was doing great science, but I was miserable," she recalls, adding how the experience prompted her to think about the necessity of friendships, and by extension, a support system for herself. The challenge was also to strike a balance, Venu realised, between the insular word of research and the social conduct required to build, and maintain friendships. For she needed both to thrive.

Friendships are a nebulous entity, both in form and content. This is also what makes writing on friendships a tricky endeavour, for a precise coverage of the expectations, limits, and tenets in a friendship becomes elusive—more so for the quarter-life, mid-life, and the following stages. Some friendships tighten, some others slacken; inadvertently, deliberately. Life continues to happen. 

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The plural definitions of friendships itself notwithstanding, the mid-twenties are an especially interesting time for friendships. The fine lines are at their finest here: between disappearing old friends and a slew of new folks, work and life, familiar and unfamiliar, filial and individual. A few years out of college, a few into work, the friendships from earlier chapters of life can begin to dwindle, even as the new ones take time to set in, take shape. That the phase remains incomplete, and impossible even, without friendships is accepted—a given almost. “Friendships have kept me alive, helped me survive, from times that were extremely hard in childhood, till today," says Divya Kanuganti, 26, a professional based out of Hyderabad, underlining the vitality of friendships in her scheme of things.

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Kanuganti comes from a working-class background. She was witness to domestic violence, and a tumultuous separation of her parents as a child. The blows of these experiences were somewhat softened with the help of her friends in school. Not surprisingly then, Kanuganti has managed to retain those fulfilling friendships from childhood. “It doesn’t mean the friendship hasn’t taken a different form. It has definitely acquired a different shape," Kanuganti says, outlining the changes that have ensued in her equation with her childhood friends over the years. She ascribes these changes to the inevitable complement of growing up: growing apart. 

Kanuganti and her friends have come to develop differing worldviews, politics, beliefs. She recalled an instance where she almost lost a friend on account of differing opinions on a subject, but reconciled later during a concurrent period of grief. “Losing a friend is harder than losing a romantic partner," she says, drawing from her near-complete loss of one.

What has helped Kanunganti and her friends stay together even as they’ve strayed apart is an acknowledgment that they can’t understand each other always. “We respect that. We have found a neutral space," she tells me, underlining the guiding principle. The easier part, she says, is that this negotiation comes naturally in the case of older friends, and while she recognises the emotional work this process demands, it doesn’t feel like a burden in their case. “With newer friends, who I’ve met in the latter part of my life, I’ve to be more open," she says.

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The everydayness of friendship can very well be more virtual than emotional for people in their mid-twenties. Deepansh Duggal, 27, a freelance journalist based out of Delhi, explains the conundrum he faces in this regard. “I’d love to have deeper, richer friendships. But nobody has the time, especially in this age bracket," he says. Duggal, like so many others, resorts to the most internet-esque means of staying in touch: sharing reels on Instagram. 

“It’s a way of telling your friends that you care about them," he notes, making a case for talking via Reels. The business of sharing Reels though has some meaning too, he adds. Specific types of Reels are reserved for specific friends, paving the way for sustaining the interests that once formed the foundations of friendship in real life. Sharing Reels becomes an implied conversation then, when none may, or can actually happen.

Venu agrees with Duggal’s observation. “That’s a new way form of connection. You know they’re alive and okay," she says with a chuckle. This works in her case especially, she has numerous long-distance friendships having moved to United States a year ago, to pursue her doctoral studies.

Residing in the United States, Venu has had to often schedule meetings with her friends in another part of the world to catch up. With whom these meetings too seem far-fetched, she calls without notice. Most of her correspondence with her friends, otherwise, happens over text—that too sporadically, as and when it’s possible. 

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A mutual understanding of each other’s predicaments becomes a prerequisite in this case. “We can go without talking for long, but we’ll be there when something bad happens," she tells me, noting how the recurrent pauses in the friendships never really turn into a period. She does, however, specify how her male friends tend to take a more casual approach—bordering towards indifference sometimes—towards their friendships than the rest. “I always have to reach out to my guy friends," she states, matter-of-factly.

The ultimate driver of a friendship that persists until, or beyond one’s mid-twenties then is a tacit understanding of their worth—that also derives largely from how well friends keep up with their knowledge of each other. Sanjana Ramachandran, a writer and the author of an upcoming book on the contradictions of living in modern India, says how friends, today, in her late twenties, would be “people who could really ‘Get Me’, with the first two letters in capital." 

Ramachandran notes that the political standpoints of people too have come to matter more and more post-2014. This is especially valid for people in their mid-twenties, who “begin setting their own rules vis-a-vis friendships, relationships," even as they find their footing in their respective environments. An anecdote of Ramachandran though echoes Kanuganti’s finding of ‘neutral space’, wherein the former continues to be friends with someone who doesn't quite share her political beliefs. If nothing, it points to a greyness of matters, and an absence of any stringent morality in the practice of friendships. 

Dhruv Sehgal, writer and actor, may have an answer to the basis of such friendships. “Earlier it was that the two people should have empathy, and a sense of warmth, and all of that is there, but now more than ever, it is important for friends to have a desire to have fun together," he points out. This leads more people to continue to be friends, despite a mismatch in their belief-systems. Just fun also keeps friendships alive.

There is no singular commonality still between different means of being, remaining friends. Carving a neutral space amidst an increasingly polarised climate is one approach. Exchanging seconds long reels on Instagram is a method the preoccupied and the internet savvy seem to rely on. Either entails some measure of labour, as do all the unsaid and unarticulated schema of friendships of those in their mid-twenties as they develop. At the end, the cart of friendship needs to keep moving—even if slowly. 

Raunaq Saraswat is a freelance writer based in Delhi.