Friendships play a more important role today, even as family support systems are weakening…

Societies, over the millennia, have been threatened by a wide variety of changes and revolutions. But, in remarkable testimony to Darwinian principles, they have adapted and created new systems and buttresses that have successfully absorbed the shocks of new uncertainties. And changing societies have, in the process, not merely survived, but prospered. In the current era of resurgent India, even as family ties have indubitably weakened, another social support system — friendships — has reinvented itself to take in a fair bit of the slack to fill in the breach caused by the apparent breakdown in family support systems. In the past, a friend was not seen as a necessity, but if one was lucky to find one, one usually had a friend for life. Today however, the functions that were performed by extended family members in the past have been evenly distributed across friends, thereby making friendships more purposeful than they ever have been.

Core group

Most people usually have a core group of friends, with whom emotional ties are strongly forged. Typically such friends are from their childhood and youth, who play the role of ersatz siblings. Even if the intensity of these friendships wanes as one gets into adulthood, and meetings are not as frequent, a great sense of comfort is experienced when one gets together with childhood friends. In these days of increased mobility, however, it is not at all uncommon to find that professional interests take one physically far away from one's childhood home. As a result, contact with childhood friends has become progressively difficult to sustain. This is where the Internet and increasingly inexpensive mobile telephony have come to the rescue of the urban nomad. The fact that regardless of where one lives or travels, one can still stay in touch with one's friends, has gone a long way in ensuring that one rarely feels completely disconnected. . Being connected with one's family is important, of course, but when one can stay connected with one's friends as well, it gives one a sense, even if only an apparent one, of never having really gone away.

Unique advantages

Although friends aren't seen as a substitute for family, they come with two major advantages. The first of these is that we've chosen our friends ourselves and therefore, we can choose to dump our friendships whenever we want. It's remarkable that despite having this option, we rarely exercise it, unless something dramatically negative happens to queer the pitch. We can't really dump families even if something dramatically negative does happen. So, sometimes we end up suffering them. But with friends, even if one does suffer them occasionally, the empowering advantage of choice gives us a feeling of greater control over the future of the relationship. Second, and as important, friends also provide recreation, not just emotional support. We can have fun with our friends. While we often can have fun with families too, the quality of the no-holds-barred, uncomplicated-by-baggage sort of fun that we can have with friends nudges us more in their direction when we want to let our hair down.

However, it's not just childhood friends who predominate our adult lives. Some adult friendships, when the chemistry between the friends is good, are similar in intensity to childhood friendships. However it is more common for adult friendships to operate on more adult parameters, in that boundaries are actively in place right from the beginning, which, in fact, ensures the longevity of the relationship. Such relationships are more maturely emotional by which I mean, although an emotional component does exist, this is not the only basis for the relationship. It is usually shared interests and activities that these friendships are built on and meetings are usually regular but evenly spaced.

Of course, all friendships need not be deep and emotional. We usually also have a need for purely superficial social equations, and people with whom we can just ‘hang out and shoot the breeze with'. In these kind of equations, the focus is almost entirely on entertainment, and it is not unusual for the ‘gang' to have a lot of floaters and new faces on a regular basis. But these kind of friendships serve a very important contemporary purpose. They give one a feeling of connectedness and belonging, and one looks forward to weekends or whenever it is we choose to meet these friends. Virtual friends can also give us a feeling of connectedness provided we keep such relationships in perspective and limit them to the virtual space, since most virtual friendships make the transition to ‘live' ones very poorly.

Coping with changes

To me, it is quite remarkable how people today are responding to gaping holes in their emotional safety nets caused by the changes in family structures and processes. By reconfiguring their friendships to take care of them, they have ensured not just that their own safety nets are looked after, they have also created the possibility of actively contributing to their friends' safety nets. They have at once become beneficiaries and benefactors, thereby lending the fabric of friendships a mutuality that will ensure longevity and greater network strength. Apparently, we are well into the age of All-Weather Friendships.

The writer is the author of the forthcoming Fifty-50 Marriage: Return to Intimacy and can be contacted at: vijay.nagaswami@gmail.com.