What Girls Gets Right About Young-Adult Friendship

Marnie and Hannah on Girls. Photo: HBO

Well, it’s not like no one saw it coming: With one episode left to go, the girls of Girls have agreed to call it. “I’ve come to realize how exhausting and narcissistic and ultimately boring this whole dynamic is,” Shoshanna told the gang in no-holds-barred bathroom speech last week, “and I finally feel brave enough to create some distance for myself.” And she has a point: A four-way friendship breakup seems to make more sense than these friendships themselves really did, at least in the later seasons.

Sad? Kind of, in the way that all endings are a little bit sad. And also a little bit hopeful, or, at the very least, it’s a relief — a chance for everyone involved to finally shake off relationships that have been weighing them down and move forward with their lives.

More than anything, though, the situation is a bluntly realistic one: Young-adult friendships end sometimes. Hell, young-adult friendships end all the time. For better or for worse, most of us are unintentional chameleons in our early 20s, moving from one self to another until we finally feel brave enough, as Shosh put it, to stick with one — and often, the friendships we make along the way become necessary casualties.

In the earlier part of your 20s, “you’re forming a definite identity — a lot of identity play, a lot of trying out different versions of yourself to see who you really are,” Jeffrey Arnett, a psychology professor at Clark University and the author of Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road From the Late Teens Through the Twenties. “And that means you try different kinds of friends and see which kind of person works best for you. And that’s part of clarifying who you really are and what’s really important to you.”

“You’re going through lots of relationships,” both romantic and platonic, “that you later look back on it and say, ‘My God, what was I thinking?’, because that person wasn’t right for you and you didn’t recognize it at the time,” Arnett adds. “And then once you do, you can look back on that and either cringe or laugh or both, and think, I didn’t know myself well enough at the time to know that person was really not right for me.”

And it’s not just that we’re changing — our circumstances are, too. In college, where most of the Girls girls met one another, friendships are easier to make and easier to sustain: You’re all living on top of each other, swimming in free time. But in the years that follow, you’re in new territory, where this whole friends thing is suddenly a lot harder than it’s ever been, explains psychologist Eileen Kennedy-Moore, co-author of the forthcoming book Growing Friendships: A Kid’s Guide to Making and Keeping Friends. “Dramatic life changes can happen at any age” — moves, new relationships and marriages, breakups and divorces, promotions and layoffs, kids, even new hobbies — but, says Kennedy-Moore, “the new adult stage is unique, because everyone is making major changes at the same time.” And the transition into full-blown adulthood can be exhausting: “People who would never have missed a get-together in college might find themselves too tired, after a long day of work, to hit the bars with friends on a Thursday night.”

The cruel twist, though, is that young adulthood is also when the stakes of friendship are at their highest. Starting in adolescence, emotional intimacy — having someone to talk to, someone who gets you — becomes an increasingly important part of a friendship, supplanting common interests as the most critical thing connecting you to other people. On the one hand, you crave emotional support from your friendships more than ever before; on the other, you’re also less sure than ever that the people you currently call friends are the ones who can give it to you, and, either way, you’re less certain about how to keep them.

As people move into their late 20s and early 30s, though, the whole business of being a friend becomes less fraught — partly because you’ve gotten the hang of the whole adult thing, and partly because more people start to settle into committed relationships. “You tend to get that intimacy, talking about things that are really important to you, with your partner when you have one,” Arnett says. For many people, then, friendship becomes a something of lower-stakes game; it’s no longer the sole, or even primary, source of that emotional support.

The main reason things start to settle down, though, is that eventually, you figure out more or less who you are — you’re never done, but you’ve already done the lion’s share of the work to build an identity you’re comfortable with. “By the late 20s, there’s a lot more stability than ever before, and people aren’t as uncertain of who they are and who’s right for them,” Arnett says. “By then, people have had enough trial and error to know.” And sometimes, that means they know it’s time to move on.

What Girls Gets Right About Young-Adult Friendship