There are two types of friends: bus friends and covenant friends.
1. Bus friends are the kinds of friends you have for a season, and then they drift away. If you imagine life as a bus journey, these are the kinds of friends who sit next to you and chat companionably for the journey – until they reach their stop, and then they get off and go about their own business. You feel bereft for a while, but then someone else joins the bus at another stop, and you find yourself lost in conversation again.
By bus friends, I don’t mean acquaintances, the type you wave to out of the window as you pass them. These are real, genuine, close friends, but they are there just for a season, while you happen to be travelling in the same direction.
2. Covenant friends are friends you commit to for life, a bit like a marriage relationship, but without necessarily the geographical proximity. (And without the sex, obviously).
I feel a little embarrassed even comparing platonic friendships with marriage, and I think that sense of shame is worth noting – we have to explain or apologise for close friendships. Our society unconsciously sends the message that intimacy and commitment is reserved only for romantic relationships, so we treat very close friendships with suspicion.
The Bible has no such embarrassment. Ruth committed herself to Naomi, saying she would not part from her for the rest of her life. When David and Jonathan covenant themselves to one another, their friendship is described as love ‘more wonderful than the love of a woman’, they cry when they part, and kiss and embrace. Some conclude that it implies a sexual relationship, but I wonder if that’s just because we are not very comfortable with associating love, commitment, and (non-sexual) touch with friendship. This generation is unashamed of talking about intimacy in sexual relationships, but we are surprisingly prudish when it comes to talking about intimacy in platonic friendships.
Which kind of friend are you?
So far, so good – there are bus friends and covenant friends, and we need both kinds.
But – and here’s the rub – how do you know which is which? We don’t have proposals or marriages in platonic relationships; we lack the language and ritual to define the nature of the relationship.
I feel vulnerable even writing this post, because it sounds so darn needy, or perhaps childish. “Are you my friend for now or my forever-friend?”
We talk about it being hard to read the signals in romantic relationships, but in friendships it’s infinitely harder to discern:
- Do they like me for me? Or do they just like me because we happen to live next door to each other?
- Will this work friendship survive if I get a promotion?
- We had a great dinner party, there was vivacious discussion, compliments about the food, but they haven’t returned the invitation, and the months are passing: do we ask them back to again or is that too desperate?
(Again, the extreme neediness). Friendships are a surprisingly vulnerable business.
Make friends like a child
It was so much easier when you were a young child: less vague. You could just walk up to someone and say ‘will you be my best friend?’ If they said, ‘No, I’m already best friends with Julie’, it was disappointing, but at least you knew where you were.
My literary influences backed me up in this: Anne of Green Gables marched straight up to Diana and said, ‘I have never had a bosom friend before. Will you be my bosom friend?’ – and that was it, they were friends for life. Boom. Literature is peppered with stories of best friends who love extravagantly and unabashedly: Rosalind and Celia in As You Like It, Frodo and Samwise; Holmes and Watson; Hamlet and Horatio; Ron, Hermione and Harry. I just assumed it was a fact of life.
Things got a whole lot more murkier post-childhood. Friends that I thought were friends for life turned out to be seasonal friends, and I never know how to process the grief of the loss. Friendship break-up is real loss, real grief, but our culture lacks the permission, language and narrative to talk about friendship break-up, only romantic break-ups.
After the age of ten, who talks about ‘breaking friends’ with someone? It sounds infantile and petty, and yet it can be more heartbreaking than romantic break-ups.
Not so long ago, there was a friend who met up with me every fortnight while we were both going through a hard time. One day, she just stopped returning my calls. Eventually she said she was just too busy. Her life had improved, and she no longer had room for me in it. I was distraught, but really it was just about mixed signals: I had thought this was a long-haul friendship, but it was just a bus friendship, and she disembarked early.
I have this awful, awful feeling that I have also done that to others: in my mind we have drifted away, but in their mind I abandoned them. The strangest thing is that these friendship tragedies go unsung, hidden, so that oftentimes even the person who did the ‘breaking up’ is unaware of the hurt caused.
Who knows, perhaps I’m alone in this, but friendship feels altogether messy, and I’d like it to be a little cleaner.
We don’t have to commit right away; just like a romantic relationship, we can ‘date’ a little first, but sooner or later, I want to know if you’re going to be a bus friend or a covenant friend. Maybe we don’t strip off our robes and weapons and hand them to each other, but I’m all for bringing back friendship covenants, a bit of definition. Who’s with me?
I’m linking up for my dear friend Cara Strickland’s synchroblog on friendship. It’s a much-neglected topic, so do check out hers and others’ posts on friendship.
“Friendship break-up is real loss, real grief” – @Tanya_Marlow on The Two Types of Friends:
“Make friends like a child” and other reasons we need to change our thinking on friendship – @Tanya_Marlow:
“Friendship break-ups can be more heartbreaking than romantic breakups – but we never talk about them” – @Tanya_Marlow
The Two Types of Friendships (and why we need a bit more clarity on the whole thing) – @Tanya_Marlow:
Over to you:
- Who are your covenant friends, and who are your close ‘bus friends’?
- Can you think of a time where you experienced mixed signals or break-up in friendship?
- Why do you think it is that our society is ‘prudish’ about talking about intimacy in friendship?
- What do you think about bringing back covenants and ritual for friendships? What kind would you like?
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