The Two Types of Friends

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.

Breaking friends

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.


[tweetit]”Friendship break-up is real loss, real grief” – @Tanya_Marlow on The Two Types of Friends: [/tweetit]

[tweetit] “Make friends like a child” and other reasons we need to change our thinking on friendship – @Tanya_Marlow:[/tweetit]

[tweetit]”Friendship break-ups can be more heartbreaking than romantic breakups – but we never talk about them” – @Tanya_Marlow [/tweetit]

[tweetit]The Two Types of  Friendships (and why we need a bit more clarity on the whole thing) – @Tanya_Marlow:[/tweetit]

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?

Sign up below to receive my popular e-book for free, Coming Back to God When You Feel Empty. 


, ,

48 Responses to The Two Types of Friends

  1. lulu 28th January, 2015 at 6:25 pm #

    Tanya, I had a friend who I thought was a covenant friend. We had been friends for seven years. We were together through thick and thin. Then about two months ago when my depression was at its worst I found her distancing herself from me. She stopped texting me and retuning my calls. She’s the pastors daughter so I still see her every other Sunday but every conversation i have with her i come away offended. Now I’m not exactly sure who my covenant friends are. The whole thing has left me very unsure of my friendships.

    • Tanya 23rd February, 2015 at 7:01 pm #

      Hi Lulu – I’m so sorry to hear this – it sounds really unsettling and hurtful. Thanks so much for taking the time to read.

      • lulu 27th February, 2015 at 7:11 pm #

        I’ve recently found out she’s probably being cold towards me because she is being bullied at school. It hurts me even more to know this because I was bullied for four years and never brought any of my anger or frustration into our friendship and its only started for her and already I’m getting the cold shoulder.

        • Tanya 3rd March, 2015 at 9:49 am #

          Some people are stronger than others. I’m glad you found the reason, even if it’s still hurtful that she’s treating you this way.

        • Tanya 11th March, 2015 at 12:28 pm #

          Different people react to the same situation in different ways, I guess. I’m really hoping you both get support from other friends. x

  2. Mark Allman 28th January, 2015 at 6:01 pm #

    Forever friends are few. Outside of family I wonder if I have any forever friends. In a covenant friendship it takes two to make it happen. At times I know I have been willing to be a covenant friend but it has become obvious that the other person is not as interested. I don’t enjoy always being the one who calls, writes, or seeks out. It takes effort and hard work and at times it takes dealing with uncomfortable things to be in a relationship that flourishes and would have a chance of lasting ones lifetime. I’d like to think I would be a good forever friend. I look around me and I don’t see many people having someone that could be called that in their life unless it is family. It is disappointing that this is something that seems to be abnormal. I do think there is probably a level of friendship between the bus and covenant.

    • Tanya 23rd February, 2015 at 7:03 pm #

      Thanks so much for this perspective. I’m sorry to hear that you don’t have any covenant friends, but I was actually heartened to hear you say ‘outside of family’ – there is actually a limited amount of people who can say truly that their family are also their friends. So I was glad from that point of view.

  3. Pam Smith 28th January, 2015 at 4:48 pm #

    This is so true – I have had two close friendships where the other person unexpectedly ‘dumped’ me, and I just didn’t know where to start in processing the pain of that. The feelings were very similar to ant break-up – racking my brains to work out what I did wrong, feeling stupid for not seeing it coming, and eventual acceptance.

    • Tanya 23rd February, 2015 at 7:04 pm #

      Yes! There are so many similarities with a romantic break-up. I can identify with the feelings you articulate here, too.

  4. Hannah 28th January, 2015 at 4:34 pm #

    I don’t know how you do it but it seems to me that you write about things that are always so relevant to me. Now that I have the tears a little more under control, I can try to put my thoughts into words.

    I agree that friendships are definitely messy and so beautiful too. I wish society was different in how it viewed relationships because there is certainly nothing wrong in intimacy and love in friendships without there being a sexual element. I have truly grieved over the loss of people, who I thought were covenant friends but turned out to be bus friends. It’s even worse when people say that they are covenant friends but it eventually becomes clear that they are not. I don’t think it is needy to want truly deep, loving friendships. We were created to be in community, in relationships with God Himself and others. Being married is wonderful. I wouldn’t change it for anything but I also have a need for close friendships.

    I don’t have any answers on how friendships can be less messy and even now, I still misread the signs. I wish I did but I don’t. What you wrote is so spot on, the spirit behind it so beautiful and yet it makes my heart hurt. I would love to have a covenant friend, a forever friend, but I’ve never truly had one. There have been times when I thought I did but it turned out they were bus friends or simply people who were using me. I’m not knocking bus friends. They can be wonderful friendships just at the right time but it is important to acknowledge that loss when those friendships inevitably come to an end. Maybe if we had covenant friends, then the loss of bus friends would be easier to bear because we would have someone to walk with us through the grief and pain.

    There’s a hymn that I have loved for a very long time and for me, it expresses wonderfully what covenant friendships are meant to be. You may well know it – it’s called Brother Let Me Be Your Servant. There is one verse that has always stood out to me:

    I will weep when you are weeping.
    When you laugh, I’ll laugh with you.
    I will share your joy and sorrow
    Till we’ve seen this journey through.

    Those words, that’s my promise, my commitment to anyone who is willing to get to know the real me, to anyone who understands that life is not always perfect and that there are times I struggle. I don’t have all answers but what I do have is this promise, which comes from a place of love.

    • Tanya 23rd February, 2015 at 7:07 pm #

      Hi here Hannah – I’m with you in the tears. I love the way that you express what covenant friendships look like for you – it sounds good to me. I’m sorry that you have not had that experience of a covenant friend – as you can see from the other comments, you are not alone in this, but I definitely think you are entitled to grieve the lack of it. It is a great blessing to be able to walk through life knowing that a friend has your back.

  5. Caiobhe 28th January, 2015 at 3:15 pm #

    I like your categorisation. Sometimes friends get on and off the bus as well when circumstances bring you together again. yep friendship can be angst inducing but it is so wonderful it’s worth it 🙂 ( You do realise that this is going to lead to all your friends asking you where they sit in your friendship scale …. dating/ on the bus/ covenant ! Do you have your lists ready 😉 x )

    • Tanya 23rd February, 2015 at 7:09 pm #

      Yes! I like it when friends get on the bus again when circumstances bring you together! That’s a good reminder. And yes – I could be having some awkward conversations – ha!

  6. Kristy Burmeister 28th January, 2015 at 1:00 pm #

    I think we often overlook the importance of friendship. When my EDS symptoms got worse, I had several “break-ups”. I still care about those people and we still keep in touch, but it cleared up any mixed signals on my end. Even though I lost that sense of close friendship wish some, I gained a closer relationship with some unexpected friends during that time. I’m usually surprised by who ends up being a covenant friend and who doesn’t.

    • Tanya 23rd February, 2015 at 7:11 pm #

      Hi Kristy – lovely to see you here! Yes – chronic illness can have a clarifying effect on friendships, I’ve found… And you’re right – it is often surprising which ones prove to be those who stand by you and love you well. It’s a good reminder that it’s not just our choices and preferences of friendships, circumstances can intervene too.

  7. Sipech 28th January, 2015 at 12:57 pm #

    I’ve not thought quite on those terms before. I tend to observe groups (or cliques) and one can try to be a core part of that group or be at the fringes. I guess being at the core is the covenantal variety and being at the fringe is the bus friend. Being a covenantal brings with it an element of exclusivity – where your example of marriage is the extremis.

    Because it’s hard to determine current friendships, one can only reasonably look back. Sorry to say, but I am definitely a bus friend. I exist on the outskirts of various friendship groups. The only covenant friendships I have are those with family, though even they can piss me off when they invite their friends over to family gatherings; that’s an invasion into a clique where the barrier to entry ought to be marriage.

    It would be interesting to consider this in terms of depression. If time is needed alone and someone is unempathetic to this, then the natural response is, as you put it, breaking friends. Such a thing is harder to do if you are at the core of a group than at the edges.

    • Tanya 23rd February, 2015 at 7:16 pm #

      This is a really interesting perspective, as so many of my friendships are conducted one-to-one, not in cliques. (I guess I have a Gilmore Girls friendship thing rather than a Friends friendship arrangement??) I would imagine that it’s even harder for groups to have a long-lasting covenant friendship thing going on, as then you have to contend with everyone’s competing schedules. It’s also a good point to mention family as those relationships that we keep in touch with throughout our lives (though some families do this significantly better than others…) As regards needing to withdraw for time alone, I think it’s probably harder to do this in a group setting and maintain friends than with individuals. If you have an individual friend who knows you well and understands your need to withdraw, I would assume that would be easier.

  8. Ros 28th January, 2015 at 12:32 pm #

    Because I have moved so much, this has been abundantly clear to me over the years. When I move on, some friendships continue despite the distance and the changing circumstances, and some fade. And it’s not always the ones I would have expected. For me, it’s important to remember that the fading doesn’t mean that the friendship wasn’t real or valuable, just that it was only for a season. If I do run across those friends again, I am delighted to see them and catch up, but I know it’s unlikely to mean a new season of closeness. I don’t know exactly how or when you know you’ve made a forever-friend but it is a very special thing to be treasured.

    • Tanya 23rd February, 2015 at 7:18 pm #

      Thanks for this, Ros. It’s really interesting to me how many have made the point that it’s surprising who keeps in touch and who doesn’t. I haven’t moved much in my life, and I’m grateful in retrospect, because it allowed me the time to get to know people well. (I’m not sure I make a great first impression, so this is useful to me!)

Leave a Reply

Please send me my free ebook and updates