The Two Types of Friends

Photo credit: Nithi Anand

Photo credit: Nithi Anand

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. NB some have requested a print copy – getting it up on Amazon is taking slightly longer than anticipated, but I promise to let you know as soon as it happens.

, ,

48 Responses to The Two Types of Friends

  1. rachie claire 29th January, 2015 at 11:34 am #

    I loved this blog, and very timely too as I moved house 6 months ago and its becoming evident who is just friendly and who wants to be a friend. Also Im being surprised by the friendships that are lasting!

    • Tanya 23rd February, 2015 at 7:26 pm #

      Oh gosh, 6 months is a really awkward time. It’s usually the time that older friends get bored of keeping in touch, but it’s still new in a place and you’re still getting settled. I hope you find some good new friends in your new place. Glad this was timely for you- thanks for dropping by.

  2. Karen 29th January, 2015 at 7:57 am #

    it’s even more important when you are single….Friendships are our lifeline. And I mean of both genders. Can’t do without either.
    I have often pondered this – friendship commitments are much stronger in non Western cultures, and seen as life-long, even if a person moves away or gets busier.
    I have learnt from my friends in Cape Town, who have faithfully committed themselves to remaining friends with a friend of their who became mentally ill. As well as some other people who were just ‘odd’.
    They have always included them in invitations, gone to visit them, supported their fundraising, and generally committed themselves to those people.
    Those are the kind of people who, although I live 1400 km away from them, I can pick up the phone, go and stay for a week or two, and generally just reconnect.
    I have got used to the feeling of non-commitment from others, but that doesn’t bother me. I will always try again. And not worry about being needy or anything. I have a lot of love to give, and I will give it. One thing I have discovered in Western culture is that it is difficult to invite people over. It is easier to meet outside the home…but anyway, that’s also partly economics.
    It is always painful when close friends walk away…or even betray you…but at least we have One who is closer than a brother. :-0

    • Tanya 23rd February, 2015 at 6:22 pm #

      Thanks so much for these thoughts, Karen, especially the differences between Western and non-Western friendships, and the reminder that we need friends of both genders.

  3. Cathy Fischer 28th January, 2015 at 11:50 pm #

    Love this post!! A much older (80-ish), wise (bus) friend once said that she could count her close(covenant) friends in her lifetime on one hand. At 25, I told her I thought that was depressing. Now post-50, I understand what she meant because I have lived long enough to watch my friendships ebb and flow. Not that I like it. I don’t think we have all that much choice over which friendships turn out to be bus or covenant. As someone commented above, a lot of times it seems to depend on personality, timing, location, etc, but those factors may just help one discern the true nature of the friendship. I like that you affirm the validity of both types, in that it would be easy to elevate covenant relationships to a higher realm. But I think it’s more important to be honest with ourselves and with our friends about the function that the relationship serves. Without spending all our time analyzing it! You nailed the essence of this strange, earthly phenomenon. Likely that we will be far more intimate in heaven 🙂

    • Tanya 23rd February, 2015 at 6:24 pm #

      Yay! I’m glad you think I nailed it. And I think it highly likely that covenant friendships would number less than 5 – it’s just too hard to keep up with so many people.

  4. Amy Boucher Pye 28th January, 2015 at 8:16 pm #

    I so agree with Ros; I too have been surprised by some of the friendships that ended when I moved nations, and the ones that blossomed. And the strange thing that some forever friends can even be ones with whom I have no regular contact. Breaks my heart, but it’s partly because of personalities and time zones. And yet I don’t doubt their friendship.

    Love your categories. Thought-provoking.

    • Tanya 23rd February, 2015 at 6:25 pm #

      Yes – I completely agree that some of the forever friends I don’t necessarily have regular contact with. It must have been a really interesting (and hard) experience to have moved continents, and seen which friendships survived the wrench of the move.

  5. Jeannie 28th January, 2015 at 8:03 pm #

    I really appreciate this post, Tanya. Nearly two years ago I experienced a breakup with a covenant friend with whom I’d had a relationship for 27 years. She had sent me, at her own initiative, a copy of an email she’d written to a 3rd person with whom she was also in conflict (even as I write those words I see the red flag flying). Because my friend had chosen to share this information with me, I told her I was concerned about the content and tone of the email message and about an inappropriate comment she’d made in a group we were both in. After two horrible one-on-one meetings to discuss the issue and one slightly-less-horrible discussion with a counselor (whom my friend had insisted we see), our friendship ended. I still feel bewildered and betrayed by the whole episode, especially because she explicitly described me as one of her inner circle, a forever friend. I think the most painful aspects are (1) the realization that our closeness and intimacy may have been something she cultivated to meet her own needs and (2) the realization that for her, our relationship was too small to handle this conflict — that she couldn’t and wouldn’t draw on our 27-year history to bring some perspective to the situation.

    So I am not really sure what I think now about covenant friendships: I’m not sure I’ll ever have one again at my stage of life, or if in fact that friendship really was one at all. I do know that any intimate relationship requires a great deal of grace, honesty, and humility.

    • Tanya 23rd February, 2015 at 6:27 pm #

      Oh gosh. I’m so sorry. 27 years. It does sound like a bewildering break-up, even to me. It must be hard to process. I hope you get some clarity and closure on it. Thanks so much for sharing your experience – I am sure you are not alone.

  6. Alia Joy 28th January, 2015 at 8:01 pm #

    I don’t know that I’ve ever classified friendships before. I know I have had long and complicated issues with female friendships and was a tad gun shy to plunge into them so I had a lot of acquaintances and people that wanted to get together and hang out who I usually blew off with some regularity. I’ve since made some deeper friendships and I truly cherish them but again, I don’t know if we’ll be friends in 10 years or if this is a season.

    • Tanya 23rd February, 2015 at 6:31 pm #

      It’s weird – I find I really strongly want to react to this by saying ‘I’m SURE you’ll still be friends in 10 years’ time!!’ – but that probably says more about me than about you… But I’m glad you have good and deep friendships, if even for this season. And I know what you mean about female friendships – I have often gone through seasons of wariness. As a teenager, boys seemed much less complicated to be friends with.

  7. Kelsey Munger 28th January, 2015 at 6:56 pm #

    YES! I just left a reply comment on my blog post basically about this. I had actually thought about using the word covenant but wasn’t sure that’d communicate or if it’d sound weird. Exactly. Covenant friendships. When those friendships (or the ones I thought of like that at least) turn out to be bus friends or become unhealthy friendships it is so much more devastating.

    That’s a good point — I’ve probably done that to people, too. I saw the friendship as close but not a life-long thing. There needs to be a way of defining the relationship when it comes to friendship; it wouldn’t completely cut down on problems but it seems like it would help a little. Great post!

    • Tanya 23rd February, 2015 at 6:32 pm #

      Yay! Great minds think alike. i’ve really enjoyed meeting you through this synchroblog.

  8. Beth 28th January, 2015 at 6:37 pm #

    So much yes. Upon leaving the church, we found that the people we thought were covenant friends weren’t. It hurts. I’m glad you’re talking about it.

    • Tanya 23rd February, 2015 at 6:33 pm #

      Ouch. That sucks – especially because of the church bit, I think – makes it particularly painful. Love you lots. x

Leave a Reply

Please send me my free ebook and updates