Do You Have One of These Harmful Friendships?

Every week in the month of April we will be featuring an article on the art of friendship. To see the full series, click HERE.

by Scott Sauls, author of Befriend

Real friendship is hard. There are other, less real versions of friendship. The less real versions are “less” because they are less costly, less committed, less disruptive, less scary, less gritty, less gutsy, and less out-of-our-control than real friendship. But here’s the rub: Less real versions of friendship are also less rich. In the short run, they feel better and smoother than real friendship. But in the long run, they leave us lonely and alone. And it is not good to be alone. Less real versions of friendship take several forms.

Digital Friendship

In today’s world of social media, relating to others through screens has become a chief way—and for some of us, the chief way—to seek connection. For example, it is not uncommon for a group of teenagers to be in the same room together as they “chat” through text messaging and social media without having a single face-to-face conversation with each other. On social media, we “friend,” “like,” and “follow” each other, sometimes without ever actually meeting each other. As a weekly blogger, I have what is called an online “community,” but it falls short of being a true community because self-disclosure flows in only one direction: from my keyboard to other people’s screens.

There are many positive aspects to digital friendship. But by itself, digital friendship fails as a substitute for true friendship. Unlike true friendship, relating to others through screens makes it easy for us to hide. It allows us to put forth only the best, most attractive, most “together,” edited, and screened version of ourselves. When digital friendships become the main way we relate to others, a subtle but significant shift happens. Instead of entering the messiness of having real friends, we settle for having (and being) followers and fans. The chief drawback is that we never really get to know people, and they never really get to know us. Our digital friends are experiencing part of us but not all of us. When online relationships take priority over real friendship, the result is usually more loneliness and isolation, not less.

Transactional Friendship

My friend and mentor of ten years, Tim Keller, describes another less- than-real form of friendship: transactional friendship. Real friends see each other as long-term companions and give to each other the rare gift of long-term loyalty. Instead of using each other, they serve each other. Instead of keeping score with each other, they support, champion, encourage, serve, forgive, and strengthen each other. In real friendship, the flourishing of other people takes priority over our own goals and ambitions.

In contrast, transactional friendship isn’t really friendship. Unlike real friendship, transactional friendship treats other people as a means to an end. When we relate this way, we come to view people more as resources than as human beings. Instead of loving and serving them as we would in a real friendship, we use them to advance our careers, build our platforms, gain access to their social circles, increase our self-esteem (I feel important now, because I am connected to her), impress others (Selfie time! Hey, everybody, look at how important I am, now that I am connected to him), and so on. The pitfall of transactional friendships should be obvious. As soon as a relationship feels more costly than beneficial to us, as soon as the presence of the other person in our lives ceases to advance our personal goals, we discard the other person. Or, if the opposite is true, the other person discards us.

One- Dimensional Friendship

Friendships are one-dimensional when they revolve around a single shared interest and not much else. The shared interest can be anything: a hobby, a career path, a common enemy, an educational philosophy, a set of religious beliefs, and so on. One-dimensional friendships prioritize sameness, so views and convictions and practices are never challenged and blind spots are never uncovered. Friendships like these can’t offer the natural, redemptive, character-forming tension that diversity brings to our lives. When celebrities limit their friendships to other celebrities, parents to other parents, married people to other married people (single people, too), athletes to other athletes, Republicans to other Republicans (Democrats, too), Millennials to other Millennials (Gen Xers and Baby Boomers, too), Christians to other Christians, white people to other white people (people of color, too), thinkers to other thinkers (feelers, too), affluent people to other affluent people, and so on, a poverty of friendship will be the outcome. One-dimensional friendships, while having the appearance of connection, can also be quite shallow—unless the single dimension that initially attracts us to each other develops into other broader and deeper dimensions.

A Case for Befriending

In his magnificent book on human connection, The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis says that all true friendship begins when one person looks at another and says, “You, too?”

Starting a friendship around a common interest or passion is natural, and it is not in itself a bad thing. Consider David and Jonathan, for example. One was the son of a humble shepherd, the other the son of a king, and they became the best of friends. Though their social and economic situation was very different, their friendship nonetheless began with a “You, too?” And theirs was the most solid “You, too?” that any two people can have. Because David and Jonathan both loved and were sold out to the Lord, they became the best of friends.

Although their friendship began with a foundation of “You, too?” the connection between David and Jonathan grew in depth, breadth, and layers. A shared love for God matured into a reciprocal transparency, vulnerability, love, and loyalty between them that would later move David to adopt Jonathan’s son, Mephibosheth, after Jonathan died in battle. Mephibosheth was a young man, crippled in both feet. But his special needs, rather than being a deterrent for David, became a motivation to mercifully take him in for the Lord’s sake, and also “for Jonathan’s sake.”

This kind of friendship—the multilayered kind that exposes us to the grit of our own and each other’s lives; the kind that positions us to love across the lines of our differences; the kind that leads us to lay down our lives for each other’s sake—works a lot like two pieces of sandpaper being rubbed together. The friction causes sensations that initially irritate and burn. Yet, over time, the effect on both pieces of sandpaper is the same. Both become smoother, not in spite of the friction but precisely because of it.

Real friends not only agree but disagree; real friends not only applaud each other’s strengths but challenge each other’s weaknesses; real friends not only enjoy life together but struggle through life together; real friends not only praise one another but apologize to and forgive one another; real friends not only rally around their points of agreement but love and learn from their points of disagreement. When this happens—when friendship grows beyond one dimension to many dimensions—a poverty of friendship is replaced by a richness of friendship. Digital, transactional, and one-dimensional friendship is replaced by real friendship. Everybody matures and grows. And when everybody matures and grows, everybody wins.

Befriend by Scott Sauls

We live in a world where real friendship is hard to find. Suspicious of others and insecure about ourselves, we retreat into the safety of our small, self-made worlds. Now more than ever, it’s easy to avoid people with whom we disagree or whose life experiences don’t mirror our own. Safe among like-minded peers and digital “friends,” we really don’t have to engage with those who can challenge and enhance our limited perspectives. Tragically, even the church can become a place that minimizes diversity and reinforces isolation.

Jesus models a much richer vision of friendship. Scott Sauls, pastor and teacher, invites you to see the breadth of Christ’s love in this book, BeFriend. Join Scott on this journey through twenty-one meditations to inspire actively pursuing God’s love through expanding your circle of friends.

Scott has met too many people whose first impulse is to fence off their lives with relational barriers that only end up starving their own souls.

Yes, it’s true: Real friendship is costly. Love does make us vulnerable. But without risk, our lives will remain impoverished.

Join Scott in BeFriend as he summons you toward diverse friendship that can enrich your life and, in the process, reveal a better version of yourself.

For a limited time* select Friendship Titles are up to 75% off! Shop HERE>>



  • So true, the types of friendships you listed here. It’s weird for me to see I may have at least one friendship in each of these statuses. I’ve been doing a lot of reading on friendships, right now it’s The Healing Power of Girlfriends by Deborah Olson, for her info. She has compiled great information on how friendships affect our health, and the power that social media has to make or break them. She makes such good sense. It’s something that has to be worked at, that’s what makes friendships so good.


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