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In Defense Of The "Third Wheel" & Why Your Relationship Could Use One

Photo by Gareth More on Unsplash

Photo by Gareth More on Unsplash

Urban Dictionary defines a third wheel as “someone out of a trio whom is seemingly the least relevant.” I think that sounds pretty accurate, and at the age of 32, I find myself in this situation a lot. Most people resent being considered a “third wheel,” and that’s pretty understandable, because being the third (or fifth) wheel can feel totally awkward at times.

Like watching a romantic sunset with your coupled-up bestie, or counting down to a New Year at your friend’s boyfriend’s holiday party while trying to avoid making eye contact with the sea of strangers sucking face at midnight, or tagging along at a concert only to ultimately dance alone for three hours, or declaring yourself as the single one in the group at dinner who will be paying for themselves when splitting the check.

These may not sound like traumatic, scarring events, but for a single person, they can be a painful reminder of just how unattached they really are.

Aside from the discomfort, or occasional awkwardness, I may feel internally, I have actually come to think of third wheeling as more of a bargain deal; two friends for the price of one. Unlike most, I thoroughly enjoy being the third wheel. This may sound weird. I mean, who would ever happily choose to be considered the Ron Weasley of the bunch (AKA the perpetually unnecessary addition to a perfectly good time)? The answer is probably not many.

It’s not that I believe my banter is unappreciated or that my company could go happily unnoticed, but over the course of my third wheel career, I’ve found that I actually feel most comfortable when I’m around my friends who are coupled-up. There’s no pressure to impress, or solely carry on a conversation, or feel responsible for everyone to have a good time, because usually, the couple has all of that under control.

Third wheeling is kind of like going to your parents house and sitting on their couch and eating their food and watching their cable and asking them to buy your groceries, but you don’t feel too guilty about it because they’re probably pretty content just knowing you’re there…#amiright? Ok, so maybe it’s not that level of comfort, but I think you get what I’m saying.

A common gripe of the third wheel is that it’s easy to feel replaced once your best friends pair off, but honestly, that’s kind of supposed to happen. I think (and hope) a significant other will be the first person I want to call or share the most important things in my life with, but I don’t think it’s realistic to expect a partner to be your everything.

In Elite Daily’s article, “Third Wheel Reveals What Your Relationship Says About You”, contributor Tieara writes, “Relationships should be made of dynamic duos. Here's what I can say about my friends who are in relationships: They've been with their men for YEARS. In the beginning, I secretly questioned what they saw in these men, as the pairings didn't seem to make a lot of sense from where I was standing. But now, it all adds up. What I’ve learned is your partner shouldn’t just complement you as an individual. They should offer an interesting dynamic to the extended version of yourself.”

So, while it’s normal for couples to get into a routine and take some space, falling out of touch with former friends is not going to do the relationship any favors. Maintaining outside friendships can actually be crucial to the health of a partnership.

In a 2017 paper published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin found that "spouses who reported being more satisfied with the availability of friends and family, whom they knew they could connect with during times of marital conflict, experienced conflict as less physiologically stressful." The researchers also found that participants with relationships outside of a marriage had lower risk factors for health issues like weight gain, insomnia, depression, and heart disease.

Lisa Neff, professor and author of the study told Reader’s Digest, “We found that having a satisfying social network buffers spouses from the harmful physiological effects of everyday marital conflicts...maintaining a few good friends is important to weathering the storms of your marriage.”

So for couples, consistently socializing and connecting with others outside your relationship not only keeps you engaged with your individuality, which can become increasingly difficult to do the longer you identify as a unit, but it also keeps both parties from focusing too much on one another all the time. Based on the research, it appears that couples should actually consider thanking their third wheels because they probably deserve more credit than they are given.

The benefits of being the third wheel are often overlooked. If you’re someone who struggles with the “always a bridesmaid, never the bride” feeling, Denver-based therapist Brittany Bouffard suggests the practice of acknowledging the rewards in being the third with a pair, like the flexibility to do what you want when you want. For example, if you’re not feeling the monotony of the same restaurant and activities that your coupled friends chose again? Bouffard says to be mindful that, “you might be the one to bring the needed creativity planning for everyone, and you don't even have to go! And you get to leave when you alone are ready.”

These simple reminders can help you appreciate your own happiness as a single person and Bouffard also says that “rather than let the pair you're with remind you of the "sad singledom" false narrative, realize the truth: Each one of you there is a perfectly enough individual as you are enjoying the company, the laughs, and maybe even the pair paying for your drink.”

As a therapist, Bouffard understands that although being the third wheel can at times feel cringe-worthy, “especially when that wheel doesn't stop spinning and you're mired repeatedly in being the single addition to a romantic pair. Society likes to place shame and blame on the third wheel often due to the belief that somehow singledom isn't sufficient, but being single is magical—sure, grass is always greener—but being solo in the romance department truly leaves your life open to so much individual glee, adventure, and introspection. Plus, let's all admit, being the third to hang with a romantic pair means you reap the fun social connection without going home to potential romantic un-bliss.”

Still not convinced of the benefits of being a third wheel? Mental health professional, Adina Mahalli (MSW) says, “Being around a couple as an objective outsider with no personal interest in most situations, gives you a ‘fly on the wall’ status. Third wheels have the unique advantage of learning the do’s and don’ts of relationships without suffering the consequences of the outcomes.”

As anyone can attest, there’s nothing worse than watching a couple fight. Any time I see this, I think of the moments I’ve nitpicked a partner about something completely inane and I vow to never do it again...easier said than done. But, when you have the opportunity to see this kind of behavior from an outsider’s perspective, it looks and sounds ridiculous and serves as a reminder of what not to do in a relationship.

Getting over the awkwardness of third wheeling is the major hurdle for most people in this position. I try to see this role as more of a compliment than a slight. Mahalli suggests changing your mindset: “Your mindset on being a third wheel plays a large role in how awkward the third wheeling really is. Dismiss the negative connotations and embrace the fact that you get to hang out with your friend. They most likely don’t think it’s weird that you’re hanging out with them and their partner, so there’s no reason for you to make it uncomfortable if it’s not.”

Ultimately, third wheeling is only as awkward as you want to make it. No one is actually staring at you and laughing or thinking you’re pathetic for spending an evening with your partnered-off pals. Unless of course, they are gossipy little gremlins who have nothing better to do and in which case, you should feel very sorry for how they spend their free time. In short, no one is actually thinking the terrible things you’re telling yourself when you feel the discomfort of being perceived as a tag-along.

The only major thing to keep in mind as a third wheel, is knowing when you’ve overstayed your welcome. Mahalli says that although friends might insist you’re never third wheeling, “The key to being a good friend is knowing when to give your friend and their partner a little space. As much as they love having you around, at the end of the day three does make a crowd so make sure you’re not invading their private time. Your ability to respect their space will mean that when you do hang out, you’re not perceived as a constant presence in the background!”

In conclusion, nearly everyone at some point in life has experienced being a third wheel—it’s part of growing up and the evolution of friendship. It would be impossible to expect one friend or partner to be your everything in life “til’ death do you part.” So embrace the change and enjoy the company.