How to Make the Most of Third-Wheeling
I’m so excited to be sending in my first question! I look forward to reading your response.
To provide a brief preface for this question, I am a (single-and never been un-single) guy who is close friends with Girl and Guy. Last year, Girl started liking Guy and asked me how to get through to Guy (they only knew each other through mutual friends). I clearly told her that I would not play match maker and would not interfere. Girl understood and she eventually made the first move but Guy always moved very slowly with dating stuff and didn’t really respond to her move even though he was interested in Girl. Eventually, Girl was getting so anxious that I pushed Guy to make a move and Girl and Guy have now been dating about half a year.
Recently, Girl and I got into an argument about how I should not feel uncomfortable at all about the 3 of us hanging out together. She had proposed bringing Guy to a plan that we had made together and I said no. Another time, I was there with Girl and Guy and their moderate touchiness made me feel pretty awkward and uncomfortable. If I was not single, this probably wouldn’t be too much of an issue for me. I simply feel very uncomfortable with being third wheel and the fact that I have two friends dating each other doesn’t make third wheel any better.
Clearly my preface was not brief but at least my question is:
How do you ask a couple – both of whom you are close friends with – to not act so couple-y or simply to become more understanding of the in-the-middle position that you are in?
Monkey in the Middle
I have to admit that I’m a bit confused by your question. You wrote to me as though asking how to broach the subject, but it seems like you’ve already had arguments about it — and are no closer to a solution. I can’t tell if you’re asking me to provide you with better arguments, so you can persuade your friends to change their behavior, or actually questioning your own approach.
Either way, I think the best place to start is the fight you just had. And the first step is to figure out why your friend reacted the way she did.
I don’t know the full story, so I may be wrong, but I have a hunch.
The way you describe your role in the development of this relationship doesn’t sound encouraging to me. Even though you care about both of them, you refused to help them get together, at least at first. And when she proposed that the three of you hang out, you turned her down flat-out before explaining to her that their behavior makes you uncomfortable.
As you’ve probably learned, you’re walking on thin ice already when you a member of the opposite gender on a subject related to sex. She may have felt like you were passing judgment on her for being in an intimate relationship at all, even if you didn’t say anything explicit to make her feel that way. In her position, regardless of what you were saying, I would have interpreted your approach — refusing to hang out with her if she invited her boyfriend — to mean that you might even have been repressing anger about her behavior the last time the three of you hung out, not just discomfort.
Think hard about it. Were you judging her? Did you use a tone, or a vocabulary, which somehow conveyed repulsion, disapproval, or distaste? If so, I can understand your friend’s reaction, even though your request itself may have been reasonable. If you want to broach the subject again, try doing it in a way that makes clear that you respect her choices. Phrase it in a way that allows you to take responsibility for your discomfort yourself: tell her it’s a character flaw of yours, that it’s probably because you’ve never been in a relationship, and that you wish you didn’t feel that way, and that you’re asking them to accommodate this weakness of yours as friends, not because they have an obligation to do so. Make sure she really gets the point, because your earlier argument is probably fresh in her mind. You don’t have to believe all of it; it’s just a token way of showing her that this isn’t about her moral character, but about your own comfort, and that at the end of the day you’re trying to preserve your friendship, not strain it.
Another thing I can’t figure out is how reasonable your request really is. You describe these guys as shy and say that their relationship has developed slowly, and you say that it was their “moderate touchiness” that made you uncomfortable. What kind of touchiness are we talking about? Making out, or holding hands?
The reason I ask is that Dan Savage got a great question a few years ago from a dom-and-sub couple who thought their families were being unaccepting when they refused to allow the pair to attend thanksgiving dinner while connected by a collar and leash. His answer to their (decidedly more extreme) question was that as open-minded people asking for acceptance ourselves, we’re obligated to accept everyone else’s sexual preferences — but we’re not obligated to participate in them. Taking a sex act out of the bedroom, even if your clothes are on, is an imposition on others, who may feel uncomfortable with what they’re seeing. Most PDA isn’t too much of an imposition, because we can just turn away; but it’s still a minor sexual event if you get caught off-guard, as much as looking at a pornographic pop-up or catching someone readjusting their pants.
As a New Yorker, I’ve come to approach PDA the way I think about busking on the subways. Even though it can be pretty unappealing at times, I’ve learned that you have to tolerate your share of what’s distasteful to you in exchange for occasional enjoyable experiences. And on a wider scale — personal gains aside — I do it because I’ve come to understand that New Yorkers’ shared ability to overlook the occasional offputting couple or act is what ultimately makes the city the romantic, musical place that it is, a place where anything can happen. It’s a social contract, and I vote in its favor by living here and going along with it.
When you’re at a dinner table, however, and you’re facing a couple, and they keep swapping spit like the ship’s going down, it’s not like a democratic (subway) platform; you’re stuck watching them, with no means of escape and nowhere else to look. It’s inconsiderate and unfair of them to put you in that position.
That’s why I need to know if their behavior is really sexual in order to give you solid advice. They’re comfortable with each other’s bodies, and they’re closer to each other than they are to you, so it makes sense that they like to touch to communicate affection and reassurance; but are we talking about non-sexual touching — anything from eating off of each other’s plates to sitting on each other’s laps: behavior siblings might share — or sexual touching — the gamut between a peck on the lips and a squeeze of the ass? Everyone has friends whom they wouldn’t want to see naked, no matter how much we like them, and they ought to have the courtesy not to make you imagine it, if that’s what they’re doing. But if they’re just expressing emotional intimacy, then what you’re really asking them to do is stop being a couple when you’re with them — which is asking for the impossible.
I don’t know the whole story, of course, but from where I’m standing, the fact that you didn’t help the two of them get together until this girl came to you on the brink of despair suggests to me that you really don’t want them to date at all. Most people will seize almost any opportunity to “play matchmaker” with their friends; instead, you seem to have been hoping it wouldn’t work out.
If that’s the case, you have my sympathies. There’s no one who hates being single as much as I do, and I know it can be hard to watch happy couples when you’re lonely.
Still, much as I understand your position, I’m telling you: you have to get over that. Because for every moment we’re happy and in love, most of us spend ten or more alone and struggling to hold onto hope. Ultimately, becoming embittered is the biggest risk we all run. Once you’re at the point where love itself gets you down, nothing will be able to pick you up. But if you adopt an attitude of wonder when you witness love, instead of taking it as a reminder of your own loneliness, you’ll be able to see it as an inspiration, a taste of the sweetness of finding what you’re looking for, and a testament to the fact that love does exist, however rarely — and as a result, you’ll be more prepared next time you have such an opportunity yourself.
I sincerely believe that where love is concerned, maintaining hope — getting over specific disappointments, but maintaining hope in the wider sense — is always, ultimately, the wisest thing to do. Even if you’re wrong, and you never find love, at least you won’t have had to live in the dark shadow of the belief that it can’t happen.
For what it’s worth, I’m not exactly happily paired myself right now, so I’m not saying this lightly. I know how hard it can be. It fucking sucks sometimes. But experience has taught me that being open-minded is a more enjoyable way to live.
The first time I really understood that was the summer before college, when I first read Great Expectations on the train to Merekesh (long story) and read the following passage in Chapter 46, in which Pip first visits his best friend Herbert Pocket and his new wife, Clara:
There was something so natural and winning in Clara’s resigned way of looking at these stores in detail, as Herbert pointed them out; and something so confiding, loving, and innocent in her modest manner of yielding herself to Herbert’s embracing arm; and something so gentle in her, so much needing protection on Mill Pond Bank, by Chinks’s Basin, and the Old Green Copper Ropewalk, with Old Barley growling in the beam,—that I would not have undone the engagement between her and Herbert for all the money in the pocket-book I had never opened.
For all of its gendered saccharinity, for all Clara’s domesticity, and Herbert’s patronizing suburban tour-guiding, that passage still speaks to the essence of affection to me. Pip is an orphan who’s never had so much as a kiss in his life, and whose heart has been mercilessly wrought and beaten by an octogenarian virgin hoarder for the bulk of his adulthood*; and yet somehow he finds redemption, not discouragement, in his love affairs of his humble friend. He manages to be happy for the Pockets and take their marriage as evidence that things sometimes work out — as food for hope — instead of letting it serve as a reminder of his own troubles. Pip’s childhood is so dark that he’s more than earned a right to be bitter; but what makes us love Pip, for all his failings, is that he overcomes it, and negates all the pain he’s experienced through his emotional generosity, instead of foisting it on others.
Writing this now, I realized for the first time that the reason that passage was so striking to me is that at the time, Dickens’ lifelong obsession with suffering-as-a-path-to-redemption was entirely new to me. It’s not an idea that’s discussed much these days. You see it most clearly in the original ending: when Pip runs into Estella in the ‘burbs a few decades later, he tells us, “I was very glad afterwards to have had the interview; for in her face and in her voice, and in her touch, she gave me the assurance that suffering had been stronger than Miss Havisham’s teaching, and had given her a heart to understand what my heart used to be.” (Emphasis mine.)*
Do you see what I mean? The view implicit there is a far cry from how most contemporary writers characterize suffering; since Freud people seem to have concluded, probably correctly, that the result of suffering is trauma and bitterness, not increased empathy.
Still, I like Dickens’ version better, don’t you?
* I’m sorry if I spoiled something for someone by reprinting this. There’s another ending, anyway. It’s a great book! Go read it, if you haven’t!!
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