Not the Threesome You Wanted: Managing Thirds in a Relationship

by | Nov 10, 2020 | RELATIONSHIPS

Managing Thirds.

Being in a committed relationship is just that, a commitment, and how you rise or fall to your partner’s expectations is an endless journey.  So, how are you managing thirds in your relationship?  Coined by Stan Tatkin, the term thirds stand for anything that may affect your relationship outside the confines of you and your partner.  Adultery, secrets, in-laws, money, work-wife relationships are all examples of thirds.  Infidelity is not the only third that can cause harm to your couple dynamic, in fact, it is the mismanagement of thirds that may lead to infidelity in some cases.  Take some time today and consider if your relationship is your highest priority, in secure functioning relationships, the relationship has to come first.

Now that you are in a committed relationship, you are your partner’s primary attachment figure, aka their keeper, honoring and respecting that role is imperative.  The successful management of thirds means establishing healthy boundaries and maintaining them.  What one partner finds threatening another may see as harmless; talking about what is and isn’t appropriate in your relationship is up to you.

Can you have empathy if your partner is threatened by a work relationship?

Do you gaslight and allow your partner to mistrust their judgement?

Jealousy is a tricky feeling and as attachment increases in your relationship so does the drive to maintain the couple bubble.  Sometimes people will behave wildly out of character because they are driven by hormonal impulses to protect the relationship.  Ask yourself, “Am I creating relational uncertainty?”, and if so, how can you mindfully recommit to your partner so they feel secure.  It is important to identify features that promote safety and security; attentiveness, responsiveness, loyalty, might be a few that come up.  There is often an expectation that partners will defend one another when threatened, mocked, or criticized, how are you managing threats in the arenas you interact with. Infidelity, in terms of secrets and thirds, can be just as catastrophic as adultery.

Who do you spend time with outside of your marriage?

When you’re not in lovers lane, what are you doing?  Where do you go?  Who do you see?  Work-wife/work-husband relationships have become common vernacular and sitcom jokes, but how does your partner feel about this type of relationship?  Are you in an outside relationship without your partner’s knowledge? How would they feel if they knew? Don’t know, don’t tell may be the preference of some, but justifying behavior moves into the realm of blurred lines. Defining cheating is up to you and your partner. Although it may seem ridiculous to have this conversation, if you don’t ask, you don’t know.  Here’s a few questions to get you started:

  • Are you okay with casual flirting outside the relationship?  To what extent?
  • Is flirting okay if it is with someone of the same sex?
  • What are your rules around spending time with the opposite sex?
  • Do you have an open relationship?  What are the boundaries?

Infidelity is one of the most common reasons for seeking couples therapy, one of the most challenging problems to treat, and one of the most damaging in terms of impact on the relationship.  You don’t stop being attracted to people when you become a couple, but how you mind your partner in relation to your engagement with others takes thoughtful consideration.

What is your relationship like with your in-laws?

The parent-child bond will remain strong throughout lifetime, and the same neural pathways exists in romantic relationships.  What must change for secure functioning couples is the attachment to one another versus a parent.  Is one person in your partnership over relying on a parent for support that should be coming from you?  In-laws are a precarious, yet important subject to discuss with your partner.  Parents love unconditionally, but not so with in-laws.  These pseudo-parents will forever be assessing if you are good enough for their son/daughter, and can provide unnecessary angst in the relationship.

Loyalty to your partner must come first, ask yourself, whose side are you on?  As an example, you’re at a dinner with the in-laws and the mother asks, “How come you never stop by anymore?”, to which your partner responds, “Well, (your name here) doesn’t like your cooking.”  Gasp!  Would you feel supported in this situation?  Would you bring up the instance later or let it slide thinking, “Oh, he is just afraid to hurt his mom’s feelings.”  Men tend to have a lower tolerance for probing conversation and verbal conflict, how you start the conversation matters, but do, start the conversation.

If you or your partners aren’t willing to discuss these missed opportunities for attunement, you are saying you aren’t willing to see the world from their perspective.  Perhaps you grew up in a family where difficult conversations were pushed under the rug and this pattern is spilling over into your relationship.  You have the ability and challenge of mitigating these negative behaviors and creating positive attachment.  So, next time your in-laws leave you feeling less than, bring it up and request a new way of relating.  What you don’t say, says a lot.

Are you prioritizing work over your relationship?

The struggle for work-life balance, particularly in a committed partnership, is forever. Work can become a pseudo mistress if one person is spending all of their time and energy managing this third without reserving time and energy for their partner.  Particularly in marriages where one person is a stay-at-home parent, preserving and understanding this aspect in your relationship is vital so both people feel seen and valued.

Discuss what type of relationships with co-workers are appropriate, talk about boundary management strategies. Avoiding particular topics will not make them disappear, instead avoidance lends itself to unnecessary relationship uncertainty.  Have you ever found yourself feeling ignored by your partner?  Do you often make the argument, work needs to come first?  The truth is, the relationship needs to come first if you want to be a successful couple.  How you engage in this conversation will dictate your experience.

If you are someone who complains about not seeing your partner enough, or only getting them when they are exhausted, well sadly, complaining will only feed your partners exhaustion.  Consider how you can provide support to one another while also getting your needs met.  If you don’t take the time to discuss these options now and you continue to live in one person systems, or are insecurely attached to each other, further dissapointemnt is waiting for you.

Here are a few suggestions for managing your work third:

  • Establish boundaries about communicating while at work, i.e. what would you like to happen when you’re apart?
  • Develop a daily routine of meeting each other when you both arrive home, i.e., if your in another room, leave and join together in the reunion
  • Determine roles and responsibilities for home care if you live together, don’t assume traditional gender roles apply, and if you are considering an LAT relationship checkout this blog from MI (hyperlink)

What’s your sex life like?  Are you getting what you want/need?

Many people jump into committed relationships or marriages without a conversation around sexual health, needs, and desires.  Did you talk about monogamy with your partner, or assume it was what you both wanted?  Lack of communication around sexual health can leave people in the dark, and later, in a sexless marriage.  Take time to explore the appropriate level of sex for you and your partner, not societal standards.

If you find yourself not attracted to your partner anymore, how can you see them differently?  Have you explored eroticism together?  When’s the last time you tried something new? Infidelity is an incredibly insidious and painful third to manage, not one to put on your bucket list. Men tend to be more distressed by the thought of a physical sexual relationship outside the relationship where women are more distressed by emotional infidelity.  How can you protect the primary relationship and still have great sex?

Research highlights attitudes around extra marital sex (EMS) change over the course of a marriage and around social constructs developed more broadly.  Interested in a threesome or BDSM?  Be bold, talk to your partner about your fantasies and see how they feel, make sure to come from a place of love and patience, otherwise it could be viewed as threatening.

Anxious individuals tend to overestimate relationships threats, and in this case, may question your lack of commitment to the primary relationship. If all goes well and you engage in or fantasize together about a sexual desire, you will be increasing novelty in the relationship, the neurotransmitter high you felt at the beginning of courtship.  Keep in mind this may only work if the practice is temporary.

Okay, so you really want a threesome.

The process of engaging in extra-dyadic practices is truly an art of managing thirds.  Can you talk about jealousy as a precursor to this arrangement and how you will avoid it?  What are the rules of engagement?  Deal-breakers? A small scale study of mixed sex threemsomes noted the painful experience of exclusion in relation to the primary romantic partner.  How will you ensure your partner is feeling included?  EMS is not an activity to jump into lightly, but it could provide a unique opportunity to increase the primacy of the monogamous relationship by fulfilling an unmet desire or fantasy.  Just like you spend time on your physical and mental health, spend time and energy discovering your sexual health.

Be the couple everyone wants to be.

If you choose to ignore discussing the thirds in your coupleship they will find a way to present themselves.  Remember secrets are not your friend.  Putative secrets, when one partner learns of the others secret but pretends to be in the dark, can cause irreparable conflict and distress over time.  Don’t let secrets be your breaking point. Become the couple everyone admires and looks to for advice, pride yourselves on becoming lifelong learners of each other.  Protect your relationship first and see how fulfilling a romantic partnership can become.

Modern Intimacy is founded by renowned therapist Dr. Kate Balestrieri. This blog is designed to be an ultimate resource for mental health, relationships, and sexuality. We have many expert contributors from all around the world! Enjoy!

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Author Bio

Heather Mazzei is a Clinical Associate at Triune Therapy Group, in Los Angeles, An Associate Clinical Social Worker, supervised by Dr. Kate Balestrieri, Heather is passionate about healthy relationships and helping the people she works with to develop relationships that thrive.

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