The Joys of Being a Third Wheel
As more of us stay single longer, it’s time to change the social script
The 31st of May, 2019, was one of the happiest days of my life. I stood at the altar in Dublin’s City Hall with the man I love most in this world. The day had been a long time coming, but the guests were gathered and the celebrant was ready. As the string quartet started playing, I gazed at Conor and smiled.
And together, we awaited his bride.
Conor has been my best friend for half my life. How do you summarize 15 years of friendship? I could write about when we climbed the mountain where my grandfather died, trudging through the early-October mist to stand in silence on the summit where he fell. Or all the times Conor called me in tears (generally at 4 a.m.) because a writer we both love had died. Or when he showed me the antique ring he’d bought and told me he was planning to propose to Louise on the beach near her childhood home. We have our in-jokes and our long-running arguments. We’ve been inseparable for days and apart for months. We’ve cuddled and bickered. It’s a friendship stripped of all pretense and distilled down, like moonshine, to its most potent form.
In the summer of 2013, Conor left Dublin (and me!) and moved to Cork, Ireland’s second-largest city, to work as a physiotherapist for a disability charity and care organization. My first proper romantic relationship had ended badly earlier that year. The breakup was extended, messy, and embarrassing for everyone, in the way only romances that stem from a tight-knit group of friends can be. Conor and I had planned to spend that short interlude between wet, cold, Irish winters being single together for the first time in years. With his impending move to Cork, we’d still be able to hit the town (and hit on every likely looking group of tourists) at least a few times, but it wouldn’t be the weekly event I’d hoped.
Like most single young men free of baggage and reputation, we were pretty keen on online dating. Tinder had recently launched in Ireland, and it was no longer only for weirdos and widows — it was for everyone. Before he’d even left for Cork, Conor had set up his (mildly embellished) profiles and begun looking for a summer fling. Louise, I’m sure, seemed the perfect candidate. She was studying pharmacy in Scotland so was only back home in Cork for the summer. She loved food, wine, and the sandy Atlantic beaches of West Cork just as much as he did, so they got on well, but neither of them were looking for a long-distance relationship.
Flings with hard cutoffs are tricky to handle. You already have the end date in your calendar, so it obviously can’t last. Why not just enjoy it as much as you can, while you can? Instead of easing into romance slowly, you powerbomb into the deep end. If all goes to plan, you have a brief and passionate liaison — and then get on with your lives. A few weeks of oversharing (emotionally, spatially, and temporally) is usually enough for you to realize there were no long-term prospects anyway.
When things don’t go according to plan, however, you end up in real trouble: You’ve both gone deep, fast — and even worse? You’ve realized you like it down there.
That’s what happened to Conor and Louise. They had schedules and plans, jobs and schools. Nothing should have been on the table, but it was.
I met Louise for the first time a few months later, when she was visiting Dublin. Conor called me a day or two before we were due to grab a drink and warned me against saying anything too incriminating.
“Seriously man, no bad stories. I really like this girl.”
It was just before Christmas. We ordered a beer in one of Dublin’s umpteen pubs. Tinsel and plastic-fir fronds clung to the walls like glittery vines. Shoppers taking refuge from the crowds outside crowded inside.
This kind of meeting normally starts with the stilted air of a job interview: “Please, Louise, tell me about your education. And, ah, I see you’ve applied for the role of Conor’s girlfriend. What makes you feel your degree qualifies you for the position?”
This one didn’t. Conversation came quickly and easily. Whatever twinge of awkwardness there was quickly vanished. Conor and Louise were clearly well matched — and totally besotted with each other.
Conor has always struggled with depression. When he’s left to his own devices for too long, he turns in on himself, gently spiraling into melancholy. It’s not debilitating, just a pervading sense of mild unhappiness. The sort of thing that leads to a caffeine addiction and spending too much time on Reddit. I’d been worried about what would happen to him in Cork, but I wasn’t any more. Louise had only been in his life for a short while and I don’t think I’d ever seen him so content.
Pop culture peddles many lies: that showing up uninvited outside your ex-girlfriend’s apartment after midnight is romantic, not stalking; that personal growth happens in a neat, three-act structure; that when your best friend gets a new girlfriend, you lose them to her all-too-mature-and-boring clutches, never to get drunk during the day, high five, or make fart jokes again. In my case, pop culture was wrong.
“Are you waiting on someone?”
“Sorry?” I replied to the waitress.
“Will someone else be joining you?” she asked again.
Conor, Louise, and I were sitting in some Dublin restaurant or other. The table was set for four. They were clearly a couple, so the waitress had made the same mistake as many others before and since: She acted as if we were all waiting for someone else to join.
But no, I was third-wheeling.
Over the past few years, we’d spent a lot of time together. Even after Louise graduated, they’d had to keep up their (and our) long-distance relationship since Conor had taken a physiotherapy job with a professional rugby team in England while she had moved to Dublin. The logistics of Conor’s work schedule meant that when he was free, he was seeing Louise. If I was also free (and in the same city), we’d grab brunch, dinner, or a drink. Contrary to what pop culture would have us believe, Louise isn’t some Bechdel-test-failing girlfriend in a buddy comedy. She’s a wonderful, generous, fun, loving (and fun-loving) human — with the usual complement of quirks and minor flaws, the stuff that makes someone worth knowing. We all got on great together, so it just worked.
Being the third wheel to a couple is an easy way to confuse people. Most people make the same assumptions about various social groupings. A guy and a girl of about the same age having dinner? Dating. An older woman and a younger guy? Mother and son. Two guys the same age? Friends. People don’t have a convenient box for the obvious-couple-plus-one — so their minds short-circuit: They must be waiting for someone, they think.
“No,” I said to the waitress. “It’s just the three of us.”
When I third-wheel, people usually do a slight double take and leave it at that. A small handful, however, look at either me, or Conor and Louise, with pity. They assume I’m some sad sack singleton who can’t find a partner — and I’m crashing their date night.
But really, there’s nothing to be pitied.
As the age of first marriage creeps ever closer to 30 (for American heterosexual couples — it’s already past that for LGBTQ couples and in most of Europe), romantic relationships, sexual dynamics, and straight-up friendships are changing. More people are staying single longer, and those who do couple-up aren’t following the traditional script. They’re not retreating to a house in the suburbs to pump out babies on a biennial basis; they’re staying in cities, holding off on having kids, and keeping an active and varied social life. As well as mayonnaise and doorbells, millennials are killing both bridge and mixed-doubles tennis. Single people as fifth or seventh guests at partnered dinner parties are no longer aberrations — rather, they’re key parts of most social circles.
We all have the capacity for far more than one deep, interpersonal relationship.
The world of young people today is a mix of singles, couples, and let’s-not-put-a-label-on-thingses (and that’s before we even start thinking about the many shades of poly relationships). Once your coupled-up friends get over the awkward sloppily-making-out-in-public-at-every-opportunity stage of their life (or relationship), third-wheeling is easy. You’re friends, after all.
Conor, pre-Louise, has faded to myth in my mind. The stories of our early adventures have become lore, retold and embellished whenever we hang out. We’ve changed so much in the last decade: He got married, while my love life has been as constant as Sean Connery’s Russian accent in The Hunt for Red October. Even when we do things just-the-two-of-us, Louise is a supportive, only-occasionally-disapproving background presence.
Relationships aren’t a zero-sum game. We all have the capacity for far more than one deep, interpersonal relationship. We can love our partners and our parents, our kids and our cats, and, yes, our friends, all at the same time, and each in their own way. I’ve loved Conor for years and I don’t think that’s going to change any time soon. I’ve loved Louise for less time, but I don’t love her any less. He is better with her in his life; her very existence quells his depressive tendencies, and has since day one. She’s tamed his black dog — and at this rate, might even teach it to fetch. Her life is better with him in it, too. I know I’m better for having both of them in mine.
When Conor met Louise I lost nothing. I gained a friend.