One of the most profound marriage insights comes down to some simple math. There’s the two of you: you and your partner. And then there are your “thirds.”
Now, this idea alone isn’t groundbreaking. It’s not going to radically change your life.
But here’s something that might. Marriage therapist and author Stan Takin argues that these “thirds” pose one of the greatest threats to the health of a marriage. A third could be your friend or coworker, an extended family member, or a child or parent. A third could even be a project that demands significant amounts of your time and attention. A third is any outside force that exerts influence on the system of your marriage.
Here’s a classic thirds scenario. You and your partner have a rare weekend to spend together. The day before your trip, you find out that your partner’s good friend from college just happens to be going to the same place. Even though it’s a weekend for the two of you, your partner feels the sting of obligation to see their close friend. You feel the sting of resentment that comes from watching this weekend together turn into a college reunion for your partner.
The specifics may vary. But the form of these conflicts is always the same: it’s a power struggle driven by someone or something outside of your system of marriage, a struggle that leads to all sorts of drama, resentment, and tension.
The only way to change this pattern is to begin to see it in real time. So the first step is to begin to notice when a third is exerting influence on your system. It can be helpful to point this out to your partner by saying something like, “I notice that I feel pressured by a third to go to this social distancing dinner party instead of doing date night together.”
Usually, a third will exert a disproportionate influence on one side of the marital system. Get clear on which one of you is feeling pressured. And, here again, have an open conversation about how each of you experience this outside pressure.
The thirds in your system have their own agendas, which may or may not have anything to do with you and your partner's. What’s best for your mother-in-law next weekend may not be best for the two of you. What’s best for your boss or your relative who is coming through town on a road trip also may not be best for the two of you. So have a conversation about the essential thirds question: "what’s best for us?"
Once you get clear on “what’s best for us?“ you may have to set a boundary. You may have to say no. You may have to disappoint your coworker, friend, or in-laws. When you do this, be sure to avoid the trap of throwing your partner under the bus by saying some version of, “I was excited to come but she just wasn’t that into it.“ Instead, present a united front. This will help you reduce drama and communicate a clean boundary with your thirds.