There Are Always Three In The Relationship
By Florence Rosiello, PhD
I’m going to write about something you can’t see. By time you get to the end of this, you should have a pretty good idea of what ‘it’ is and how it can help you in your relationships. But, let’s start with this: There is a painting in the Metropolitan Museum in New York that has always caught my imagination. It’s of a gypsy woman with dark curly hair cascading down her shoulders. Her complexion is also dark and this darkness contrasts with the brilliant gold in her costume of beautifully textured silks. Over her bare arm rests a sheer yellow shawl that you can see right through. It is the ability to see through the sheerness of the shawl that captures me each time I visit this painting. How did the artist paint something that is nearly an illusion? How do we capture a sense of something existing that we can barely make out?
In psychology, there are many concepts that are abstract in their presence in our lives, like the ability to paint the sheerness to this gypsy woman’s shawl. One notion in psychology that I particularly like and one that reminds me of the sheer yellow shawl, is called ‘subjectivities.’ What this means is that I am a ‘subject’ with my own feelings, my own expressions, my own way of understanding how I relate to another individual and my own understanding how another person relates to me, and these are my subjectivities. You are also a ‘subject’ and you have your own subjectivities, which are typically different than mine, but they may be in the same ballpark of emotions.
Let’s call my subjectivity, one; let’s call your subjectivity, two; and let’s call the space between us, three. (Hang in there and keep reading, because you may find what I’m saying to be beneficial and I’m almost through with this explanation section, anyway.) It’s the space between us that I’m writing about here: the space that no one can really see because it’s there, but not there. It’s what any two people create when they are in relation to each other, and it’s individualistic and very specific to any two people. But it is not made up of part me and part you, it’s something other than me and you. It’s different than me and it’s different than you, because you and I together create something entirely different than who I am and who you are, and that’s a third subjectivity. This is a very contemporary notion in psychology at this time.
I’m writing about this because it’s a way of understanding relationships that helps us decipher how both people are operating with each other. When we try to understand how couples operate in relationships, understanding subjectivities allows us not to blame either person in the relationship, if the relationship is in trouble. Here are some clinical examples of what I mean (and I have my patients’ permission to discuss this):
For many years, I’ve been treating a woman in her 50s who had never gotten married although she’d been in many long-term relationships throughout her life. I’m going to call her Jessica. She finally met a man, on Match.Com, with whom she fell head over heels in love. I’ll call him, Joe. Joe is in his 60s and he’s been married and divorced three times and has four grown kids. Within a month, Joe and Jessica are living together because it’s cheaper to do that and because they feel in love and that they’re old enough to know a good thing when they find it in the other person. But, from the therapist’s perspective these two people are set in their ways, they have been living on their own for many years, particularly my patient who has never been married before.
One of the first complaints I hear from Jessica about Joe comes in the first month of their living together. Every Saturday and Sunday morning, around six in the morning, Joe quietly gets out of bed, grabs his golf clubs and takes off for the day of playing golf. It doesn’t occur to him to discuss this with Jessica because this is what he’s done for years, what he enjoys most in life, and how he relaxes with his buddies. Essentially, Joe is behaving and thinking like a sole operator in this regard and he doesn’t see anything wrong with his actions and doesn’t understand why Jessica is complaining more and more about not having weekend time with him. He reminds her that they have weekend evenings together and that he’s entirely there for her at those times. She tells him that she’s too angry with him for not being around and that she can’t feel great about only having a few evenings together. Still, Jessica says she loves Joe and wants to marry him and Joe wants to marry her.
Together they opened a savings account and both put in $1000.00 as a base to begin to cover the cost of the wedding. Jessica budgets her money and begins building the savings and Joe, while he says he’s trying to save, just has too many expenses and debts and can’t put money into the savings account. After a few months, Jessica goes to deposit money and realizes that Joe has taken out nearly all her saved wedding money and used it for his own personal expenses. In her therapy with me, Jessica asks what she needs to do and how can she understand what Joe is doing, because she loves him and wants to get married to him. I’d like to bop Joe on the head and have Jessica look elsewhere for someone, but they want to stay together and make a marriage between them and so that is my task in their relationship. The way to do that is to consider who each of them is and what they are creating between them in their thirdness.
Jessica is in her 50s and has never been married. The emotion she puts into the relationship that makes up her part of thirdness, is fear. She’s afraid she won’t ever get married. She’s been lonely, afraid of growing old without having ever felt an ongoing love from another person. Joe seems to love her and this is good enough. Joe has been unsuccessful in his previous 3 marriages and has disastrous relationships with his four grown children. He thinks his past relationships ended because his wives had been too demanding, too time-consuming, and too needy of his attentions. He loves Jessica because even though she wants more of his time, she also accepts that she will share him with his golf game each weekend. I believe that the emotion Joe is putting into the space between them, is also fear. He’s afraid that women are going to make emotional demands on him that he can’t face, that he’ll be forced to do things he doesn’t want to do and feel controlled by a woman, and that the woman may want to be too emotionally intimate and he can’t live up to the expectation without feeling he’s losing a sense of his self and manhood.
So, what’s in the space between them? What’s in their ‘thirdness?’ I would say that the most obvious would be - fear. What exists between doesn’t look like fear. It looks like they’re just both disappointing each other because they can’t adjust to living with another person after having been able to do what they wanted, most of their lives. My job with this patient is to help her see [the illusion of the gypsy’s sheer scarf] in what she and her partner develop together, what they develop between them, and that they have an existing commonality - fear. They both scare the hell out of each other. It’s like having two lost souls desperate to be together, longing to be understood and accepted by the other, and allowed be who they are and still be loved. Joe is afraid to be emotionally swallowed up by Jessica, and Jessica is afraid of once more being left by a man.
If you think of your partner, lover, spouse, as being afraid of you, you have a different perception of who they are in the relationship. When you know that someone is afraid, you usually can feel more kindly toward them and feel more emotionally generous with them. If Jessica can keep in mind, for example, that Joe plays golf because he feels that if Jessica really got to know him, she might not like who he really is in the world, then she might not feel so rejected that he takes off every weekend morning. If Joe realizes that Jessica’s desire for him to spend time with her is because she’s afraid of being unloved, then he might want to come home earlier from golf, or set aside another time for her. It’s what neither Joe nor Jessica can see that exists between them that makes them so similar to each other and if they don’t eventually ‘see’ it, they’re in jeopardy of creating more and more conflict between them.
Here’s another illusion of the sheer scarf or the inability to not see what exists in the space between people, the thirdness of relationships. I’ve been treating a man who is in his 60s. He’s been a widower after a long-term marriage who recently married a divorced woman. They have been together for a few years now. At first, their relationship was a lot of fun and very different for the two of them than their previous marriages. At first, Sean went out frequently with Erica. He had been rather reclusive in is first marriage during his wife’s long terminal illness and he felt a particular freedom in being with Erica. He thought he was having fun for the first time in a long while. Soon after their short courtship and quick marriage, Sean began to realize that he didn’t want to go out quite as much and wanted some nights home, just the two of them. Erica felt trapped in Sean’s request for more domesticity and while she begrudgingly stayed home, she not only continued to drink, but drank even more to numb her anger toward him and feeling cornered by his wish to stay home. Sean eventually came to treatment because Erica was becoming even more angry and began verbally berating Sean for what she saw as his having changed since their marriage. But, Erica couldn’t stay home and she started going out on her own to the local bars and returning after Sean had gone to bed. Sean began to realize that their initial partying with each other, while fun and different for him in the early part of their relationship was more the norm for Erica. Eventually, Sean told me that Erica’s mood was becoming unmanageable even during the day and her drinking was taking over their life. What is their thirdness? What are Sean and his wife co-creating between them?
Sean and Erica’s thirdness has entered a dangerous sphere because as Erica continues to drink, she becomes more and more illusive, more and more like the sheer shawl in her being hard to see. So what is their thirdness and where does it exist between them? Their thirdness or the emotion between them that neither can see, is ‘hope.’ When a relationship is touched by trauma, the ‘thirdness’ must then exist in the therapist, and it is the therapist who holds hope that both partners of the couple can survive their involvement with each other, either together or separately. The interesting piece in this relationship is that Erica does not want to leave Sean. If all Erica wanted was to drink, then she’d have left him and return to her former life. And, here’s another piece of ‘hope’ or thirdness, because I believe Erica hopes Sean will help her and that they will stay together. I believe this is Sean’s hope, as well.
So, here’s what I wanted you to know about what is not seen between two people, but what is created when two different subjectivities, when two different people, join together in a relationship and create something entirely different between them, they’ve created a thirdness. My point in talking about ‘thirdness’ is to generate a focus in relationships: A focus on what is not ‘seen,’ but perhaps covertly evident, all the same. When you next find yourself in conflict with your partner, take a moment to wonder if he or she is feeling fearful. Look at what thirdness exists between you both, what emotions the space contains, or what emotions could possibly develop. If you can take this look, then there’s a good chance you’ll find something you haven’t seen before that is coming from your partner: an emotion that you may have missed or misinterpreted. But now, see the conflict as having been co-created between you and put into the space that exists between you that the two of you have developed together. When you realize it’s been the both of you who have created your particular thirdness, you’ll see that if you don’t focus on each other, but instead consider the ‘third’ that you have BOTH created, this new attention can help the relationship get unstuck and begin moving in an emotionally healthier direction.