• Richard Hughes

The Third: The Secret To Better Relationships

Updated: Nov 7



Try to see it my way, do I have to keep on talking 'til I can't go on? While you see it your way, run the risk of knowing that our love may soon be gone. (McCartney, Lennon).



When it comes to attraction, there are a few truths we can never escape: we usually have a type, our childhood experiences shape and mirror our intimate adult relationships and regardless of who we go out with, the same kind of conflicts or relationship challenges happen again and again. I don't need to tell you this, relationships are complicated.


In my work as a psychotherapist, I talk a lot about about attachment and I believe that having a better understanding of that can help us negotiate adult relationships and intimacy.


A quick summary here: we all have an attachment style, this is comes about through our prenatal, infant and childhood experiences of being cared for. Most of us are on a spectrum between anxious and avoidant and when it comes to connection, very few people are securely attached or have consistent secure attachment. Anxious and avoidant types are drawn to each other, perhaps because they recognise each others' wounds and whilst this coupling can potentially be a source of healing it can also be a cause of heartache.


So what is the answer? Perhaps we should learn to break our attachment style and just date people who have a more ‘secure’ way of being?


If only it was as easy as that.


Let’s face it, there might be a long queue for the people with secure attachment and I am sorry to say, but you probably wouldn’t fancy them anyway.


So what to do?


One of the most powerful and transformative ideas in psychotherapy is that of ‘the third’ and here I am going to explain what that means in terms of relationships.


If you are stuck in a relationship impasse, or struggle to get your needs met, or find it hard to communicate how you feel, it can be really useful.


‘Third-ness’ is an attitude, a way of being and a form of communication; the psychotherapist and writer Jessica Benjamin has written a lot about this and I give her all the credit here. She writes, ‘when you are able to express yourself in such a way ... with freedom ... where there is space between you and the other person ... where you do not feel you are being determined by them or their needs ... then change can happen.’


This space in-between is known as ‘the third’.


It is such a simple idea but of course the next step is how to put it into practice.


Firstly, it may help to distinguish third-ness from one-ness and two-ness.


'Oneness' in a relationship can be feel like a full merger with the other person, perhaps a sense of co-dependency or a suffocating lack of individuality or freedom.


'Two-ness' is perhaps the most common relationship pattern. Here a relationship can feel like a constant power struggle. There may be much love woven through this, but you may not feel heard, or you may experience your needs not being met. We often end up in two-ness when our own distress is submerged or relegated by the other’s anger or hurt, you know that experience where you believe you are right, and your partner believes they are right and it feels like an episode of The Good Wife as the pair of you make your arguments and you are prepared to die on that hill if necessary, well, that is two-ness. At its most extreme, two-ness is about control and domineering behaviour. The Beatles song We Can Work It Out captures this relational spiral perfectly.

With third-ness, it is about being open and curious to whatever may emerge in the relationship, of listening, even when you are desperate to make your point, of not holding on rigidly to your needs or beliefs, of surrendering to the relationship.

The idea of ‘surrender’ has had a bit of a bad rap, so let’s not to confuse it with The Handmaid’s Tale. According to Jessica Benjamin, the term surrender implies 'being able to connect to the other’s mind while accepting their separateness and difference ... this is not the same a ‘submission’ which implies ‘a sense of giving in or over to someone, an idealised person’ - which is all a bit 'one-ness' - are you beginning to get the picture? When you surrender to the relationship, you infact stop trying to control the other person - and yourself for that matter.


Another idea associated with third-ness, is that of ‘mutual attuning’ (Benjamin, 2017). This is observed in child development where a delicate rhythm between the infant and caregiver takes place and both are aware of ‘something beyond’. You may have felt this in adult relationships too, if you have, that is the third! Here, there is an ability to recognise and decipher intentions and to imagine how the other is feeling. Without mutual attuning, we may fall back into an acute stress response of ‘twoness’ where we may experience a ‘fight, flight or freeze' response.


Of course, the key to developing the third, is for both parties to be open and aware of their two-nesss and that there is a mutual commitment to move beyond that.


As a starting point, it may be useful to do a ‘check-in’ with each other once a week. This could be a set time, say a Saturday morning for half an hour or a Sunday afternoon walk. The conscious element of this is important as both parties are in agreement about the intention.


An opening question could be, ‘how are we doing?’ The emphasis is on the we. Curiosity is key.


Being able to listen and not to respond by trying to fix the problem or by getting defensive is not straight forward - in fact it is really hard - but it is something that can be developed.


We all project our needs, but that can be overwhelming for the other, or they may feel a responsibility towards you. Being aware that you project your needs is an important step to third-ness. This is not about disowning or compromising your needs, it is about being aware of the impact on the relationship and that holding on rigidly (two-ness) can lead to a fight, flight or freeze response


Through third-ness we begin to hear clearly what is being repeated again and again and in a non-judgemental and non-defensive way, it can be useful to explore this: 'does part of you not feel heard? What can we do about that?'

Another important element of thirdness is ‘play’. Reciprocal, mutual playfulness in a relationship is an amazing thing. Again, it can be transformative and can sit between a state of ‘intense, overwhelming feelings' and the ‘forensic analysing’ of the relationship.


Sometimes the third can have a physical manifestation; this could be a weekend away, or a place that means something to both of you, or even a joint bank account. In business, organisations try and create the third when they organise ‘away days’, the intention may be good and I am sure they can be useful, but not everyone may be open to the intention. Perhaps a more successful experience is a therapeutic or creative retreat or a festival, the latter is very much about the collective experiencing thirdness!


My therapist pointed out to me how animals can be a conduit of the third. Have you ever noticed how your dog or cat lies between you and your partner, perhaps one paw on you, whilst the back paw on them? It can feel very connecting - this is a physical manifestation of the third.


An outcome of ‘the third’ is that we may experience more secure attachment. The psychotherapist and writer Heinz Kohut observed that ‘securely attached people are less self-absorbed and less preoccupied with threats ... this enables them to focus on, empathise with and be tolerant of others.' Surely a definition of humanness if there ever was one.


Further Reading:


Jessica Benjamin: Beyond Doer and Done to: Recognition Theory, Intersubjectivity and the Third.


Jessica Benjamin: Like Subjects, Love Objects: Essays on Recognition and Sexual Difference


Amir Levine & Rach S. F. Heller: Attached - Are you Anxious, Avoidant or Secure? How The Science of Adult Attachment Can Help You Find and Keep Love.

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