“No man is an island,” or so we’re told. And yet, something about couples, that two-for-one unit we humans are so wedded to… something about it lends itself to isolation. Once folks pair up, they have a tendency to slowly (or rapidly, depending on the couple) unmoor themselves from the social pangea and drift out to sea. At times, this disentangling is their own doing. Perhaps equally as often, however, the rest of us — the Association of Reasonably Invested Third Parties — help the process along by leaving the pair to their own devices.
You see, being friends with a couple is no easy business. Even when one starts out with the staunchest intentions of standing in as a dependable third wheel, it can be hard to gut it out. The “couple dynamic” can sour even the most pro-relationship folks on love. If it’s not the pet names (honey-baby, sweetie-pie, nkati cake cutie, harmattan pawpaw), then it’s the shamefully indulgent PDA (there are only so many times one can hiss the words “get a room” accompanied by a withering eye roll). And if it’s not any of the above, then it’s certainly the deluge of inside jokes that — wink-wink, nudge-nudge, poke-poke, giggle-giggle — none of us perched comfortably outside the circle of trust are privy to.
That isn’t the only reason it’s tough being the single friend of two people glued together at the hip. Almost invariably, couples work because of a delicate ying and yang alignment of their contrasting personalities. Ama, the ever gregarious life of the party, finds herself caught in the tractor beam of studious homebody Kofi. This oddball pairing becomes the glue for their attraction to one another, and, hence, their happily ever after. Or, “squirrel it away for a rainy day” Dzifa snags spendthrift Anyetei for herself, and their good-natured tussles about money keep an otherwise pedestrian pairing from turning staid.
The “odd couple” stereotype is familiar precisely because it’s not just a stereotype. It’s an archetype, the model which most of us fashion our couplings after. Each of us has a thousand similar examples we can point to. Beyond a foundation of common values, principles and, to a certain extent, background, we usually end up with someone who deviates enough from our core personality and temperament to keep things interesting. Frequently, that very difference is what draws us in.
What does this bode for the couple’s companion, however? The beleaguered third wheel? Well, if most couples have complementary but contrasting temperaments, an outsider is almost guaranteed to build a better rapport with one than the other. While romantic entanglements are kept kindled by a polarity which keeps our attention over months, years — even decades — friendship finds its sustenance in the opposite.
Our paddies become our paddies because they are like us, often in crucial ways. How did Aristotle put it? “One soul in two bodies.” That is friendship: a comfortable fusion of like-mindedness. By virtue of the way most couplings work, that aforementioned ying-and-yang, the rest of us are guaranteed to gravitate towards one half of the couple and remain comfortably aloof with the other. As with anything, there are outliers of course. But sifting through my brief and limited heap of experiences and observations, I find this to be the rule rather than the exception.
But let’s be honest: no exploration of single-friend-of-a-committed-couple dynamics would be complete without addressing the silent phantom that haunts such arrangements: fidelity. As a man with a generous helping of female friends and — perhaps more relevant — as one who forms bonds of alarming intimacy with startling ease, I’m no stranger to the complications “outside friendships” can introduce. That stuff is real.
Now, in an ideal world? Each of us would be a bedrock of security, an immovable fortress. Pesky emotions like jealousy would glance off our impermeable exteriors like arrows against chainmail armour. I could enter a room, wade through a sea of come-hither looks and my significant other wouldn’t feel threatened. She’d have a weekly roster of meetups with male friends and I wouldn’t bat an eye. In real life, however — not the transcendental, drama-less paradise I just painted — things work rather differently.
And not without cause, either. Marriage is held up in most of our societies as the pinnacle of relationships, the state to which all of us should aspire to, the very zenith of commitment. Yet, 41% of spouses admit to committing infidelity of some sort, either physical or emotional. Relationships are not bulletproof. On the contrary, they’re fragile, transient things. They shrivel up and evaporate for causes far less threatening than outright betrayal. A little distance, a bit of neglect, and your carefully constructed two-person utopia goes up in smoke.
The result? The third wheel almost always gets the side-eye. At least, initially; at times, indefinitely. Given the mediocre success rate of most relationships, can you blame folks for being a bit paranoid? Certainly, it would do us all a world of good to trust a bit more and panic a bit less. Security is healthy; insecurity isn’t. But even as a stone cold stoic who rarely wrestles with such emotions, I can empathize with those who don’t embrace every third wheel with open arms.
So, considering above, it’s perfectly excusable to go the easy route, pick a favourite half of each couple and maintain a cool (and hopefully cordial) relationship with the other half. “I don’t do couples,” my friend Nana Darkoa said to me recently. And, as part of a pair myself, my feathers weren’t ruffled by her words. I mean… I get it.
P.S by Nana Darkoa: Eli Tetteh is my #TwitterCrush. He is totally crush worthy offline as well as online. Follow @elidot if you’re active in the twitterverse, and even if you’re not…