Third-Wheel Your Way to a Better You

Spring has finally made its way to Earth’s Northern hemisphere, it seems that “cuffing season” has come to a close. Cuffing season, which the internet has determined as the time between autumn and winter when singletons try to couple up to combat cold weather and secure a plus-one to holiday parties, had quite a run this year.

Whether you’re a believer in the reality of cuffing season or not, you might be walking into spring a newly minted third wheel. Or, because winters now seem eternal, a fifth or seventh.

Did you miss the romance memo? That’s more than okay. It’s been socially constructed that a single person in a group of couples must feel alarmingly alone, noticeably sad and in need of as much help and as many set-ups as the new counterparts can offer.

It seems like everyone’s first instinct is to feel sorry for someone perpetually third wheeling, but it’s just not necessary. In fact, being a third wheel doesn’t have to be bad at all. Here’s why.

You connect

In most third-wheeling situations, you’re tagging along with at least one person you know. Therein lies the opportunity to meet another person, to socialize and communicate and get to know someone or someones. Why are they there? What can they teach you and what can you teach them? What do you have in common?

A couple playing video games on the couch while a friend stands behind them Third-Wheel pbs rewire
“I got next, guys!”

Bella dePaulo, a social scientist and professor of psychology, has spent her life’s work studying the idea of the single. Much of her work has determined that those without partners grow strong, genuine relationships with those who replace that idea of “the one,” and that those people are often friends, family and co-workers.

Supporting this, social scientists named Natalia Sarkisian and Naomi Gerstel found in 2015 that single men and women had increased social connections and ties to their communities.

Who’s to say those friends and connections can’t come by way of third wheeling or fifth wheeling or more? Being single gives you the opportunity to openly interact with all those around you, to create and thrive on what platonic relationships have to offer.

We often forget that we sometimes “third wheel” in any group of three between friends or co-workers or siblings. We have the keys to socialize in groups of three, and we’ve been continuously programming to work out the kinks in the layout. Why should this interaction be different?

You learn

Of course, third wheeling certainly can be awkward. We’re plagued by the trope that it should be, so it can feel uncomfortable before it even becomes uncomfortable. Harry Potter is the title character of one of the world’s most successful franchises. He saves an entire population of people. But his two best friends are dating and that gives audiences second-hand discomfort. Why is that?

If third wheeling does lead to uneasiness, turn it into a learning point. Question yourself. Question the people you’re with. Question the situation. Why is it awkward? Are you feeling discomfort or are others? Is it based on perception or reality?

Surely there are times when couples would prefer to be left to their own devices, but unless you’re interrupting date night and just not getting the hint, the discomfort you might be feeling can tell you a lot about what you think of yourself, what you think your companions think of you, what they actually think of you and how society has affected all the answers to those questions.

You grow

If you keep asking questions and allowing yourself to be in situations that might be a little outside your typical comfort zone, you can learn a lot about yourself as a person as well as the people you surround yourself with. DePaulo suggests that singletons often experience greater psychological growth based on how fulfilling and different their social lives are.

Group of friends two women and one man, sitting on a bench in park Third-Wheel pbs rewire
Most of the time, third-wheeling isn’t awkward unless you make it awkward.

As a single person, you have the power to adapt to your environment as a third wheel. Once you’ve asked all the questions and you’ve figured out how and why your position as a third wheel makes you and your couple friends feel the way the do, you can work with it and each other.

If it’s fine, then it’s fine. You’re able to enjoy the company of people all stereotypes and standards aside. If it’s not, you’ve got options. You can change your attitude, which is likely to help the attitudes of those around you, or you can talk it out. And of course, you can always change your situation. If you have plans to hang out with a couple that consistently make you feel weird about being single, bring a friend of your own to round out the group. Advocate for yourself to make sure you’re having fun, too.

You do

In a study on attachment theory, Carol S. Kahn suggests that adult singles cite themselves as sources of comfort and security just as much as partners, friends or family. Singles can join in situations with ease, assurance and happiness just by relying on themselves.

All that’s left to do is do. Singles have the freedom to literally do whatever they want. And that’s the best part.

Natalie Maggiore

Natalie Maggiore is a journalist and teacher living in Chicago, whose passions include aggressive hockey watching, a quality bowl of queso and learning about the infinite void that is outer space. Her writing mainly pertains to pop culture and entertainment, but she enjoys creating content pertaining to mental health, social service, human interests and nature. Follow her on Twitter @nataliem31 and Instagram @natmag31.