On Relationships (Part 1 of 2): Building Stronger Relationships and The Third Entity
How to examine and strengthen relationships, a third entity perspective.
A few weeks ago I wrote about how people change over time. Since then I’ve been thinking a lot about how relationships between people change over time. * While this applies to all relationships (with parents, friends, etc.), I’m going to focus on romantic relationships.
It’s hard for me to accept that relationships change. I’m not only talking about the big things that can affect how two people connect — work, kids, growing old, illness — I’m talking about the tinier moments of discomfort, or miscommunication, or disconnection. Or the tremors of deep love and connection.
And so I’m writing this post as much for me as for anyone else.
This is a two part series: Part 1 discusses relationships as a third entity and Part 2 (out in two weeks) explores changing relationships and how to adapt.
Relationships and the ‘Third Entity’
In order to understand how relationships change it’s imperative to first understand what a relationship is and to examine the relationships we have with the people in our lives.
One way to understand a relationship is to use the concept of the third entity.
According to this view, a relationship is made of three parts, not just two:
Relationship = Person A + Person B + Third Entity (the relationship between Person A & B).
The “third entity” does not refer to the individual players in a relationship — it’s not you, it’s not your partner, or your parent or your friend or anyone else in your life.
This third entity is the invisible, living, breathing entity created between you and another person, that exists independently of you and another person.
The third entity is greater than the sum of the two people involved.
It represents what you and your partner (or friend, etc.) bring to the relationship. It is the series of experiences, events and behaviors that happen when two people come together around a common purpose and it has a presence, form, energy and influence of its own. Those experiences, events and behaviors are inextricably linked to one another and are affected by everyone involved.
And, just as though it were a person, this third entity has a lifespan and its own vitality, whether weak or strong, loving or cynical.
We’re all intuitively aware of the third entity — it’s the character and personality of a relationship. Think about the relationships that surround you — are they more tense and judgmental? Or kind and loving?
The third entity: Building stronger relationships
So how does understanding the third entity help us build stronger relationships?
Well for one thing, it provides an objective way to examine and evaluate our relationships with people, independently of how we feel about those people.
It enables us to look at a relationship and see it as it really is.
Like I wrote earlier, the third entity is an independent ‘being’ that has its OWN personality, experiences, events, behaviors and needs, independent of the two people involved.
This concept explains how Person A can be happy and confident and Person B can be happy and confident and yet the relationship between Person 1 and Person 2 can be characterized by insecurity, drama and criticism.
This also means that it’s possible for you to love someone, but not love the relationship you have with that someone. It’s taken me a long long time to understand this.
So how do we examine and evaluate our relationships?
Each relationship is different, there is no ‘right’ relationship. The point is not to measure a relationship against a benchmark but to evaluate the characteristics of a relationship.
You and your partner created this relationship. It is therefore imperative to ask, what does this relationship really look like? Is this relationship characterized by love and support? Is it strong? Is it fragile?
It shows us the importance of nurturing our relationships.
If a relationship is like a person, then it must also be nurtured and strengthened like a person.
An easy way to think about this is to imagine two individuals caring for a plant (the third entity is the plant). The two individuals may be very kind and considerate on their own, but it’s not enough.
They must also nurture the plant in order for it to survive.
This is the same with relationships. There are things that are good for one of the individuals in the relationship, but not the relationship itself (i.e. if one partner wants to go out travel for 3 months alone), and it’s important to make the distinction.
This also means that there may be things that are good for the relationship, but are not immediately beneficial to one of the two individuals — i.e. leaving a party early because your partner is having a bad day and wants you home. This is an example of doing something for the relationship.
As Neil Strauss (yes, the author of The Game but also a GREAT book called The Truth) writes, “A healthy relationship is when two individuated adults decide to have a relationship and that becomes a third entity. They nurture the relationship and the relationship nurtures them. But they’re not overly dependent or independent: They are interdependent, which means that they take care of the majority of their needs and wants on their own, but when they can’t, they’re not afraid to ask their partner for help.”
A relationship as a checking account
A relationship can be viewed as a checking account — with people withdrawing and depositing into it. The important thing is to deposit more than you withdraw, i.e. to give more than you take (This does not mean that a relationship is keeping ‘score’ — it’s simply a way to conceptualize how two people give and take).
This is where relationship habits come in. Habits are the patterns you establish in your relationship. Observe your relationship patterns. Does one partner tend to give more? Take more? Of course there will be phases when one partner needs to take more than the other. There is nothing wrong with this as long as it balances out over time.
· Depositing (giving to the relationship) — Through honesty, time alone together, no secrets, affection, vulnerability, patience, open communication, etc.
· Withdrawing (taking from the relationship) — Through lies, breaking promises, lack of communication and love, criticism, anger, etc.
For example, if you evaluate your relationship and see that it’s a bit tense, that you’re both walking on eggshells, then maybe it’s time to ‘feed’ this relationship with: communication and one-on-one time (of course), but also patience and kindness. It’s important to understand that there are many nuances here — both partners should be ‘feeding’ the relationship — but you can start.
Or if you’re noticing a bit of disconnection or distance, maybe it’s time to ‘feed’ your relationship by: sharing, asking deeper questions, really listening.
The first step to building stronger relationships is to evaluate how these relationships are, right now. I hope the above framework helped you achieve this.
Stay tuned for Part 2 where I’ll be exploring how our relationships change over time and how to adapt to these changes.
In the meantime, here’s a short exercise:
Examine the relationships you have with the people in your life. Not just the people, or how you feel about them, but the actual ‘third entity’ that exists between you two.
- How would you describe this relationship?
- Take the “pulse” of this relationship — is there anything it needs?
- Is there a balance between giving and taking between the partners?
- Are you happy with this relationship?
- Is there anything you want to change about it?
- And the kicker: Are you proud of what you and your partner are creating?
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