A Headshrinker's Guide to the Galaxy

Psychoanalytic wisdom for everyday life

Why THREE is the loneliest number of all...

If you struggle with jealousy, then this blog post is for you!

There has been a lot of chatter about the challenges of long-term commitment for two-somes, since Sunday's New York Times Magazines' feature on monogamy.

But what would you think if I suggested that three, more than two or even one, is the loneliest number of all?

Extramarital affairs aside, perhaps you first think of some of the exceptions. You might think of the three musketeers, the three amigos, or the three wise men who all seemed like best buddies. Maybe you think of the Trinity, where the number three is a spiritually perfect number. Or, at the other extreme, you may think a threesome sounds perfectly heavenly!

Sometimes, if a set of friendships is particularly strong and competitiveness is mild, sets of three can work out pretty well.  But usually harmonious relationships of three are ideals found in fairy tales, fantasies, and realms of the divine! In the world of everyday reality, three is a highly unstable number. We might even say that it is the loneliest number of all.

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Think about it. Who wants to be "the third wheel"? Or "the odd man out"? Can you get in touch with the painful feelings embedded in the old saying that two is company but three is a crowd?

Three is such a lonely number because someone almost always feels left out.

Three is the number of jealousy, a dynamic that psychoanalyst Melanie Klein explored as an extension of Sigmund Freud's Oedipus complex.  She noted that jealousy is a powerfully painful dynamic because the unconscious mind naturally seems to prefer twos. Whether it is a mother and a baby or a person and a lover, two people come together and all seems right in the world. Throw a third into the mix and the trouble really starts.

Take, for example, a couple having its first baby. This event tends to really rock the couple's world. They have been doing well as a two-some. Stable, connected, with little threat to their bond. But with the advent of the third, there is the sudden threat to their two-some and an urge to regain the solid footing of the pair--which means that someone will be left out.

But the question is, What will the pairing be? There are so many possibilities now-mommy and baby, or daddy and baby, or mommy and daddy? And who will be the one left out? If you are in the pair, there is the bliss of security! Mom chose me over dad; she must really love me. Or, alternatively, my wife is finally letting the baby cry it out; maybe we can have a little "grown-up" time now.

But if you are the one left out of the pair, the feelings are completely different. There is intense hatred toward the one who has stolen your loved one away from you. Ah, to lose out to one's rival! Husband says, My wife chose the baby over me?!? That little brat. Or the baby says, Mommy chose Daddy over me?!?! That terrible monster.

It is so difficult for us to understand that a mom can love a baby as well as daddy. It is so difficult to understand that a mom can love a daddy as well as a baby. And it gets infinitely more complex when other babies come along. If you are a first-born, you know what I mean. I want Mommy's love all to myself! I do not want to share!

This family model is the prototype for jealousy-laden threesomes throughout later life. There are so many examples...

  • Three is the number of loneliness among junior high girls where there is the longing for a BEST friend and a great worry about being the one left out.
  • Avoidance of the painful three underlies the "I saw her first"dating etiquette of adolescent boys.
  • Three is the number of betrayal in secret extramarital affairs where you feel thrown away and cast aside.
  • Three is the number of workaholism where you feel you have lost your spouse to his or her job.
  • At its extreme, three is the number of love triangles where somebody winds up beat up, in jail, or worse.

Jealousy, like envy, is an ordinary part of psychological life--and probably a feeling that is more consciously acceptable to us because jealousy is primarily based in love. You are not jealous unless you love someone. If you love someone, you want them all to yourself. We all can relate to that feeling.

If we can acknowledge and work with our jealousy, we can have relative freedom from the intense pain of it. Managing jealousy in a healthy way leads to an incredibly important capacity in psychological life-and that is the capacity to share. Learning how to share is associated with capacities like waiting your turn, being patient, being generous, and being humble. And it is a capacity that offsets some rather thorny aspects of one's personality, like being greedy, being entitled, and being self-centered.

I think there will always be tinges of pain in networks of relationships in which we must share our loved one with another. But that is the price of love. We miss it when it is given away to another. But if we can withstand these feelings of jealousy and loneliness, we get to have a wider circle of people whom we love and who love us. To me, the benefits far outweigh the costs.

 

Jennifer Kunst, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, working with adults and couples in her private practice in Pasadena, CA.

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