On the Unexpected Joys of Being a Third Wheel

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This week, in honor of the update of a certain HBO show that might just have cemented a certain ideal of early-aughts cosmopolitan friendship, we are celebrating the art of being acquainted—in all its torturous complexity and beautiful glory. Stay tuned for a close look at the perils and rewards of being a friend—and read all of the series here.

At the end of last summer, I went on a romantic three-week vacation to Sicily. Mornings were spent swimming in the sparkling waters of the island’s numerous beaches; afternoons involved walking through ancient temples or driving dune buggies across Mount Etna. In the evening, we’d eat fresh lobster in a tiny fishing village while a colorful religious procession passed by, or cook pasta at our cozy villa overlooking the Ionian Sea. When my iPhone popped up with the trip as a “memory” a few weeks back, I scrolled through the photos of two lovers holding hands in a variety of idyllic Italian locations and grew a little misty-eyed. The only catch? Neither of those lovers were, in fact, me. Instead I was on holiday with one of my best friends and his girlfriend—and having the time of my (very much single) life.

For reasons that remain somewhat mysterious, I’m just as happy in the company of a couple as with a solo friend—often more so. Whether it was watching movies in bed with one of my best friends at university and her boyfriend, or dinner dates with the couple who lived around the corner at my old apartment, I’ve always found an innate sense of comfort in the relationships of others. (It’s also worth noting that this attitude runs both ways: Throughout most of my last relationship, we lived with my boyfriend’s best friend and spent our evenings having dinner as a trio. When it comes to third-wheeling, I’m an equal opportunist.)

There have been entire novels, films, and TV shows dedicated to navigating the emotional terrain of moving in and out of relationships alongside your closest friends, and how they synchronize, overlap, and sometimes clash; pulling you closer together, or in the worst-case scenario, pushing you apart. We’ve all heard horror stories about friends falling headfirst in love with the wrong person and shutting you out of their new lives, or of the feelings of jealousy and resentment that can arise when your go-to plus-one for dinners and parties finds a new, more permanent plus-one of their own. (I distinctly remember a very public, boyfriend-related falling-out that involved a miniature schnauzer and a custody battle over Instagram comments.) 

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