Why THREE is the loneliest number of all… (psychoanalytically speaking, of course!)

What would you think if I suggested that three is the loneliest number of all?

Well, perhaps you would 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!   But these ideal versions of three are usually found in fairy tales, fantasies, and realms of the divine!  Usually, in the world of everyday reality, three is a highly unstable number.  We might even say that it is the loneliest number of all.

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.

In last week’s post, I wrote about the pain of envy—which, as psychoanalyst Melanie Klein would say, is the pain of two.  You have what I want but you keep it to yourself to enjoy it for yourself.  In response, I want to steal it from you and ruin it for you.  In a nutshell, that is the pain of envy.  It only takes two.

But the pains of three are the pains of jealousy.  As Klein describes it, jealousy involves me in relation to two other people—the one whom I love and my rival.

Psychoanalytically speaking, the unconscious mind likes twos.  Two people come together and all seems right in the world.  Yes, you’ve got envy to deal with but that’s an expected part of life.  Throw a third into the mix and you’ve really got trouble.

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 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 accessible to us because it is more acceptable to us.  It is easier to admit that we are jealous than envious, 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.

As with envy, awareness of one’s jealousy paves the way to relative freedom from the intense pains of it.  There is a tremendous advantage to working to understand our jealousy and to manage it in a healthy way.  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.

Working with one’s jealousy also makes way for the capacity to be at peace while being alone.   There is a big difference between being lonely and being alone. Loneliness describes the acute pain of being left out.  Being left out is so painful because all you can do is imagine how everyone else is having a great time without you.  But, psychoanalytically speaking, the capacity to be alone means you feel secure that you are loved always—even when your loved one is sharing his or her love with someone else.   Being comfortable while alone means that you have received love deeply, that it is set up inside you.  And if love is set up inside you, then you are able to withstand periods of separation and even loss without too much pain.

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.   And we also get to be more comfortable with ourselves. To me, the benefits far outweigh the costs.


2 responses to “Why THREE is the loneliest number of all… (psychoanalytically speaking, of course!)

  1. Great read! Only thing worse then being on the outs, is never having been in.

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