Why I like being a third wheel

WASHINGTON • I am Donkey in a world of Shreks and Fionas. I'm the loud friend tagging along, making waffles. I am the third wheel.

I am a 24-year-old woman whose close friends are overwhelmingly happy and partnered. If I want to maintain any sort of social life, tagging along on someone else's date night is necessary. For some singles, this feels like a consolation prize, as though you are receiving the pity invite. While hanging out with a couple, your singleness is often on display. And for some couples, having a third person around could shift a situation from totally romantic to completely platonic.

One half of the couple could also resent this third person - "Why is she always here?"

But I, like Donkey, have an astounding sense of self and thrive as the wild card in a world of pairs.

As the oldest of three kids, I have experience being the mediator, the voice of reason, the ringleader of the trio. There are other benefits to hanging out with couples who are very comfortable around each other: There's no one to impress, and you don't have to worry about being a suitable wingman when you're already hanging with a couple. And if, like me, you were friends with both folks before they got together, there's the added bonus of catching up with two of your friends at the same time.

It sometimes gets weird - like the time I chauffeured and attempted to placate an arguing couple on our way to a haunted house - but being the third wheel is actually kind of great.

It is a role I know well. I'd been playing it my whole life.

As far back as middle school, when friends started pairing off at bowling alleys and school dances, I was the supportive friend who relieved the tension during prepubescent romance. Then in high school, I took a liking to driving my younger coupled friends to the TGI Fridays and the lake in town. Later, after college, guess who was there when her best friend and now-longtime boyfriend made it official? They had "the talk" in a pizzeria next door to the tattoo parlour where I insisted they accompany me in my endeavours in body modification.

There was a thrill in innocently injecting myself into others' relationships. If I wasn't in one myself, why couldn't I play house with my friends? I got to live vicariously through my friends' excitement without actually enduring weird first dates or nerves while waiting for a text. I could come and go from these relationships as I pleased. It was no-strings-attached dating from a distance.

Still, I had a place within these pairs. Whether it was cracking a joke at one partner's expense or being the designated driver, these little things made me feel as though I had a role in my friends' relationships.

"It's not like we're like, 'Ugh, Allie's here,' " a friend told me recently. "We want you to be there."

Which is why, late one night a few summers ago, I posted an advertisement on Craigslist offering my services as a professional third wheel. I was doing a pretty good job of it with my friends, so why not see if I could make a hobby of it?

"My purpose is simply to serve as a social liaison between partners and to offer a light-hearted presence to an otherwise traditional circumstance," I wrote in the listing.

There would be no cost for my labour. I just wanted to soak in the experiences of others and potentially learn what it meant to be in a functional relationship. If fights arose, I could easily offer a solution. Reading your partner, a person you supposedly know so well, is hard. For me, an outsider, it's not. I wanted to take what I'd learnt by observing people in relationships and turn it into a profession that could help couples grow. I'd be like a low-maintenance kid that you didn't have to potty train; a foreign presence that was different enough to allow people to reconsider their routines.

When the replies started rolling in, I was surprised at their earnestness. I expected resounding silence or sexually suggestive e-mail.

Instead, I got responses from a couple who had been together for 15 years and who wanted a little bit of adventure. (I suggested rock climbing.) Mariah wanted me to tag along while she and her fiance went trick-or-treating. I received a few requests for pictures, but just as many compliments on the light-heartedness of my post.

In reality, the thought of dressing up in costume and walking around the neighbourhood with a couple I met on Craigslist was a little too weird. For me to excel at third wheeling, I needed to know the people I was spending time with - their interests, their strengths, what makes them laugh. The listing, however, allowed me to think more broadly about what I brought to the table in my friendships. I'm often the single one in my inner circle and it's easy to worry that I might not be a suitable partner. Seeing tangible proof that my humour, diplomacy, spontaneity and ways of viewing the world could serve a purpose within a pair made me feel as though I might not be alone forever. If these people liked me enough to keep hanging out with me platonically, surely I'd find someone who would want to do that romantically.

I'll probably always be the third wheel with the couples in my life. A former colleague and his girlfriend had no qualms about making a restaurant reservation for three.

On another occasion, I enjoyed leftovers for dinner and a Game Of Thrones marathon with the couple who got together during that tattoo session four years ago. I've consulted a couple with their small-business ventures.

By being a third wheel around my coupled-up friends, I also discovered the power in the mundane, everyday moments in relationships. I've seen that these are the moments where relationships grow. In between boredom and exhilaration is where we exist most of the time. Single people might think that they want someone to jump out of airplanes with, but I think we really want someone to tell a joke or give us a reason to do something slightly out of the ordinary.

I'm far from claiming the title of relationship whisperer, but I'd like to think I'm a little closer to knowing what we want out of them. All it took was crashing a few dates.


• Allie Volpe is a culture and music writer based in Philadelphia.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 03, 2017, with the headline 'Why I like being a third wheel'. Print Edition | Subscribe