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Who Is Your Third Party?

In relationships and community: Choose it carefully.

Key points

  • True communion between two people is only possible if at least one third party is part of the pact.
  • In a functioning community, every member serves as a third party, actually or virtually, constantly or occasionally.
  • The third party provides the transcendence that true community needs. Otherwise, it’s just a tribe.
House of Beautiful Business
John Michael Schert and Brett Perry in “Move Through Uncertainty” at Concrete Love Lisbon
Source: House of Beautiful Business

In “Move Through Uncertainty,” a 60-minute session at Concrete Love, this year’s gathering of the House of Beautiful Business, dancer and choreographer John Michael Schert and his partner, Brett Perry, deconstructed and reconstructed a dance choreography to derive lessons for leadership, creativity, and collaboration. Encouraging attendees to step into the unknown, to explore the edge and the precarious, they demonstrated how intuition, improvisation, somatic intelligence, and “art-making” can help us navigate a complex world.

It was a wondrous session, so elegant and true that it moved many in the audience to tears. We were witness to a leadership lecture and a leadership performance, a reflection on beauty and the making of beauty at once.

John Michael’s presentation had many striking lines, but one observation stood out for me: the importance of the “third party” in relationships. Person to person, 1:1, he argued, we are usually able to resolve our differences, find common ground, and align. The complicating factor, however, is the presence of an actual or imagined third party — the voice in our heads that reminds of us the judgment of the public, a peer group, or a loved one; a codex, an image, a moral authority, or simply a social norm or convention: Would they approve, or at least validate what I’m thinking? Would they see my compromising as betrayal, my surrender as weakness? What narrative would they construct? Will they dismiss as awkward contradictions the multitudes that I contain?

While reminiscent of Freud’s superego, the concept of the third party is less of a conscience and more of a spectator. The third party affirms a collaboration as vital. True communion between two people is only possible if at least one-third party is part of the pact. We may feel friendship or love as a couple, but we perform it in front of others. The third party provides a frame against which we can define ourselves and find meaning. It is no coincidence that if relationships begin to erode, it is often a third-party fail, and one solution is to replace the inactive or no-longer-effective third party with another one: the therapist.

The importance of a third party applies to communities, too, which in essence are nothing but a string of relationships and collaborations connected through a shared purpose and shared rituals. But what is perhaps even more important is that in a functioning community, every member serves as a third party, actually or virtually, constantly or occasionally — like a circle where everybody can see everybody and holds one another accountable.

The third party provides the transcendence that true community needs. Otherwise, it’s just a tribe.

When I wrote my first book, The Business Romantic, I assembled an “inner circle” of people I knew really well alongside professional acquaintances and strangers whose work I admired. I invited them to join me for a one-day event in Munich in January 2013 to present my nascent idea and ask for their feedback, guidance, and support. They served as the third party for my personal quest, but by doing so they became my community. We became a community.

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