Have you ever noticed that some children (and adults) do well with one other friend, but if you add a third to the mix, the dynamics become awkward? Two seem to click, but the third is on the outskirts? Or all are uncomfortable, competing to be the “preferred one” rather than the one left out?
I observed this recently with my two boys and a friend. The three boys were playing together. Andrew kept coming to me saying that the other little boy kept convincing Matthew to be on his “team” and devising plans to exclude Andrew. I thought perhaps their friend enjoyed Matthew more and was trying to play with just him. Shortly after that, Matthew came to me and said the little boy was trying to convince Andrew to sneak away from Matthew and hide from him. While my boys are used to playing together with one other friend and are used to the dynamics of all three getting along together, this friend didn’t seem to have the same familiarity with how to navigate those dynamics.
Did you know that succeeding in a friendship with one other person is a different skill from succeeding in friendship with two others simultaneously? Most people have learned Skill 3, Bonds for Two, but many did not learn Skill 5, Family Bonds, which is what contributes to this dynamic.
With a Bond for Two, we enjoy each other’s company and share the joy, and we learn to feel secure in our bond whether we are close or far away. Things get a bit more complex in a Family Bond. With Family Bonds, we have at least three people, which means while two are connecting, the third watches. If the third feels secure in their connections with the other two, they can delight over the connection of their friends or family members, knowing their turn will come.
If, however, the third does not feel the security of knowing that their turn will come and that there is enough joy to go around, the experience of “watching” is very different. Now watching the joy between the other two friends can breed thoughts of “they like ____ better than me,” “I have to get _____’s attention,” “how can I get ____ on my side,” or “no one wants to be with me.” The third person can then either accept “defeat” and bow out or fight for the attention of the other person so that someone else is the third person.
This is a dynamic I am unfortunately all too familiar with in my own life. I remember in high school when I would try to get together with two of my friends. One time, in particular, stands out in my mind—when I invited two friends from different circles who previously didn’t know each other. They hit it off and starting chatting. Soon they were laughing and enjoying each other’s company, and suddenly I felt left out. I worried I had just lost two friends because now they were going to like each other better than me. I was kicking myself for introducing them to each other and suddenly felt like I needed to get their attention back to me so at least one of them would like me better.
Looking back, I can see how this insecurity was unfounded. In fact, both continued to be my friends and didn’t hang out with each other much, but it is a great example of how things can play out when we don’t have the skill that teaches us how to navigate bonds for three or more.
Ideally, we learn this skill as a young child in our family. As an infant, my primary bond is with my caretaker (usually Mommy). As I relish the delight of joy with Mommy, I grow in my ability to navigate bonds for two. I also will have a bond with my secondary caretaker (usually Daddy) and will delight in my connection with him. As I grow in the skill of bonds for two, I can now learn how to navigate bonds for three. When Daddy delights as he watches me connect with Mommy, and Mommy enjoys watching me connect with Daddy, then I learn how to feel joy watching Mommy and Daddy share joy with each other. Three is safe because there is enough joy to go around, and if I am watching others connect in joy, I know it will soon be my turn to join the fun!
When we don’t learn this as children, and perhaps instead Daddy is jealous of my joy with Mommy, or I am jealous of Mommy’s joy with Daddy, I learn that when we add a third person there is not enough to go around, and I have to fight for others’ attention. This will then carry into our relationships as children and even adulthood. I don’t like having time with two friends at once, or I don’t like groups.
If we didn’t experience this as a child and learn the security of this kind of attachment, the good news is we can still work on it now! While the ideal would be to have two friends to learn this from where there is truly enough joy to go around, that is not possible for all of us.
Connecting with Jesus (Immanuel – God with us) is a wonderful alternative. Jesus is always happy to be with us (even when we have made mistakes) and can serve as the third face that delights over us as we connect with His other children.
At THRIVE Training, we do exercises in both scenarios—bonds for two and bonds for three—so that attendees can experience those differences first hand.
This week look for an opportunity to enjoy watching loved ones of yours connect with each other. As you see them enjoying each other, notice how it feels. If you start to feel left out, take this to Jesus, and ask His perspective. Is He happy to be with you in those moments? What does He think of your loved ones connecting?