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The shadow of the third – The Paradoxes of monogamy (Part 2)

“Monogamy stands alone, like the Dutch boy with his finger in the dike, trying to hold back a flood of unbridled licentiousness” Esther Perel


In the first part of this blog I explored some of Esther Perel’s ideas on the dynamic tensions that are inherent in long term monogamous relationships. This blog will continue by exploring some of her reflections on the challenges of the exclusivity of such relationships.


Despite its prevalence there is something about monogamy that Perel suggests is counter cultural. We live in a world that offers little help with staying put. We have a consumer culture that is always looking for the next best thing – the latest, the newest, the youngest. If not that then we want more – more intensity, more variety, more stimulation. In such a culture of instant gratification, it is no wonder that we can feel restless in committing to one person.


Perel feels that every relationship has to live with what she calls the shadow of the third. She argues that “the third is the manifestation of our desire for what lies outside the fence. It is the forbidden”. It can be the ex-partner you find yourself thinking about; your child’s teacher you flirt at school pick up; that friend on Facebook you have always had a thing for; that colleague you are very aware of; that stranger whose eyes you catch on the underground; that gym instructor; or the barista at the coffee shop. Whether they be fleeting or long standing, we all have times where our relationship lives in the shadow of this third person.

Perel maintains that the third is important because it points to other possibilities; they are a symbol of our freedom. There is something about the freedom involved in the act of choosing or not choosing that keeps a relationship alive. It is interesting to think that the traditional wedding vows includes the phrase ‘to forsake all others’. Not used much in common language, to forsake is certainly not a passive but rather an active verb. A synonym is the word ‘forgo’ – with its definition ‘to go without something desirable’.


Perel suggests that our relationships are not served well if we don’t acknowledge the presence of the third. She argues that we need to recognise that we have an erotic life independent of each other. That we have a sexual self that is discrete and autonomous in its desires. She suggests that:


“love is a matter of choice and choice implies renouncing others, but that doesn’t mean that others are dead. Nor does it mean that we need to deaden our senses so as to protect ourselves from their allure. Acknowledging the third has to do with validating the erotic separateness of our partner. It follows that our partner’s sexuality does not belong to us”.


Perel has observed that there is something about the shadow of the third that is enlarging and gives space to the possibilities of desire for our partner. Whether it is about the recognition of choice; the threat of loss; the injection of jealousy; the recognition of the desirability of our partner; or the recognition that we don’t own or even fully know our partners – here lies some seeds for desire. She explains it like this:


“I know you look at others, but I can’t fully know what you see. I know others are looking at you, but I don’t really know who it is they’re seeing. Suddenly you are no longer familiar. You are no longer a known entity that I need not bother being curious about. In fact you’re quite a mystery. And I’m a little unnerved. Who are you? I want you”


For Perel trouble looms if monogamy is no longer a free expression of loyalty, but a form of enforced compliance. She suggests that we are best to view monogamy not as a given, but rather as a constant choice. Perel argues that this act of choosing one another again and again keeps the relationship alive.



Perel suggests that actively inviting the third goes some way towards containing both its volatility and its appeal. She thinks that making the third a presence rather than just a shadow reduces the chances of infidelity. What does it mean though to invite the third? For some it might be about being able to talk openly to our partners about our attractions, and maybe being playful with it together? For others, who might find this more threatening or on occasions where the third is casting a larger shadow, then it might mean actively talking with friends about it. At the very least it involves recognising the ongoing presence of the third for each other, even if it is never named.



  • What does the third look like for you?
  • Is it one person or a few people?
  • Is your partner aware of the third(s) in your life? Have you ever discussed it?
  • What about your partner? Are you still curious about them?
  • Who do you think represents the third in their life?
  • Take a note of how you feel right now… How comfortable are you with these questions and with the subject of this blog? Are you able to name or describe the emotions that you feel.


Now consider exploring these questions with your partner and understanding their thoughts and feelings around this subject. Talking these things out can feel vulnerable for your both  – so our advice would be make sure you are in the right setting; in a relaxed frame of mind and not having had too much to drink!

Richard Elliott

Father, husband, teacher, coach & philanthropist. Richard is a director of Pickwell Manor Ltd and a founder of the Pickwell Foundation - a grant making charitable trust focusing on displaced people and climate change. He has a diploma in Business, Executive and Life Coaching and a background in Post 16 education in which he taught and managed Social Science Subjects. He has a particular interest in how values shape individuals, relationships, families and organisations.

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