Welcome to It’s Complicated, stories on the sometimes frustrating, sometimes confusing, always engrossing subject of modern relationships. (Want to share yours? Email pitches to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Maybe I was naïve in thinking that four friends from high school could meet up for drinks and leave the fiancés and boyfriends at home. Maybe they thought I wouldn’t show if they’d told me that I was walking into couples night. (It’s true.) But I was already en route when I got the text, one that I would not wish on anyone: “Oh, and a heads-up: We’re all bringing our dudes.”
Here’s what I read, though: “You’ve been tricked! And also, you’re single!”
Once I saw the text, I immediately altered my course and found a Target to hide in for a few minutes. After determining that a half-hour was probably the outer limit of acceptable lateness, I steeled myself, made my way to the bar, and joined a crew of six, a vision of curiously wholesome and stable couples. In the first hour, we discussed the bad licorice a future mother-in-law had brought back from Germany, adopting another cat, running a business together — nothing that did not detail the nuances of serious relationships.
In the hierarchy of things that are bad about being single, being the seventh wheel falls somewhere between having no one to make you dinner and not having a built-in designated driver: not the worst, but not not annoying. I’m perfectly satisfied with flying solo — and actually enjoy being the third wheel — but being the seventh could be considered cruel and unusual punishment. My friends simply don’t know how to relate to my aloneness, a fact that becomes clearer the larger the group becomes.
It can feel pretty alienating. After enough time in that setting, I start to feel that the stories I have to share as a single person aren’t as noteworthy as the milestones couples hit together: weddings, home ownership, children.
I’m not blaming them, though. This disconnect isn’t really the fault of either party. Relationship coach and social worker Fran Greene, author of Dating Again With Courage and Confidence, suggests that it’s quite possible my friends who are in long-term relationships simply forget what it was like to be single, or how to have conversations that don’t tangentially involve their partner or the fact that they have one. And while a fifth, seventh, or ninth wheel may be tempted to slyly highlight this by making a joke (“Wow, I really wish I could be a part of this conversation!”) or turning their singleness into a silly game (“Hey, I’ll give you a prize if you tell me how to meet someone”), strategies like that can sometimes make things worse.
“Sometimes being single is the only way your friends see you,” Greene says. “That’s your defining characteristic and everything else about you is sort of insignificant, because they’re so focused on themselves being a couple.”
Katrina Evelyn, a professional life and relationship coach, tells me I need to be more up-front with my friends. After all, the reason they’re inviting me out isn’t to torture me; it’s because they genuinely enjoy my company. How can I expect them to know I feel outnumbered and uncomfortable if I don’t vocalize it? Ultimately, Evelyn notes, I’m the only one responsible for how I feel — and I can’t expect my pals to be mind readers.
“I went through exactly what you’re talking about and I never actually shared that with my best friend,” Evelyn says. “One day I broke down crying, and she was like, ‘Oh my God, I had no idea’ … Despite all my little hints and [that] I would get angry when she would invite [her boyfriend] sometimes, she really just didn’t get it, because she had never been in that position. I wish I hadn’t waited until I had a breakdown.”
Evelyn says it’s also important to recognize why I find the situation so frustrating to begin with. The sooner I recognize that my feelings are valid, and get to the root of what’s causing them, the sooner I can work with my friends to change the way we hang out. (This is when I realize my feelings of inadequacy are not stemming from the way my coupled friends make me feel in group outings, but from my own insecurities. But, like Evelyn says, that’s now something I have to ponder and work on overcoming.)
Still, no matter the reason, it’s not crazy to think that being the sole single in a friend group will impact your one-on-one relationships with those who are coupled up.
Social psychologist Bella DePaulo, author of Singled Out: How Singles are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After, has been studying single people and the effects of singleness for the better part of the last 15 years. She says it all goes back to how the single person is perceived by couples, however subconsciously.
“There’s a lot of dynamics going on,” DePaulo says. “We have what you call the smug couple. That kind of gives them this feeling of superiority over the single person. Then there is a caretaker-y thing: They’re the grown-ups, so they can guide the single people and treat them like kids. And then there’s other dynamics, like when they want single people to be their entertainment.”
“It’s not like we’re finding these oddball [friends] that don’t know how to do social interactions,” she adds. But “in the context of couples, they lose their social and emotional IQ.”
DePaulo’s advice: Avoid the default conversations that center on the solo friend telling the couple about their dating life, or couples running through suggestions for potential setups. Instead, she urges couples to inquire about what’s going on in their single friend’s life, their interests, their work. You know, normal stuff.
Another bit of advice: If spending time with a big group of couple friends is annoying, don’t do it. Spend time with them one-on-one, or do a little more third-wheeling, or make more of an effort to seek out the company of your single pals. “It’s important to have a variety of friends,” Greene says. “Friends you can call at a moment’s notice that will come over and commiserate with you about whatever, friends who are up for doing interesting things, old-time friends who you can reminisce with.
Sometimes our [coupled] friends just don’t get it.” I’ve certainly limited my time spent as a seventh wheel, and I’m relieved to say that, since that night, I have not received a single “We’re all bringing our dudes” group text. Here’s hoping it stays that way.