The Three-Part Relationship: Yours, Mine, and Ours

It might seem absurd or counterintuitive to think of a two-person relationship as consisting of three parts. So why would someone suggest you consider it?

As a couple’s specialist, I believe that both people must be able to stand firmly alone and in the relationship.  Think of your relationship like a three-legged table, where each leg must be strong: you, your partner, and your relationship with each other. To bloom a truly happy partnership with lasting strength, each piece is an integral part of the equation. If one person absorbs too much energy, the other gets left out. If not enough attention is paid to the relationship itself, your partnership suffers. Take away one piece, neglect one part, and you have a wobbly table.

Meeting Each Others’ Needs
Many people believe that the only thing they can work on in their relationship is their partner’s happiness. The problem with looking at relationships this way is that the person trying to make sure their mate is doing well runs the risk of neglecting him- or herself. This person may be sacrificing what he or she wants or needs in the relationship so their partner will feel good.

That might work for a while, but eventually the person doing all the giving can run out of energy and feel exhausted and depleted. If the pattern continues, those feelings can turn into anger and resentment. If one partner feels like they are the giver and don’t receive anything in return, he or she can end up feeling used and alone.

The receiver of this energy doesn’t get his or her needs met either. He or she may be happy for a while, but this constant state of receiving can become tiresome, too. There is no room for real bonding between the two because their positions are not equal. There is imbalance in the relationship.

Meeting Your Own Needs
I recommend that each person learn about themselves as individuals as an important part of improving their relationship. Part of self-knowledge is understanding what makes you happy. Do you know what makes you feel happy and fulfilled? If you think that being loved by your partner is all you need, that is not the answer I’m looking for. Your answer though, could be something like this: “I love to spend time working in the garden, and I like to volunteer my time with the humane society.” These are endeavors that could make a person feel whole and worthwhile. What about your job? Some people find their happiness through their profession—maybe this is your source of enrichment. By working to understand yourself as an individual, you will learn what you need to make your leg of the table strong.

When we as individuals have attained knowledge about ourselves, we are in a better position to stay in balance. Knowing what makes you happy is the best contribution you can make to your relationship. When you understand yourself and you know how to keep yourself in a good state, you will be a contributing member to the relationship.  Without this knowledge, you may depend on your partner to provide you your happiness—and that can lead to problems. When both people know themselves, they can spend time understanding their partners. When we learn what our mate loves, likes, wishes for, and enjoys, we become more adept at providing it to them.

Meeting the Needs of Your Relationship
Building the relationship together is like solidifying the last leg of the table. What are your combined values, goals and dreams? What do the two of you as a unit stand for? What is your “mission statement?”

You have a chance to create something unique to the two of you. Understanding all the pieces of your three-legged table gives you the best opportunity to build a healthy, lasting relationship.

© Copyright 2010 by Linda Nusbaum, MA, MFT. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Viki

    October 6th, 2010 at 10:32 PM

    Nice way of explaining how the relationship itself has a role to play and how we need to treat it as a third entity in order to make sure everything’s fine with it.I have always thought,like most others,that it is me and my partner who are the only parts of our relationship and that keeping each other happy was the only objective.

  • Frank

    October 7th, 2010 at 4:09 AM

    A relationship is like two sets intersecting. Although there is a common part that symbolizes the intersection, the original unique parts of the two sets still exist and need to be respected. This is how I see this analogy :)

  • Tess d

    October 7th, 2010 at 4:35 AM

    When I was married I was definitely not a part of the equation as far as my ex husband was concerned. Oh we had to worry about his individual needs and we had to worry about us as a couple, but peish the thought that I would ever want to do something on my own! That was sacrilege to him! I was so stifled in a way that I never thought was possible. And yeah, it really did not take me long to figure out that this was definitely not what I wanted out of life so before he couldbring me down more, I left. I have me back again!

  • Lynn

    October 9th, 2010 at 10:18 PM

    Tess d – I can relate to your marital experience. BUT you are a much wiser woman than I to realize you were losing yourself in the marriage and to be fully aware “that this was definitely not what I wanted out of my life….”. I didn’t want an obsessive and controlling man for my husband in my life – I definitely KNEW that’s not want I wanted – but yet I grew to feel more and more to blame for his abusive behavior. I thought if I could change myself in any way (what it was about me he said he didn’t like or made him react to), that I would make him happy and THEN he would love me enough that he wouldn’t feel the need to always be right and to control my every move and thought. I didn’t think he could possibly control my thoughts and feelings, but yet I let him do just that by actually starting to really believe I didn’t deserve any better. After 31 yrs of marriage, he left me one morning to go to work, and he never came backl I’m glad for you that you recognized what was going on and how that motivated you to move on. I wished I had had that “sense” or recognition!! Because I never ever thought he’d leave and divorce me after I tried so hard for SO many years to made him happy!! Now, I am so ashamed and I feel so stupid to have not stuck up for myself and not ever holding him responsible for his actions and in keeping his promises to me over the years to stop drinking. (He became an alcoholic and that only increased his anger and need for total control at any cost.) I have a hard time dealing with my past and am frightened of my future. I hope to feel good about myself soon.

  • Karen L.

    July 7th, 2017 at 8:31 PM

    My relationship with my hub wasn’t good since 2013 or earlier… I / we tried, it seems doesn’t improve / workout. Since when we never laugh together, share together. Until my trip to UK last week, we didn’t text each other for 8 days? I really want to give up the marriage, I sent him a long message about our marriage and I have decided to be friend / part of a family member only but he ignored my message… does it mean agree? or he doesn’t want to talk about it

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