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March, 1999

Richard Trachtman, Ph.D.

Trees in Portugal

Here is a phenomenon I have noticed in my practice as a psychotherapist. Maybe you have noticed something similar among people you know. I call it The Third Party Phenomenon. It goes like this. Two people can be comfortable together in an intimate relationship, regardless of differences in their wealth, income, or job status - until concerns about how a third party views them arise. Here's an example.

Joe and Mary had been dating for some time. Mary wanted more of a commitment from Joe but, although he was sure he loved her, he was reticent. The problem had to do with money and job status. They both had good incomes, but Joe had spent freely and had little invested or saved while Mary had invested wisely and accumulated substantial assets. Mary did not consider this a problem because she felt Joe was very generous (generous to a fault, some would say), so she would have no problem sharing what she had with him. But for Joe there was a problem. She was very accepting, so when they were by themselves it seldom bothered him that his assets were so meager compared to her's. But whenever they were around Mary's friends and associates, most of whom were highly successful professionals or businessmen, he saw himself as inferior by comparison. He had remained stuck in a well-paid but (in his view) low status job. The unfavorable comparison he made between himself and Mary's friends worried him. In their presence, he saw Mary as one of them. He imagined others saw the two of them together and wondered what she was doing with someone like him. Then he began to doubt that Mary couldreally love or respect him.

The real problem was in Joe's own self esteem. He measured his personal self worth in terms of how he imagined a third party, someone other than Mary or himself, would rate him based on money and job status. What he was really doing was projecting onto others his own dissatisfaction with what he had done about his career and, seeing himself through their eyes, finding himself wanting. Spending money and acting very generous toward others was his way of trying to make himself feel more worthwhile, in his own eyes and in the eyes of others. But that doesn't work. His inability to save makde him feel out of control. These were personal problems; but they could undermine his relationship with Mary. Joe's problems with self esteem had gotten in the way of other relationships in the past.

Fortunately, Joe was seeking help. He had come to me for psychotherapy. We explored issues such as: why he had remained stuck in a job that wasn't fulfilling and what he could do about it; why he had never saved or invested; and how he could find ways, other than spending and being overly generous, to give him a sense of personal worth. As a result of our work together, Joe was able to make more of a commitment to Mary.

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