What’s more effective than all your dating apps? Being a third wheel
Years ago, I was on a date with an aspiring comedian I’d met on Bumble. Halfway through, it was evident he only matched with girls so he could test out his material. Before he could set up his next joke, I wished him well, told him I’d look out for his next show and slid out the door. And then I deleted his profile immediately. Rather than head home and curse the state of dating in L.A., I decided to meet up with my newly engaged friend and her fiance at a nearby bar. I’d always welcomed the distraction of my couple friends — I’d entertain them with tales from the dating trenches and delight in their brutally honest relationship advice.
The three of us settled into a four-top next to a pool table. Throughout the evening, we noticed something: Our unoccupied seat served as a revolving door, a welcoming place for people to sit down and strike up conversation. Standouts included one 30-something who had a cool job at the Natural History Museum, and another who bashfully shared that he was the first to arrive at his own birthday party. (We bought him a drink and later gave his friends a hard time.) When I was left without a pool partner, my friends asked the group next to us if one of them would “help their friend lose gracefully.” A cute, seemingly shy guy volunteered — and later asked for my number.
At a co-ed breakup retreat in Northern California, attendees participated in a burning ceremony, learned about power dynamics from a professional dominatrix and more. Did they come out healed?
We lost that night, but after laughing and sharing stories, I came home with a winning takeaway: With the right people, place and POV, being a third wheel — a.k.a. third-wheeling — can be a great way to meet people in Los Angeles. Since then, I’ve perfected my craft: scrolling my contacts, identifying couples that I love spending time with and asking if I can crash their date night. “We’re on the precipice of a cultural renaissance,” I proclaimed to a friend as if I’d made a profound discovery. “Being the third wheel isn’t just a result of unforeseen circumstances; it’s the new frontier.” My social calendar has been booked since.
You might be thinking this setup doesn’t sound particularly romantic. And yes, it’s hard to shake the term’s negative connotations — the origin of “third wheel” can be traced back to the later part of the 19th century, referring to a horse carriage’s cumbersome third or fifth wheel, which lacked function and stability. It evolved into a contemporary catchphrase, meaning an additional, usually unwanted person who serves no useful purpose.
My PSA: The ride may be bumpy, but it’s absolutely worth it. We’ve been programmed for the fairy tale. (Or the “razzle-dazzle,” as I like to call it.) In the actual dating world, third-wheeling is an untapped social art form.
One reason it works so well is that couples are not just solid wingmen, but die-hard hype men. There’s a difference. “My husband and I will go out of our way to try to set our third-wheeling friends up, more so than we did when we were single,” says Avani Sivakumaran, a financial consultant and Los Angeles native who likes to invite her single friends on her dates. “We’re off the market, which allows us both to have vested interest in our friends’ love lives.”
I can attest to this: I’ve had couples flag guys down, ask for their phone number and then proceed to talk me up as if I wasn’t standing right there. “Do you know she runs the L.A. Marathon without training?” one couple once gushed. Or my personal favorite, “You two would have b-e-a-u-t-i-f-u-l babies — but no rush, she froze her eggs!” Mortifying, maybe, but the moral of the story is that the right couple will unabashedly champion you in ways you wouldn’t expect. (For those wondering, yes, the guy who learned about my chilled eggs in a Studio City fertility center did call the next day.)
And while there’s plenty to be gained as a third-wheeler, couples also find value in having a third wheel join them. Samantha Snowden, a Los Angeles mindfulness coach, says adding a third wheel on dates helps her discover new sides to her partner, while alleviating what she describes as “the attention load.”
“Observing my significant other as his own person, interacting with our mutual friends, amplifies the banter and keeps things fresh,” Snowden says. “It takes the burden off of having to be each other’s sole audience. Plus, I’m not forced to laugh at my husband’s dad jokes the entire time.”
Sivakumaran agrees. “We look for someone who can easily join, if not lead, the conversation,” she says. “My husband and I are both naturally introverted, so when our single friends are so open about the highs and lows of dating, we feel that we can be less inhibited too.”
Ready to start third-wheeling? Here are a few tips.
Choose the right couple
Some couples are better equipped to add a third person to the mix than others, so choose your two wheels carefully. First, the pair should enjoy spending time with each other. This may sound obvious, but trust me — I’ve gone from third-wheeler to couples therapist real fast.
Also, make sure the couple has been dating for at least three months. Once, a friend who was two weeks into a situationship with a stylish PhD candidate texted me: “You wanna third-wheel with me and Dapper Doc?” I was over at the restaurant in an L.A. minute (read: a half-hour). But once I sat down, I discovered this was the first time he was meeting any of her friends. He was nervous, and the evening was a blur of awkward banter and too much bourbon.
Neal Hruby, founder of Date the City, loves when he knows the couple well, explaining that a sense of familiarity and comfort “add an invaluable dimension.” As a third wheel on dates, he says, “I sit in the middle and keep each of them company during bathroom breaks, bouncing back and forth from guy stuff to the nitty-gritty, emo stuff. It’s a win-win-win.”
First dates with Hinge matches can pile up in your phone. Here’s why you should be regularly deleting the duds.
Pick the right date activity
Trina Hendry, who creates day-trip itineraries for couples and singles traveling together, says Los Angeles is an excellent city for third-wheeling because there are so many different date ideas that aren’t wrapped up in romance. “Attached or not, people find comfort in exploring new places in a group setting, and L.A. has so many laid-back outdoor activities — like hiking at Escondido Falls or at Will Rogers State Park — so it’s not a huge commitment to either party,” Hendry says. (I can attest to this — I once met someone while on a couples camping trip.)
My go-to spots in L.A. for third-wheeling: vibey rooftops with happy hours (Perch, Desert 5 Spot, Elephante), buzzing bars and eateries with seating that spill out onto the sidewalk so there’s a chance you’ll mix in with passersby (Capri Club, Idle Hour), and neighborhood joints with offerings like trivia, live music or stand-up comedy (Angel City Brewery, Harvelle’s, Blind Barber).
Think of “our date,” not “their date”
Most of all, buy-in from all three people is essential, especially you. If you’re feeling self-conscious, the date will be awkward for everyone.“Your mindset is paramount,” Hruby says. “Position it as ‘our’ date, versus ‘their’ date. If you’re confident and open to new experiences, chances are that someone with the same attitude will notice.”
If you’re single, it’s easy for cuffing season and the slew of end-of-year gatherings to turn you into a holiday Grinch. But I see this time as a welcome opportunity. (Q4 meet-cutes, for the win!) Wear your wheeler status with pride, join your couple friends on a date this season, and leave that chair next to you open for new possibilities. Maybe there is enough razzle-dazzle to go around. This is L.A., after all.
It's a date
Get our L.A. Goes Out newsletter, with the week's best events, to help you explore and experience our city.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.