In his book Wired for Love, therapist and clinician Stan Tatkin introduces the notion of a couple bubble, which is a “mutually constructed membrane, cocoon, or womb, that holds the couple together and protects each partner from outside elements.” It’s essentially a safe zone for the partners, buttressed upon an agreement to put the relationship ahead of other life priorities – a mutual pact to put each other’s well-being, self-esteem and distress relief first – as well a shared vision of relationship, and a concordant approach to navigating life together. In brief, Tatkin describes it as an us against the world mentality.

Closely related to the couple bubble is the concept of thirds. Tatkin describes a third as “people, objects, tasks, or anything else that could intrude on a couple bubble (an agreement to put the couple relationship before anything and everything else) or make it difficult to form one.” Examples of thirds are in-laws, substance use, untreated mental health issues, porn, children, pets, work, friends, hobbies, technology, and even healthy activities like exercise and volunteer work.

Tatkin clarifies that thirds are not always a problem – in fact, in and of themselves, thirds are neutral. They can even bring added interest to their relationship or positive energy if they’re an interest your partner is passionate about. They only become negative when they threaten the sanctity of the couple bubble. For an instance, if your partner’s college roommate is always the first to be informed of any good news about their job, you may feel demoted in your role as the primary confidant. You may subjectively experience the secure bond you have with your partner being threatened by the third wheel that is the college roommate.

Thirds are also not universal in their affect. A third that is a burden in one relationship may be a boon in another.

For those that lean towards anxious attachment, the couple bubble is a very appealing concept, invoking safety, security, stability, and predictability; a safe harbor in an otherwise chaotic world. For the more avoidant on the other hand, it may conjure up specters of codependence, suffocation, and loss of self. What feelings does the idea of having a couple bubble invoke in you? Have you been able to form a secure bubble in your current or past relationships? What thirds have either stymied or supported the creation of such bonds?

Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT is a teacher, clinician, researcher, and developer of the Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy, which is described as “a fusion of attachment theory, developmental neuroscience, and arousal regulation.” More information can be found at the PACT Institute.