As a reminder, the suit of swords is driven by masculine energy and channels the power of the intellect and mind, including all the concepts, knowledge, and beliefs that it holds. Scholars and academics have connected the suit of swords to the classical element of air, and most of the cards from that suit embody the symbolic attributes of this element, one way or another.
Three of Swords card: Traditional meanings
Drawing the three of swords in a tarot reading is always a painful and difficult experience. Like the obviously negative iconography used in the illustration for this minor arcana, the situation is bleak and painful, so much that the subject might feel pinned to the ground like the heart on the card. The best way to deal with such a situation is to accept it, assess the damage that was done, see how that damage changed the status quo, and start building again using all the broken pieces to turn them into something better, bigger, and stronger.
Upright: Division, rupture, heartbreak, sorrow, betrayal, and uncomfortable truths.
Reversed: Confusion, cruelty, alienation, and altered sense of self.
Upright Three of Swords card
The Rider-Waite Smith(RWS) tarot provides a rather striking image for the illustration of the three of swords. There are no human characters present, but a very large heart (using the traditional symbol for the heart instead of a realistic depiction) in a rather precarious situation.
Heavy clouds can be seen in the background, it is raining intensely, and in colored versions of the RWS deck, the background is usually a dull and depressing gray. On the foreground, the heart has to endure a trial of its own, stabbed with the three swords of the minor arcana planted deep within.
As can easily be guessed from the rather bleak and depressing image painted by the illustration of the Three of Swords, there is almost no context that will provide a positive meaning to the appearance of the three of swords in a reading. The same applies to other cards from the suit of Swords.
Even tarot decks that try to steer the iconography away from the traditional RWS deck usually paint a scene that leaves no room for doubt that this is a mainly negative card, a call for action or attention to an uncomfortable problem in the reading
Reversed Three of Swords card
By looking at the traditional representation of the three of swords in the Rider Waite Smith deck, most people would be able to correctly guess the main concept embodied by this card: heartbreak. One might expect this to be part of the suit of Cups because the heart is usually a metaphor for emotions and feelings, but here the minor arcana meaning is focused on the actual consequences of these hurt feelings on the mind and mental state of the subject, which explains why it is part of the suit of Swords.
The emotional pain that comes from heartbreak fills the mind with sorrow and grief, and the feeling of helplessness that comes from the intellect trying to make sense of the pain that it feels, and unable to because its source is emotional and not logical.
When the three of swords is reversed in a reading, it focuses on the overall confusion brought by the feelings of heartbreak. The pain experienced by the subject is stunning them into passive suffering. Conversely, depending on context, a reversed three of swords could also represent the subject of the reading deliberately inflicting emotional pain on someone else, being the perpetrator instead of the victim.
Three of Swords and love
The traditional image used in the Rider-Waite tarot deck is quite transparent regarding what the three of swords meaning is when encountered in a tarot spread that focuses on love. It is a sign that something bad is happening to the emotions of the subject. It might signal a slippery slope leading to an eventual breakup, or simply something that will deeply hurt one or the other within the relationship. As usual, the tarot reader should focus on contextual clues to provide advice about this difficult situation and see if there might be a way to avoid it or better deal with its consequences in the long term.