Here is a test for people in relationships. You and your partner have just completed a delicious meal at one of your favorite restaurants...
You both skipped the appetizers and ordered healthy salmon salads for dinner, not because you are trying to lose weight (you are) but because this restaurant is famous for their dessert menu. You are saving your calories up in anticipation of spending them for this exact purpose. Salad plates now cleared, the waiter hands you the dessert menu, but you hardly need to look at it: you are here for the chocolate mousse, and everything up to this point was a mere warm-up for this final crescendo of taste and texture. Your partner, however, is stuck, unable to choose between the apple cobbler with homemade vanilla ice cream and the banana cream pie – tortured, even, by having to make this terrible decision. You like both of these things well enough and you are even sympathetic to your partner’s plight but the waiter is, well, waiting. The waiter looks at you, you shrug your shoulders and make a vague gesture toward your partner, and you say … what?
For most of us who are married or otherwise in a long-term, committed partnership, we think of ourselves as being part of this bigger entity. Somehow, somewhere in our heads we make allowances for this, whether it be acknowledging ‘our better half’ or, grimly, ‘our ball and chain.’ Most of us would not think of staying late at work without calling our partner, grabbing a quick dinner on our own even though we almost always dine with our partner, or popping in the next DVD from Netflix without inviting our partner to join us. We are not free agents. There is a connection, and we abide by it. But sometimes it is easier to think about this connection and the unit we from – to really think about the ‘we’ -- than it is at other times. Jack Black does exactly this when he presents Kate Winslet with two towering frappuccinos in “The Holiday” – one with whip cream, one without, her choice – but that is easy: they were not even dating yet and, after all, she is Kate Winslet. Sometimes even in established relationships it is easy to remember that we are part of the bigger unit: ‘We have two lovely children.’ ‘We love to garden.’ ‘We just got back from Toledo.’ Factually true, these statements roll off the tongue with nary a thought. But what happens the next time you have a rare three-day weekend together, and your partner dearly wants to return to Toledo and you, uninhibited adventurer that you are, yearn to sample all that Columbus has to offer? Can you keep the ‘we’ in mind and make the sacrifice? Do ‘we’ really want to go to Toledo when you really want to go to Columbus? Can you set aside your immediate desires and give your partner what he or she wants? Can you forego Columbus? The chocolate mousse?
All too often in relationships, ‘we’ turns quickly to ‘you’ and ‘me.’ It happens, it is natural, and for most of us it takes real effort to overcome; evolution probably wills this to be so. When our needs are strong, or when we are tired, or when we are feeling unappreciated, we have to make an extra effort to get outside ourselves and see the ‘we.’ Does it matter? Are there benefits to be had from making this effort? Some recent research indicates that the answer may be yes. Psychologists are pretty good at counting things, and counting the number of times two partners in a relationship use various pronouns is easy to do. We learn from recent studies that when couples use the pronoun “we” in their conversations they also show more positive emotions and fewer negative emotions (Seider et al., 2009). Alas there appear to be more costs to be had from using ‘pronouns of separation’ – ‘me’ and ‘you’ – than there are benefits to be gained from using ‘we’ but still the basic point remains: shifting one’s statements away from separating pronouns and toward the collective ‘we’ is a sign that your conversations are emotionally healthy. Remarkably, patients who have experienced heart failure are in better health six months later if they have a partner who is inclined to speak in terms of ‘we’ and not ‘me’ (Rohrbaugh et al., 2008).
Will this simple idea resolve any tension you might be feeling in your relationship? These are not formal experiments so we cannot say with certainty what causes what. A developed sense of ‘we-ness’ might only be a consequence of already being in a happy relationship, a pleasant by-product of an intimate connection you have already forged. It is easy to think of our partner’s welfare if we feel we are loved and appreciated by our partner. But I think there is more going on here than that. If your problems are relatively few, and you are looking for the simplest of ways to reconnect and re-energize your relationship, now you have a viable option: find ways to converse from the perspective of the we, the partnership, especially when it might be a challenge to do so. This may be a great way to prevent difficult conversations from getting out of hand. ‘We’ invites our partner into the conversation, even into a difficult conversation, while ‘you’ versus ‘me’ divides us and puts our partner on the defensive. Which sounds better, “We do not seem to be getting on so well sexually” or “You are not very responsive to me in bed.”?
So which is it? Do you gently and suavely coax your partner toward a decision by saying, “I will have the chocolate mousse, of course, and my partner will have the ….” Perhaps you will take the high road and say, “We will have two desserts, the apple cobbler with the homemade vanilla ice cream and the banana cream pie. Two spoons each. We will either split them, or I will take the one that you like least – whichever you prefer, dear.”
Rohrbaugh, M.J., Mehl, M.R., Shoham, V., Reilly, E.S., & Ewy, G. (2008). Prognostic significance of spouse we talk in couples coping with heart failure. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 76, 781-789.
Seider, B.H., Hirschberger, G., Nelson, K.L., & Levenson, R.W. (2009). We can work it out: Age differences in relational pronouns, physiology, and behavior in marital conflict. Psychology and Aging, 24, 604-615.