Some relationship gurus advocate thinking of your relationship in terms of “we.” It’s sometimes put in terms of moving from “me” to “we.” At one level this makes a lot of sense and can be a significant aspect of couples therapy and secure functioning. But at another level it can get us (“you!”) in trouble.
The first idea means shifting from an individualist perspective to one that is more relational and inclusive. Partners often come in to couples therapy uttering things like “I’m not getting my needs met!” This is usually an indirect indictment of the other partner for either doing something they don’t like, or not doing something they want. Examples can range from things like not getting enough appreciation, or specific expressions of love (including sex), to not taking out the garbage, to spending too much time on work. Of course a similar sentiment can be expressed by more direct blame like “You’re mean to me,” or “You never get me flowers,” or “You always leave the lights on,” or worse. This kind of direct blame is certainly no better.
(Incidentally, complaints such as “I’m not getting my needs met” also highlight the problem with simple formulations of “I messages.” Starting with “I” and using the passive voice leaves no doubt as to whom is being accused of need unfulfillment!)
Essentially these are all expressions of Partner A saying Partner B is not behaving to their liking. It’s a one-way proposition (B doing or not doing something) that is unfavorable to Partner A. Or, to put it another way, it’s Partner A pressing for his or her agenda, putting the bulk of responsibility for the problem on the partner, and taking little to none for themselves.
This is where thinking as a “we” is a helpful shift. Most couples therapists recognize as a basic principle that both partners usually have a significant role in maintaining negative patterns in the relationship. So the problem would be better presented as a kind of group problem. “Here is something that’s not working, how can we work on this together?” Or even, “This is making me unhappy (worried/sad/etc), can we think about it together?” It’s moving from “You’re the problem and you need to fix it,” to “Here’s something that concerns us both, can we approach it as a team?”
Even if it matters more to me (or you), it should matter to you (or me) too because we’re in this together.
There are many analogies that express the importance of this “we” mindset, such as relationships being a three-legged race (if one falls, you both fall), or an ecosystem (see Your Relationship is an Ecosystem ).
Now for the downside of we. In a sense it is the opposite problem. This is the case of muddying the waters by thinking or saying “we” do something, or feel something, or think something, when it is actually not shared or not agreed upon as shared.
One example of this problem is what’s sometimes referred to as mind-reading: making assumptions or attributions regarding our partner that they might not agree with. Examples would be saying (or thinking) things like “We get anxious about going to the airport,” or “We have a spending problem,” when it’s not a belief you know for sure they would endorse for themselves. The best way to avoid this error is to speak for yourself unless you are sure, or check with your partner about whether they would include themselves in that particular statement.
This mind-reading may be a kind of semi-innocent lack of awareness, but it gets a notch worse when diffusing responsibility by including your partner for something that you might be ashamed of yourself. Maybe you don’t feel good about eating so much junk food, and in fact you eat more than your partner, but in talking with friends you say something like “We really need to work on eating healthier.”
Alternatively, one might use the same phrase, “We really need to work on eating healthier,” when you believe that your eating habit are ok, but you would like your partner to modify their habits, and you put it this way to try to soften the blame or not be too blunt. That would be another misuse of “we” that essentially just confuses things!
Similarly confusing is asking your partner to perform a task by saying “we” need to do it, e.g., “We need to take out the trash.” Of course if it is genuinely a joint activity in which you both participate, then that’s OK. But if you’re really wishing or expecting that your partner will do it on their own, it’s more murky than helpful, and may even be vexatious in its indirectness.
In concluding, let’s get back to the useful kind of we, with an embellishment that has the potential to include the separate me and you within the “we.” That would be where I acknowledge my part in the problem, empathize with what makes it hard for you, and include us both in the request to work it out together:
“I know that you really value space and quiet time, and that you need it in order to recharge after busy times or being with people a lot. And I know that sometimes I push too much for socializing and filling up our time with activities because that’s what gives me juice. So let’s work together and figure out how to balance the two so we get enough of what fuels us both
(I’m a psychologist with a private practice in San Francisco, specializing in couples and relationships — Photo credit: author)
This post was previously published on medium.com.
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