The Power of "We"

Psychologists often talk about finding the right balance in life. For instance, working hard but not so much that it negatively impacts your family or personal life. Or being close to others but not so close as to lose sight of where your thoughts and feelings stop and another persons’ begin. What makes this even more complicated is that the closeness or distance we feel from others depends partly on them and fluctuates over time. At the same time, there is often a misguided dichotomy that is used to discuss this issue that pits being a secure independent person against an insecure dependent one. Given that we are social creatures by nature, many argue that we need to be close to others in order to function properly and that interdependence is what we should aspire to. In an interdependent relationship, both peoples’ needs are being met. Within the context of an interdependent relationship, a couple can have fluctuating levels of both independence and dependence.

Research by Benjamin Seider and his colleagues in a 2009 edition of the journal Psychology and Aging looked at whether the language that couples use reflects something significant about the relationship. In the study, middle and older aged couples were asked to engage in 15 minute “conflict conversations”. Transcripts of these conversations were analyzed to see how many times "we" pronouns were used as opposed to "you and I" pronouns. The subjects' physiological and emotional responses were also analyzed to see if there was a correlation with the pronouns the couples used during the interactions. Ratings of marital satisfaction were also taken.

The results showed that people who used “we” pronouns had lower cardiovascular arousal, higher levels of marital satisfaction, and more positive and fewer negative emotions. Older couples were more likely to use “we” pronouns than middle-aged people. Apparently, “we” language relaxes the people that experience it. The researchers interpreted their findings to mean that “we” language reflects a sense of interdependence, shared responsibility and partnership. The fact that older couples use this language more often indicates that they have had more time to experience the ups and downs of marriage and therefore are more likely to have a sense of shared identification. In contrast, “you and I” words are often used as a way of expressing frustration with another person. This leads to increased levels of dissatisfaction.

Couples’ should keep in mind that the “you and I” language referred to in this study is different from the “you and I” language psychologists often encourage couples to use. In the study, the couples said things such as “you never” and “I always”. This way of using these pronouns conveys blame and escalates conflicts. Psychologists who work with couples often encourage them to say things like, “When you do that, I feel this.” Using “you and I” language in this way avoids conveying blame and promotes emotional understanding.

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Note: Posts on Family Anatomy are for education only, and are not intended to replace medical advice. If you need to talk to someone about family or mental health issues, you can get a referral from your family doctor.