Worry Wise

Freeing yourself and your family from everyday worry, anxiety and doubt

How to Improve Your Relationship With One Simple Word

Behold the magic of the word "we"

Want to give something different this Valentine’s Day? Something that only you can give? How about a pronoun? A what? A pronoun. The pronoun “we” to be specific. Not romantic enough for you? Well, check this out:

Researcher Robert Levenson and colleagues at University of California, Berkeley, have been eavesdropping on our relationships and found couples who use the word "we" when talking, especially about difficult things, are happier, calmer, exhibit more positive emotional behavior, have les negative automatic arousal (i.e. heart pumping adrenaline and anxiety) and in general are more satisfied with their relationships (think: affection, respect, intimacy) than couples whose communication is more populated by the pronouns you, me and I. Those folks had more negative facial expressions, negative tones of voice and body postures (think: disdain, rejection, animosity). OK—quick pick: Which emotional experience do you want to cultivate in your relationship this Valentine's Day—and in general?

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When you see a couple in that relationship bubble of “we”—and let’s face it, it’s easy to spot the trust, love, and spark of these couples—you want some of that for your relationship. And you start to understand why traditional wedding vows talk about a love that no one can put asunder. What builds asunder-proof love? Connection.

What builds and reveals the connection in your relationship? Not big gifts, nor necessarily big deep conversations, as they are more occasional events. No, it’s the little things—the little words that you use every day that reveal the nature of your connection and the very mission of your relationship. Researchers find that pronouns shape and reveal the ways we interpret what is going on between us: “we” words set off a program of connection, “you” words set off a program of separateness.

So, whether things are great: “We’re pregnant!” “We’re in love!” “We’re getting married!” or tough: “It’s not you, or me, it’s both of us: it’s our problem and we can work it out together,” or just ordinary: “We need to clean the kitchen; then we can go to bed”—connecting with the “we” word means we aren’t alienated or alone. We are together. The person in front of you has your back, happily. The very landscape, the very representation of your relationship in your head is in the form of us, we, our, as in we’re in this together. Versus phrasing things in terms of: you, me, I—as in I’m not happy and you (and your messiness, bossiness, coldness) are the problem!

Where does the fun begin?

When we are thinking “we” our bodies respond in kind. The magic of this word we is that it’s a game-changer. When we say “we” we set in motion a “connectedness” program in the brain (and body) and so that rather than being in survival mode (think: you against me), we can be creative, generous, collaborative and loving whether we are cleaning up cat barf or making love. Because generous is what you do with people who are your friends not your foes.

When we phrase our complaints or observations in terms of “you” our tone is  accusatory and pop! goes the relationship bubble. Now it’s more like a relationship tribunal and there will be a sentence with one person left standing. It gets our amygdala (brain alarm system) firing for both the accuser and the accusee. In moments of crisis, the evolutional priority is to get out of harm’s way, and the physiological equivalent of protecting yourself from wooly mammoths or other dangers isn’t exactly conducive to romance.  

Maybe it’s easiest to understand the power of the word we by thinking of the alternative—the word “you.” When someone says you to us in the context of: “you never do x, why did you do y?, you don’t care, etc.,” we feel attacked.  Anxiety and adrenaline prevent us from remembering that the person saying these words (in a weak moment in response to their own anxiety and adrenaline) is the person who loves us and is the protector not the threat.

The fact is, relationships are a table for two. And if you want to luxuriate at the table with your partner, rather than one (or both) of you wanting to sneak out a window, hail a cab and be outta there, make sure that your language is the connected kind.

Now, if you are worried that “we” will somehow be a loophole for someone getting off the hook, and if someone does something wrong, they should have to own up, consider this: How do we own up best? When we feel threatened or when we feel safe? So say: “I want us to be honest with each other. Our relationship needs our trust,” rather than: “you never fess up! I can’t trust you!”

One more thing… if any part of you is suffering from a touch of “we-phobia” afraid that this means that you lose your identity and are subsumed or swallowed up in the mush of not knowing where one person ends and the other begins, take heart.  Thinking in terms of “we” doesn’t mean you lose yourself in your marriage, it means that there are now two people on the job of looking out for you instead of just one. So… here are a few ideas to get the emotional program in your relationship moving in the direction of connection rather than separation:

  1. Start the magic show yourself: Offer “we” or “us” statements out of the blue: “Let’s watch a movie tonight,” or “What do you want to do tonight?” versus: disappearing in front of the TV without saying a word. Or, say: “I’m really tired. Let’s go up to bed,” instead of “I’m tired, I’m going to bed”…or simply the disappearing thing again.
  2. Use your x-ray vision: Translate a “you” from your partner into a “we”: Realize that we all want to stay connected. So when your partner says—“you always want to stay downstairs at night! What’s wrong with you?! don’t you want to be together?!” You could get defensive and attack back, but instead you could see past the surface words your partner is saying and translate the underlying message: “We need to spend more time together. I want that too. We need to take care of us.” If you throw in a “you’re right, I totally agree” you get extra credit!
  3. Catch your own yous and accusations: Do a save if you have started with you. “You never want me to hang out with my friends” becomes—“I want you to be happy, and I want us to be happy too—how can we make this work for both of us? Let’s make a plan that we both like.”
  4. Ask for help; connection and collaboration guaranteed: Want to stay in “we” mode but don’t know how to get there? Magically, just by asking for help with this (with the added bonus of admitting that you don’t know how to do something) you have opened up the door for collaboration. You’re back at the relationship table, you’re in the bubble, you’re working together.
  5. Switch off days for being on “we” duty: Because we all fall prey to separateness or accusation mode, build in some security. Designate someone to be listening for the “yous” and kindly, humorously, or even flirtatiously rephrase them into “we.” 

So for Valentine’s Day, and every day, together, be that “we” couple. In good times and bad, stay above the grid-lock of local traffic (carpooling, doing dishes, paying bills) and reconnect with the big picture by doing what happy couples do: collaborate and connect. Be your best selves and best partners, and let those little plural pronouns be the secret agents in the big mission of your love.

 

Tamar Chansky, Ph.D. is a psychologist dedicated to helping children, teens and adults overcome anxiety and make the mind a safer place to live.

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