Couple Conflicts: My Problem, Your Problem, or Our Problem?
Why pronoun use during a couple's conflicts matters.
Posted December 1, 2021 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
- Communication between romantic partners involves interactions where the focus is on one partner (I-talk or you-talk) or both (we-talk).
- New research suggests that you-talk during conflict interactions is dysfunctional, but we-talk is functional.
- The research also shows that you-talk or I-talk (i.e. focusing on the stressed partner) is helpful in situations involving coping interactions.
Dyadic interaction refers to an interaction between two individuals, such as romantic partners. In general, when dyadic communication focuses on one partner only (“I-talk” or “you-talk”), it is associated with more relationship problems than when it focuses on both (“we-talk”). For instance, “You really should...” is often problematic; “We need to....” is not.
But is this true all the time—whether the communication involves conflict or support? For an answer, consider a recent study by Meier and colleagues, published in the November 2021 issue of Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. The study examined the association between pronoun use and situational relationship functioning, or signs of healthy relationship functioning, such as more positive interactions than negative ones (e.g., more listening and validation than blaming or defensiveness).
Investigating conflict interactions and support provision in romantic relationships
Data came from a project conducted at the University of Zurich. The sample comprised 365 heterosexual couples; average age of 47 (women) and 49 (men), with a range of 19 to 82 years old; most were White; the average length of relationship was 22 years (range of 1-60 years); 85% lived together, 66% were married, and 65% had children. Relationship satisfaction in the sample was high (4.3 out of 5, for both men and women).
The couples participated in three videotaped activities—a conflict interaction task and two types of dyadic coping tasks. For the conflict interaction task, each husband-wife pair identified a conflict topic and discussed it. Commonly chosen topics were finances, annoying habits, and communication problems. Afterward, the spouses engaged in two coping discussions. Each partner selected a new stressor that did not involve their spouse or the relationship. Then the person described the issue while their husband or wife listened. Subsequently, the roles were reversed (the order was random).
Interaction positivity. For the conflict task, both negative and positive interactions were rated. Positive ratings comprised affect/caring, interest/curiosity, constructive criticism, and validation. Negative ratings comprised criticism, belligerence, contempt, defensiveness, stonewalling, domineering, etc. A composite score for interaction positivity (the ratio of positive behaviors to negative ones) was created for each partner.
For the dyadic coping tasks, success was rated according to four categories: Problem-focused supportive/common dyadic coping, interest/curiosity, emotion-focused, supportive dyadic coping/common verbal emotion-focused dyadic coping, and negative dyadic coping. As above, a composite score for interaction positivity of the support provider was developed.
Relationship climate. To determine the relationship climate, three items (relaxed vs. tense, close vs. reserved, and peaceful vs. irritated) were rated for all tasks. Then, the average across these items was calculated for each task.
Pronoun use. The researchers calculated the use of I-talk, you-talk, and we-talk as the percentage of all the words spoken. Then, for each pronoun type, they determined the couple-mean (i.e. dyadic levels) and dyadic discrepancy (i.e. difference within couple). These were used as independent variables in the models calculated.
The reviewed study investigated pronoun use across different types of interactions and found that "[a]symmetric partner-focus (i.e. you-talk) was dysfunctional in conflict, whereas asymmetric partner- and self-focus (i.e., you-talk/I-talk; focus on the stressed partner) were functional in dyadic coping.”
You-talk was negatively associated with situational relationship functioning in all tasks examined; we-talk was positively associated with situational relationship functioning only in conflict discussions.
- You always….
- You never....
- Your problem is that….
Such language is rarely helpful when trying to resolve conflict. It is better to engage in we-talk and focus on the couple as a unit. Indeed, the use of we-talk represents a “shared resource” and can potentially protect against the negative effects of partner-focused interactions.
Whereas we-talk reflects interdependence, I-talk and you-talk often reflect separateness, distance, self-focused negativity, or blaming.
It should be noted that I-talk is not always dysfunctional. I-talk, as emotional self-disclosure, can be helpful for building intimacy and expressing one’s perceptions of a stressful situation or need for support (e.g., “I feel terrible about what happened.”).
In dyadic coping, it is important to focus on one partner: the individual who is stressed. So, if your romantic partner is complaining about a problem and needs emotional support, limit the use of I-talk or we-talk. Use you-talk to show you have been listening. Do so by paraphrasing, summarizing, or asking relevant questions (e.g., “Oh, you felt not just ignored but also abandoned and alone?”)—and use you-talk to express empathy (e.g., “How do you feel?”).
As can be seen, the usefulness of pronouns depends on the situation. Therefore, romantic partners who want to have a healthy and satisfying relationship may need to see themselves sometimes as separate individuals and at other times as one unit. This requires romantic partners both to be mindful of the situation they are dealing with and to develop the psychological flexibility to shift the focus to I-talk, you-talk, or we-talk as the situation demands.