Communication, Language, Relationships

[I know. I KNOW. I have been trying to complete and publish something for *MONTHS* and failing. Depression is finally inching its way up and out at least. That’s been the lion’s share of the challenge, paired with ongoing health issues, and just trying to balance all of this with both work AND a spectacular kind of renaissance in my personal life. Now if cancer would just stop robbing me of people I love, that would be just dandy, thanks…]

Noting recurring themes in therapy is often what drives the content for these posts, and lately there has been a couple of big thematic topics cropping up. One of them is observing clients of all genders in relational conversations using something I’ve come to label the “Universal We”. Women in particular are raised in a social context that programs us to consider others more than we consider ourselves; our traditional roles as nurturers and care-givers primes us for this behaviour even when it doesn’t come with the traditional baggage of being homemakers and staty-at-home parents to the sacrificial detriment of our own dreams and desires.

Women have been conditioned for I-don’t-even-know-how-long to employ “softened language”, which takes myriad forms even in modern discussions. We preface our own ideas with, “I think,” “What do you think about,” “I believe,” or “How do you feel about.” For women to be as direct and upfront in what they want, need, intend, or desire, is to be seen as aggressive, even masculine. In corporate culture, forthright women on one hand were seen as being more likely to be noticed for potential recognition and promotion, and on the otherhand reviled for not being soft and collaborative enough. Men in the corporate world don’t generally get punished for being direct; women, on the other hand, get labelled as “bossy” or “bitchy” when they start sentences with, “I want” or “I need”.

This plays out in intimate and familial relational dynamics in very interesting ways as well. When couples in particular come in with “working on our communications” as the presenting issue, these patterns are among the first I start listening for. I also listen for the presence of “We-isms”, those intentionally-inclusive pronouns that carry a weighty IMPLICIT expectation.

When people use the “Universal We,” something very specific is happening in default social programming. The speaker is offering an implicity unity-of-purpose between the parties involved. “We need to set some ground rules around Little Jamie’s bed-time schedule,” “we should make plans for the summer vacation week,” “we really need to sit down and talk about last night’s argument” — these are all examples of ways in which the speaker is putting an implied invitation to discussion in front of a partner. The problem, however, is the that suggestion following the “we” language, *IS*, in fact, a universally-agreed-upon thing (value, intention, plan, whatever).

In truth, however, what’s generally underneath such language is a core need or want on the speaker’s part, either something the speaker wants for themselves, or something the speaker wants to request specifically of the listener. “I want to set some ground rules with you…,” “Do you have time right now to make some plans for summer vacation?,” “I really need to sit down and talk with you about what happened last night.” Such direct statements and explicit invitations are challenging in a culture that has indoctrinated us with the belief that women are meant to be soft and enticing where appropriate, yielding where required. Being direct feels like we are being threatening, and many women fear what happens when they put themselves and their own desires right up front in the clear to been unequivocably seen. To be explicit is to court rejection, and that’s untenable. So we interject the implied “we” in the belief that the softer inclusive language will magically provoke our partners into correctly interpreting our request as something that involves their active participation.

Unfortunately, what I see happening in relational (and often familial) dynamics more often than not, is the speaker is trying to enlist the partner into something that might represent a shift in their usual dynamics, either by engaging in a more collaborative practice than usual, or wanting the *partner* to take on responsibility, for something that has likely traditionally fallen on the speaker to do. And what I see play out is the listener translating the universal “we” as a status quo expectation; they may hear the “we” but the implicit received message is, “Oh, [Speaker] will take care of this; they always do”. So while Speaker says “we” meaning collaborative unity or the You-the-Partner, the listener is translating the vocabulary as we-means-Speaker-because-it-has-always-been-that-way. By the time such couples get to me, the one who most commonly brings up the universal we is frustrated beyond belief by their partner’s perceived lack of engagement, while the receiving partner is baffled by having never received an explicit request or suggestion aimed specifically at THEM personally.

The clarity of communication around needs, want, and related expectations can, and frequently does, get utterly lost in something as simply as pronoun usage. Softened language is endemic in all kinds of relational dynamics, and is a line of contention in corporate dynamics. John Gottman uses the principle of the “soft startup” as a way of easing into potentially challenging topics with a partner, and while this idea has definite value (especially as a practitioner of non-violent communications), it remains problematic from a feminist and feminine agency perspective if it encourages the practice of misdirecting the intensity or urgency of the needs we’re trying to address. Years ago, a very good friend of mine encountered something similar in her partner dynamics that became a clear illustration of the problems inherent in gender-biased communication dynamics. In the course of preparing dinner for her husband and child, she realized she was out of some critical ingredient, so she asked her partner, “Do you want to tgo to the store for [X]?” To which her partner quite truthfully responded, “No.”

My friend, like many of us, was raised in a culture of the “soft ask”, another deflective tool that undermines the clarity of our communications by implying or infering rather than being a clear and explicit statement or request of our own need. Instead of saying, “I need [X], could you please go to the store for me?”, the implicit ask tries to get the listener onside with making our need their need or want, so of COURSE they’ll want to go to the store.

Yeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaah… except when that runs afoul of someone who does NOT want to go to the store. Or sit down and debrief the most recent argument. Or make time to plan the summer vacation. Or whatever the implicit ask is trying to get them onside with.

And yet women in particular do this to ourselves ALL THE TIME. As a therapist, I’m only starting to catch *myself* when I use universal we-isms with my clients. It’s actually extremely problematic for therapists and any professional in a power dynamic with their clients, because while there are some potential points in which we share experiences, perspectives, feelings with our clients, the universal we isn’t always a great tool for joining them in a therapeutic alliance. I suspect most of us do it to normalize the client’s experience somehow, but I’m also aware that the disproportionate majority of therapists are WOMEN, so now I’m completely suspicious of how WE (delibate usage there) are applying that pronoun.

So what do I do with this once I observe its persistent presence in the room?

First of all, I call attention to it, and explore the speaker’s awareness of the pattern. We then clarify the intentions behind the usage. More often than not, it’s an intent to put a request for something the speaker wants or needs directly onto the listener. Sometimes the speaker is aware of a fear of provoking conflict or rejection, but more often than not it’s simply a learned pattern (as with my friend, this was just the way women in her family in particular had always operated, and to some extent the same pattern was reinforced in her corporate experiences as well). Then we work on deliberately correcting occurences of the pattern in therapeutic conversations, encouraging a movement from the universal we to the “clarified I”. (This is another application of the principle moving from an external locus of control to an internal one, but that one may take a whole ‘nuther post to explain.) We observe the new pattern in the field for a while and see what shifts in partner engagement and/or expectations, and we can adjust the communications around intent and expectation from there.

The dynamic of how we present our ideas and needs in relationship is obscured by strong traditions around these heavily-gendered models, and for many women and non-binary folks, there is an implied safety in assuming we can onside our supporters with inclusive language and implicit, invitational expressions. but we also have to balance out the likelihood of the implied communications going awry on the receiver’s end for reasons we may not be able to see or work around without challenging the receiver’s internal filters, an act that can seem too close to provocation, aggression, threat of conflict and rejection.

Sometimes the neutral third party of the therapist is a key component in shifting dynamics for partners afraid of taking up space in relationships, and sometimes really all we as allies need to do is hold up the observational mirror of to the behaviours and reflect what we’re seeing for clarification purposes. After that, we can unravel and reknit the intentions into something far clearer, stronger (without being aggressive), and more directly engaging.

Relationships, Self-Development, Uncategorized

There are some good and bad aspects to considering the difference between “I” and “we” in relationship. On the one hand, there is a general undercurrent of connectedness in “we” language that can feel intimate and close. On the other hand, however, a tendency to ONLY assume a “we” perspective means we sometimes miss something important happening with the “I”… until the “I” explodes in some fashion that probably surprises everyone involved, even the “I” in question.

We know I’m a writer, and that I believe in my mitochondria that words are incalculably important. So I listen as much for HOW people say things to me as I listen for the message threaded through/behind/underneath their language choices. It becomes REALLY apparent when I ask someone to tell me about their individual experience or feeling, thoughts, or opinions… and all of their responses are couched in “we” language. Even when I gently call attention to that language and get curious about it, if we’re not diligent in calling it out, it slides back in within a few minutes.

The discomfort of having to even THINK in terms of “I” often winds up being a struggle for women in particular, and I suspect there are myriad reasons for this:

1. Inclusive/collective pronouns speak to the idealism of the intimate unity–whether that intimacy is present in reality or not.
2. It softens the woman’s presence by obscuring or sublimating the individual; this fits with what I have observed over the years regarding women feeling selfish for even having needs, let alone articulating them, or (heavens forbid!) expecting their needs to be effectively met in relationship. We’re not yet clear of the culture that instills in women the belief that our core purpose is to sublimate our needs and care-take everyone around us.
3. It speaks to an assumption of shared values and desires that may have been verified at one point (but often not), and rarely updated or challenged over the lifetime of the relationship.
4. The speaker may struggle with the concept of “I” because of family of origin issues or programming or personal trauma, and retreat to obscuring collective pronouns as a kind of camouflage. To have individuals with differing or conflicting stances may introduce an untenable degree of tension for anxious partners especially, so “absolute we-ness” becomes a requirement for emotional safety. (From a family systems perspective, this is one of many ways in which fusion can become A Thing in relationships.)

Mr. Spock, in his tragic death scene at the end of “Star Trek: Wrath of Khan”, articulates something that has been bred into the marrow of womenkind of millennia as a silent, unquestioned expectation, yet for men (at least in this case) is the embodiment of Noble Sacrifice:

So, lemme say this again for those in the back: in men, the individual Self is All, and to sacrifice the individual Self for the Many is Noble. For women, however, to sacrifice the Self is so commonplace an expectation as to merit no wonderment at all, except to wonder that we have any sense of Self at all by now. Our sacrifice isn’t Noble; it’s Just How It Is.

With that kind of thinking at the root of our cultural values, is it any wonder that we have a hard time justifying and exonerating the “I”? I’ve already explored some rudimentary thoughts on the difference between being selfish versus self-centred, which go some way towards explaining why we come to believe the needs of the one have no place in relationship, at least until we’re so unhappy about not getting our individual needs met that we erupt from slow simmers to pyroclastic boil-overs.

Women in particular have been battling uphill against the “selfish” label for a very long time. When I’m calling attention to the undifferentiated “we” language in client sessions, upwards of 80% of the time, it’s with women. The vast majority of the time when I do, the subtext proves to be some variant of, “I must assume the needs of my partner/children/family have higher priority over my own needs, therefore I must couch my needs in safe, soft, collective language for any traction for them at all.” And more often than not, part of the communications issues driving one or more of members of the relationship into therapy stem from an increqasingly problematic assumption tied to “we-ness”: if the other half of “we” does not buy into the assumptions presented as collective thing, then what happens?? (Spoiler alert: generally the result is along the lines of, “WE” don’t do the thing “I” am trying to achieve, because “YOU” don’t want to.”) The assumption of collective consent to, or shared investment in, an idea or opinion is a common place for relationships to run aground, yet the ability to separate out the “I” from the “we” remains elusive in relationship dynamics.

When we couch our individual wants in the language of “we”, to some extent we’re giving away a degree of autonomy to someone else’s desires. If the partner resists or refuses the overture on the basis of their own individual desires, we can’t help but allow that reluctance to be the definitive answer, because we’re not good (again, I’m painting the situation with a VERY broad brush of generality here) at defending our autonomous selves. Having tied ourselves into the “we” for safety, when the other half of “we” shoots down a proposal, the proposal dies; it’s another way in which we externalize our personal locus of control. We can’t extricate ourselves far enough from the collective camouflage to assert what the originating “I” wants or intends. (My next Language Lesson post should maybe be about tackling a personal bane of relational communication, the “soft ask”, but that’s another post for another day.)

When I work with people stuck in the assumptive unity of “we-ness,” step one is often the process of reintroducing the “I” to the conversation. We sit with the feelings that come of voicing things in terms of the individual motivation, and perhaps more importantly, we explore what it feels like to make room for not one collective set of unified ideas, but two individual, hopefully complementary sets of ideas. A corollary benefit we sometimes observe is the partner’s sense of relief in being released from the claustrophobic fusion of that “we”. We work on the more insecure aspects of their individual attachments to shore up security and unity within the relationship without sacrificing the one OR the many. It’s a tricksy balancing act to develop from scratch, but not impossible, and usually each person HAS a raft of individual strengths we can leverage to accomplish this.

“But intimacy need not undermine autonomy, and vice versa; in fact, they support each other. Intimacy fosters autonomy since repeated experiences of caring connection, particularly in childhood, are critical for the development of normal ego functions, personal worth, and confidence; healthy relationships provide the “secure base” from which we engage the world as an individual. Autonomy – both yours and the other person’s – nurtures intimacy in many ways, including its reassurance that you can still protect yourself when you’re wide open to another person, and by giving an extra oomph to relatedness: it makes such a difference when you know that the other person really wants to be with you.”Rick Hanson, Ph.D.