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.