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We, Ourselves, and Me

Can using first-person plural pronouns increase a couple's happiness?



Out in our sunny backyard, I’d broken my wife’s favorite bucket by playfully tossing a giant jar of out-of-date peanut butter into it from 20 feet away. Swish. Crack. Now Terri was (rightly) berating me.

“I needed that bucket. That’s the biggest bucket I have.”

At first, I pleaded ignorance. “I didn’t know the cheap thing would break,” I said.

She remained put out, so I decided to try something new.

I happened to have just finished reading a recent study out of UC Berkeley called “We Can Work It Out,” which found that couples who referred to themselves using plural pronouns such as we and our were more likely to resolve their marital conflicts peacefully. On the other hand, those who favored pronouns such as I, me, and you tended to feel more stress, and less marital satisfaction. 

“Well,” said I, slowly, tentatively, “perhaps, if we were to seek out a new bucket for, um, ourselves—and our backyard—our marital satisfaction would remain high, in spite of this momentary disturbance ... between us.”

It is difficult to say whether Terri was responding to the inclusiveness of my pronouns or just thrown off balance by the weird syntax, but it worked.

“OK,” she said, then walked away, muttering to herself. But she did forget all about the bucket.

Nevertheless, I remained leery of the study’s conclusions. The researchers had observed 154 15-minute “conflict” conversations between couples whom they admit amounted to a pretty homogeneous grouping: mostly Berkeleyites, predominantly Caucasian, upper middle class, white-collar, well-educated, Judeo-Christian. I myself am predominantly Caucasian and most of those other things. And I love Berkeley. But I couldn’t help but see this collection of couples as representing a species unto itself. I continue to wonder if the language of we-ness would play as well in, say, Boise.

Still, having had the occasional non-bucket-related marital problem in nearly 20 years with Terri, I was willing to keep trying, in Oakland. I had always tended to cast a dubious eye on the kind of couples who lived life on exactly the same page, who seemed to have allowed themselves—their selves—to be swallowed up in a collective we. We’re vegetarians. We don’t have a TV. We go to the gym together every morning. We prefer our Marlboros red and our whiskey by the gallon. That’s a lot of we-ness. Terri and I enjoy doing stuff together but not quite to that level of purity. I’m a vodka person, for example, whereas she is more the orange juice type.

But in the days after reading “We Can Work It Out,” I found myself questioning our comparative independence. For the first time, I worried about whether my life, and my personality, such as it is, had melded sufficiently with hers. Certainly our hair looks a lot alike. Also, we are exactly the same height. But I had always felt embarrassed, even apprehensive, when she and I, I mean, we, had agreed too uniformly on things like movies or restaurants or people, or that The Office is a good show but not actually that funny, or that the actress Anne Hathaway has nice skin, but if you really take a moment to consider her face, you gotta admit she’s slightly homely.

I began to wonder if those swallowed-up couples weren’t happier than I. I mean, us. So I asked Terri what she thought I should do, and she said she felt we were happy enough, but that if I wanted to broadcast our happiness, I could certainly go ahead and pay more attention to the way I talked. I found her use of the language of separateness worrisome and resolved to continue using the language of we-ness, just to see how it worked.

I can’t say it made me feel less stress, but I did feel more concise, which was nice. For example, before, I might have said, “I went out to dinner last night and had an excellent steak. My wife was there, too.” Or, “I had great sex last night. My wife was there, too.” Now I found myself saying, “Last night, we had dinner and sex.” That way it became clear to anyone listening that, like other couples who tended toward the language of we-ness, we were satisfied in our marriage.

Admittedly, my verbal vigilance was relatively short lived. And as I found myself slipping back into my old separatist ways, I couldn’t help but feel that no matter how satisfying a marriage may be, our unconscious choices to use singular or plural pronouns in a particular conversation, whether about a marital conflict or a marital pleasure, are pretty random, probably not that telling, and depend a lot on that day’s mood, or moon, or the subject matter, or a million other intimate intricacies in a given relationship.

Still, I was grateful that the study had made me think about these things. This is important marital stuff: the words we use, how we talk to each other, especially when we’re at odds. And if you see your spouse as a part of you, and yourself as a part of your spouse, you probably are likelier to be patient and kind, and to feel more secure and less stressed out.

Two people becoming one in marriage can be a wonderful thing. It makes the country of marriage a more beautiful place. Since entering that land, I, myself, have lived pretty much happily ever after. My wife was there, too. She got a new bucket for Valentine’s Day.

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