I read some wonderful advice a few weeks ago regarding marriage relationships. (I wish I could find the reference but you know how fast information moves online…a few weeks ago might as well be decades, so good luck finding the link.) But regardless of where it came from it was sound advice. Essentially it was that couples who use “we” terminology when discussing problems are better able to resolve conflict and are happier in their relationships.
After reading that I thought about the last argument I had with my husband. We don’t argue as much as we did in our early marriage because we’ve learned to communicate more effectively, but there was an argument a few months ago that got out of control and left us both angry and hurt. I tried to remember where our communication broke down but it was so long ago I couldn’t remember the details. What I do remember, though, is that by the end of it our argument was accusatory and full of “you” statements.
“You always” or “you never”…it seems obvious now how self-defeating those statements are. Firstly, those statements are untrue. We react differently on different days: sometimes one of us is cross or grumpy and the other is helpful and patient, sometimes we switch those roles and take our turn being either grumpy or patient. So “always” and “never” are misleading at best. Second, whether true or not, they are completely unhelpful to our goal of being united. Having someone throw accusatory statements about how you act is never very likely to get you on board to change. It is likely, however, to make you feel defensive and start throwing out your own accusatory statements.
Imagine instead that your spouse spoke about your combined actions, using statements like “we aren’t always very good at…” or “it’s taking us a while to learn this…” and even “look at us getting better at…” and not in an ironic or sarcastic sense, but in absolute sincerity at working on something together. Imagine how that would bolster your attitude, knowing that you had a partner working on difficult issues WITH you instead of what amounts to a disappointed roommate.
So I remembered these things this weekend when an issue came up that usually tends to put us on opposite sides of the mat. I tried to use “we” statements that, instead of accusations, were intended to show us as a team, working through this problem hand in hand. Was it a great conversation? Not necessarily, it was still pretty bumpy. But did it end better? You bet. How grateful I was for good advice that prompted my husband and I to listen to each other (rather than talk over each other) and work on something as partners rather than opponents.
At the end of our conversation my husband pointed out that he was grateful I was his “co-captain” and I thought that was perfectly appropriate. My mission in life isn’t to point out all of his faults or make him be a better person, any more than that is his mission in life with me. Instead, we work to be one in purpose and lift each other up the rocky parts that ultimately will mold us to become the best we can be. But we can’t do it by shouting down unhelpful suggestions about what the other person is doing wrong to climb the path of life. We are better when we hold hands and navigate as partners. As Aristotle wisely said, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”