Marriage: I, You, We And, What's In A Pronoun?

"The human being to whom 'I' say 'You'...I stand in relation to...The present, the actual and fulfilled present-only in so far as encounter and relation exist." Martin Buber, "I and Thou," (Ich und Du), Charles Scribner, 1970.

What is in a pronoun? Apparently a very great deal according to research done at U.C.Berkeley. A study of 150 married couples was completed at U.C. Berkeley and published in the American Psychological Association journal, "Psychology and Aging." The couples were middle aged and older. The middle aged group had been married at least fifteen years and the older couples thirty years and more.

One of the most important variables studied and reported in this research were the numbers of times couples used words such as, "we, our, us," as opposed to words such as, "I, me, you." The couples who reported feelings of happiness in their marriages used the pronouns "we, our, us," frequently while the couples who with lower feelings of happiness used the pronouns, "I, me, you," more frequently.

Interestingly, when a spouse used the term "we" to talk about an activity, the other spouse registered very positive feelings. In other words, spouses enjoy hearing their partner using "we" types of words.

This does not suggest that the road to a happier marriage lies in how couples express themselves. Rather, noting the types of pronouns couples use gives a clue as to how they see their marriages and themselves.


Buber was correct when he discussed the importance of relationships to human happiness. This is an important fact that many people have difficulty grasping and understanding in today's world and perhaps always.

I have counseled many couples who find themselves in a quandary about their marriage because they are having difficulty becoming a "we" as opposed to "me." Perhaps the reason is that some fear dependence on another person with whom they are called upon to share money, power and decisions. Perhaps some of them marry too young and have not outgrown the adolescent striving for independence from parents. These are speculations. Basically, many couples experience difficulty with the transition from being an individual to being a team.

I have often pointed out to couples that being a team or a "we" does not imply the loss of independence. We all too often hear the word "dependence" being used in the most pejorative ways possible. Its as if we are all supposed to be totally self sufficient and have no need for others. Perhaps this comes from our (American) frontier heritage where we value staunch individuality. However, there is no real conflict between teamwork and individuality. Yes, we sometimes need to subordinate our individual wants and preferences to the needs of the group, family or marriage. However, we also derive a great sense of security, being loved and loving within the context of "we." Being in relation to is an essential human need. We are not hermits. If we try to live too long in "Walden" we feel increasingly isolated and depressed.

Of course, people come to my office when their individual or marriage lives are in trouble. How many times have I winced in pain when a couple sits in front of me, angry, distant, brooding and, when they each begin talking the pronoun "she" is hurled at the wife, or the pronoun "he" is hurled at the husband. No longer are they Sally, Paula, Martha or George, Henry, Mike, if they ever really were to one another. If there ever was a sense of "we" it is long gone now into the painful "him," "she." Ouch!

What are your experiences with your intimate relationships? Do the two of you think in terms off "us" or in terms of "me?" Your comments are encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD.