The secret to a healthy, happy relationship could be found in the simple way we speak to our partners. In a comprehensive analysis reviewing thousands of couples, researchers found that using first-hand personal pronouns such as “we” and “us” could foreshadow successful relationship outcomes.
This so-called “we-talk” shows an interdependence between two people, shifting their orientation away from the self and towards the relationship.
A team of researchers analyzed 30 studies involving nearly 5,300 participants, half of whom were married, to measure couples' satisfaction, the duration of their relationship, their behaviors, mental and physical health, and how well they take care of themselves. In all categories, both men and women of all ages benefited in relationships that use “we-talk” to resolve issues.
Our partners influence the way we think, feel, and behave through shared experiences and interactions. This influence, dubbed the “interdependence theory” in the 1950s, follows that partners who are inclusive in how they think and act are more successful during stressful periods. It also helps partners to understand and care for each other, as well as meet one another's desires and needs.
Using these pronouns indicates a “shared identity rather than an individual one,” write the authors in the Journal of Science and Personal Relationships. Partners become more interdependent as they shift from two separate entities – you and I – to a shared one. Saying things like “we can work this out” rather than “you and I can work this out” expresses support, suggesting the problem is shared and both partners will work together to address it.
As the authors note, the study does bring about a chicken-or-the-egg situation: Does we-talk make for happy couples or are happy couples more apt to use this language?
"It is likely both," said study author and psychologist Megan Robbins in a statement. "Hearing yourself or a partner say these words could shift individuals' ways of thinking to be more interdependent, which could lead to a healthier relationship."
"It could also be the case that because the relationship is healthy and interdependent, the partners are being supportive and use we-talk."
However, there are times when we-talk can become negative, such as when one’s partner isn’t able to reciprocate support or relationship maintenance. There could also be negative implications when it comes to physical health, like enabling unhealthy habits or prioritizing the relationship above one’s personal well-being.
The authors note several limitations in their study, including the relatively small number of studies and a lack of variation in methodologies for measuring relationship and health behaviors. It is worth noting that conversations between couples were held in a controlled setting, and, of course, couples will talk differently when it’s just the two of them.