As Michael Jackson once famously sang: “I used to say ‘I’ and ‘me’/Now it’s ‘us’, now it’s ‘we’.” Yes, we know he was singing about a rat – but, if you find yourself making this same linguistic choice when talking about your significant other, it could be a sign that your relationship is on the up and up.
A team of researchers at Concordia University, Quebec, undertook a longitudinal study to test the hypothesis that “we-talk” – the use of first-person plural pronouns like “us” and “we” – would be associated with greater marital harmony. The authors thought that there could be a benefit associated with thinking of oneself and one’s spouse as a team, demonstrated by a tendency towards the use of plural pronouns.
“The use of ‘we’ by spouses may highlight a shared identity, or ‘we-ness,’ rather than a separate or individualistic construal of the self within a romantic relationship,” wrote the team in their paper.
The study included 77 heterosexual couples, and there were some stipulations: all couples had to be cohabiting, as well as being legal guardians to a child under the age of 7. The study was conducted bilingually, in either English or French according to the preferences of each couple.
Each spouse took turns in leading a short discussion while an experimenter watched on from another room, centered around the experience of raising their child with their partner. This topic was chosen because raising a child is a “shared stressor”, something that affects both partners and is associated with increased conflict within a relationship. The spouse not leading the discussion was instructed to “interact with their partner in whatever way they wanted.”
Before the discussions, =then at six and 12 months later, the couples were asked to complete a marital satisfaction rating questionnaire. Transcripts of the couples’ conversations were run through a text analysis program to measure the use of plural versus singular pronouns.
For the purposes of the analysis, each married pair was assessed as either an “actor” (the person leading the discussion) or a “partner” (the person responding to the discussion). The results showed that the actor’s use of we-talk was associated with a change in marital satisfaction over time. For the partners, there was a link between the use of we-talk and satisfaction when the baseline measurements were taken before the study, but this was not predictive of any change in satisfaction over time.
“These results suggest that while the use of we-talk may be concurrently positively associated with our partner’s marital satisfaction, it is one’s own use of we-talk that is predictive of one’s own marital satisfaction over time,” the authors write.
In other words, thinking of your spouse as a supportive partner during stressful times, such as raising a young child, may protect you from becoming dissatisfied with the marriage as time goes on.
There are some clear limitations to this study, most obviously that only heterosexual couples were included – the results may therefore not be generalizable to a wider population. There could also have been some nuanced linguistic differences at play between the conversations held in English and those held in French, which were not captured because the analysis was performed in the same way in all cases.
However, it is important to note that much of the previous research has focused on the effect of we-talk on relationships where one partner is experiencing a serious health problem – that’s quite a different dynamic from this study, which looked at a stressful situation that is shared between both partners.
These results, therefore, represent an interesting piece of a complex puzzle. The authors note several areas for further research, and ultimately conclude that “the present work demonstrates that we-talk may serve as an observable indicator of relationship satisfaction stability over time.”
The study is published in the journal Personal Relationships.