We all know there's no "I" in team. But a new study suggests having too much "I" in a marriage might be a problem as well.
The study, published recently in Psychology and Aging by a team of UC Berkeley researchers, looked at more than 150 middle-aged and older married couples; the middle-aged couples had been married for at least 15 years, the older couples for at least 30. The couples, who varied in the level of happiness they reported with their marriage, engaged in a 15-minute conversation about a conflict they'd had. During this discussion, the researchers monitored each spouse's physiological signals, such as their heartbeat, as well as emotional signs like their tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language.
They also recorded how frequently the spouses used words like "we," "our," and "us"—words that previous research has linked to feelings of interdependence, shared responsibility, and partnership. They also looked for "separateness" words like "I," "me" and "you," which signify dividedness and a focus on oneself.
The results showed that couples who used "we"-words had interactions with high levels of positive emotional behavior, low levels of negative emotional behavior, and low levels of physiological stress. Interestingly, when one spouse used we-language, it was the other spouse who felt better.
On the other hand, spouses who used a lot of "me/you" language experienced high levels of negative emotional behaviors and said they were more dissatisfied with their marriages; their partners felt the same way.
What's more, the researchers found that older couples tended to use more "we" words than the middle-aged couples, but the same amount of separateness words. The researchers explain this finding by proposing that because older couples have been together longer, their many shared experiences have likely fostered a greater sense of joint identity.
"It appears that pronouns," the authors conclude, "a seemingly innocuous part of everyday speech, provide an important window into the inner workings of intimate relationships, the qualities of the connections between partners, and the ways that emotions are expressed and regulated as couples deal with the inevitable problems that arise in married life."
About The Author
Katie Goldsmith is a Greater Good editorial assistant.