There Are No We-Issues
All we do is fight—Our communication skills stink—We’ve stopped thinking about us—We can’t seem to get along—We don’t agree about anything—We’re just mean to each other—We’ve grown apart—We’re at an impasse—We need help.
I hear pronouncements like these frequently when couples first come to see me for counseling. Since both individuals are experiencing the same (or similar) strains in the relationship, it is natural for couples to perceive the “problem” as something that is “ours”, a “we-issue”. Whenever I hear partners speak of their relationship in this way—in terms of we—I learn precisely where to first direct my attention: on helping each person begin to think less in terms of “we” and more in terms of “me”. If this sounds selfish, callous or somehow unromantic, please let me explain.
“We” is a wonderful word that certainly has its place in any extraordinary relationship. After all, many of us consider union to be the highest ideal for our relationships, the coming together of two individuals into a single harmonious unit or whole. Two people meet, fall in lust and perhaps love, become a couple and, little by little, develop a common identity, one with shared families and friends, shared hobbies, a shared home and furnishings, shared lifestyles, shared vacation destinations, shared pets or children, and maybe, after a while, even shared fashion sensibilities. That which was once two, totally distinct and unique individuals fairly often, in this way, blends into an amalgam, a mishmash of selves thoroughly merged into one identity, “we”. In a way, there is something truly beautiful about this, the sense of commonality and accordance we might experience with someone with whom we develop a deep intimacy.
Sometimes, couples can indeed be excessively independent. If so, it benefits them to start thinking more in terms of “we”, thereby embracing the reality that they share common goals and can collaborate toward achieving these together. However, when it comes to viewing issues, challenges, or problems, it doesn’t help to perceive these as we-issues, we-challenges, or we-problems. Why? Because, if “we” have a problem, then “we” must be the ones to fix it. That might not sound so bad, but it profoundly disempowers each individual. It assumes that neither person can radically transform the relationship all on their own; it assumes that change requires cooperation—which isn’t true.
True union entails more than just two separate things being crammed together as one. Like the interlocking gears of an efficient machine, the pieces must fit and coordinate well. This is the type of union that works and is sustainable, a union that honors and values both individuals as distinct and equally important. In couples counseling, therefore, I generally see my first objective as transforming this notion of “we”, to loosen it up just enough to introduce self-responsibility, where the opportunity for real change awaits. My ambition is to get any twosome to transition from thinking about themselves as a couple (a single entity, “we”) to thinking about themselves as two capable, free-thinking individuals (“I”s), each equally empowered to do those things that will vitalize and transform the relationship. And so this is where we start. We start by recognizing that there is no such thing as a “We-issue”. We don’t have a problem or issue, I do. We don’t want to learn how to do things differently, I do. This is correct and helpful thinking. This is the attitude that enables us to start making a profound difference in our own lives and relationships, simply recognizing that this is about me, not we. Consider the oft-invoked marital phrase. Who has the issue here? “I do.”
As I see it, couples counseling is individual counseling times two. For both partners, the lessons are the same. The opportunity is there for both partners to focus on themselves and take an individual stand for the relationship by handling their own emotional challenges and trusting the other person to do the same for themselves. It’s not about helping each partner better attend to the wants and so-called needs of the other. Heck no. That would simply reinforce the problem that has brought them into couples counseling in the first place, namely, emotional codependency. And, where there is emotional codependency, conflict and discord are never far away.
We can think of codependency, for our purposes, as the opposite of emotional self-reliance or emotional autonomy. Emotional codependence leads us to erroneously believe that 1 + 1 = 1, confusing “you and me” with “we” (you + me = we). In truth, you + me = you + me. And that’s a beautiful thing, when we truly embrace this.
To make progress towards extraordinary relationships, we first disentangle this knot, this thinking, such that what initially appears to be one (the relationship) is restored to being two again—two individuals each on their own, asserting their emotional independence and exercising an informed choice to be with the other, 100%, or not.
In this way, we not only embrace our individuality, but we celebrate it. We celebrate our own ability to improve ourselves and our relationships, even if no one else cooperates with us. Besides, we can do this all on our own. We can allow one plus one to keep on equaling two, as common sense dictates. We can respect ourselves and our freedom to make whatever choices we desire, while respecting the freedom of others to do the same for themselves. This creates the foundation that makes extraordinary relationships entirely possible.
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