Couples Who Say 'We' Fare Better in Fights

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Couples who consistently refer to themselves as "we" may get on the nerves of singletons everywhere, but spouses who use this "couple-focused" language may fare better during conflicts than those who don't, according to a  study announced this week.

The study found that using personal pronouns, such as "we," "our" and "us," when talking about a conflict was associated with more positive behaviors between the pair, such as affection, less negative behavior (like anger), and lower physiological stress levels during the disagreement.

On the other hand, using words that expressed "separateness," such as "I," "you," and "me," during the discussion was associated with marital dissatisfaction.

Discussions regarding marital disagreements can sometimes turn into hostile interactions, said study researcher Benjamin Seider, a graduate student in psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. "And our thinking is that, using the 'we' words in that context can maybe help realign the couple, and help them to see themselves as being on the same team as opposed to adversaries," he told LiveScience.

However, since the results are based on conversations that took place in a laboratory setting, more research is needed to firm up the findings.

Conflict conversations The study involved 154 middle-aged and older couples who were in their first marriages.

The spouses were video-taped during a 15-minute conversation regarding a conflict in their marriage. At the same time, scientists monitored the participants' heart rate, body temperature and how much they sweated, among other factors to assess their physiological state. All the data was collected back in 1989-1990 as part of a long-term marital study.

Seider and his colleagues went back and examined the tapes, looking at signs of emotional behavior, such as facial expressions and tone of voice.

In addition to finding that "we" language is linked to emotional behavior, the researchers also found that older couples used more "we" words, a result suggesting couples who have been together longer have developed a stronger shared identity with their partners than younger couples.

The overall marriage

The jury is still out, however, as to whether or not using such "we" words specifically boosts marital satisfaction. While previous studies have found such an association, the current study did not. "We were certainly surprised by that," Seider said.

The study's failure to find a link may come down to the fact that it was based on specific conversations rather than assessments of the overall marriages, according to Seider.

"The language that they're using is probably more reflective of them trying to regulate their emotions than it is about whether or not they're happy or sad in the relationship as a whole," he said.

The results were published in the September 2009 issue of the journal Psychology and Aging. 

Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.