Going From Me to We Is the Hardest Part of Love

Growing up, my family never had much patience for “we liked it” people, those couples who use the royal “we” as though their relationship is its own fiefdom. For instance, the husband who, when asked, “What did you think of the show?” responds, “Oh, we liked it.” The rule was that when one of these couples came to dinner, we had to contain ourselves until they were on the front walk — then my siblings and I would start in.

What goes around comes around, and in recent years that kind of teasing has often been directed at me. Or I guess, we, me and my husband, David, who in the course of our half-decade relationship have found ourselves, on occasion, speaking like the king and queen of Genovia.

The problem with “we liked it” has to do with identity. No matter how good your relationship, you’re probably not always on the same page as your partner. So speaking as a collective tends to come off one of two ways: Either you have no idea what your partner really thinks (and also don’t care), or you’re rubbing everyone else’s nose in how in sync the two of you are, practically one person.

There are a lot of things I’ve changed my mind about in recent years. But few are as significant as the U-turn I’ve made on relationships and identity, in my regard for the “we” and of all the cringe that comes with it. Secular American culture puts the self and self-fulfillment at the center of life. That emphasis, already ubiquitous by the ’60s and ’70s, continues to transform all areas of life — it’s become difficult, for example, to make any argument in a public sphere that doesn’t appeal to the ultimate good of one’s own happiness. But in viewing couplehood mostly as a vehicle for individual self-fulfillment we’ve lost the thing at the core of the romantic ideal of marriage: we.

Every relationship has its well-trod paths to nowhere. When David and I argued during our early years — whether over a big thing, like where we were going to live, or small things like the dirty dishes growing skins in the sink — we did so as individuals. I, especially, tended to approach our arguments as a zero-sum game. West Coast was a win for David, East Coast, a win for me.

If there was a refrain during these years, it was David saying, sometimes yelling in frustration, “We’re on the same team!”

I agreed with this, at least in theory. (It sounded good.) But that theory didn’t have much to do with how I understood, in practice, couplehood. A relationship, in my mind, was like a market economy. Yes, a loving couple shows affection for each other, provides acts of service and thoughtful gestures, but at the end of the day, each person has to look out for herself and her own interests. Especially — cue my mother’s voice in my head — the woman.

This is, admittedly, an unromantic way to think about a relationship. But it makes sense in the context of what the British sociologist Anthony Giddens, writing in the 1990s, called a “pure relationship.” A pure relationship is one that is entered into for the purpose of meeting two individuals’ needs and which continues only as long as it continues to deliver enough satisfaction to each. If your needs aren’t being met — or if the compromises involved are too great — you’re free to move on to someone else. Contrast this with a past vision of romance, one in which you find your one true soul mate and make a vow: for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health.

You can see how a common divorce narrative begins where the pure relationship model leaves off. The narrator (often a woman, educated, employed) describes why she chose divorce. The decision does not seem to be about abuse or infidelity, about money or children. It is not even about lack of love. The relationship was “crushing my spirit,” writes Lara Bazelon, in one exemplar of the genre. “How much of my life — I mean the architecture of my life, but also its essence, my soul, my mind — had I built around my husband?” asks Honor Jones in another. “Who could I be if I wasn’t his wife?” There’s a sense in these narratives that the woman’s identity, her very sense of self, has been colonized by marriage and by motherhood.

There’s a feminist reading of these stories, one in which the divorce is liberating and empowering (that’s certainly how their narrators see it). But there’s also a reading that acknowledges this divorce narrative — and the rise of the pure relationship — as symptoms of a society that is deeply skeptical, even allergic, to any mode of relation that undermines the individual. In secular America, the last sacred cow is the self. What is good for the self is good in itself. What threatens the self — whether marriage, motherhood, friendship or family — needs to be checked.

Twins, especially identical twins, offer an interesting counterpoint to this emphasis. Because they have so much in common, they offer a rebuke of sorts to our obsession with identity. In the book “Twins in the World” Alessandra Piontelli lists recommendations from psychologists on how to raise healthy twins. The list includes the advice that identical twins be made to sleep in separate rooms, dress in distinctive ways, and never be called “twins.” The sociologists Florence Chiew and Ashley Barnwell argue that to a society preoccupied by individuality, the tangled identity of twins is unhealthy. To allow twins to view themselves as a duo is to permit a “dangerous intimacy” that deprives them of their singular identities.

My husband, by the way, is a twin. An identical twin. A twin for whom, contra the psychological recommendations, twinniness is a core part of his identity. Throughout their childhood and adolescence, David and his brother chose the same classes, collaborated on group projects and partnered for debate. They weren’t immune to rivalry, but mostly they channeled their competitive drives for their team of two. Their stories of their times in high school are the story of the glory days of their partnership.

The psychologist Scott Stanley defines “we-ness” as a relationship where two people have a deep connection that bolsters a sense of shared identity. If you have a strong sense of we-ness, your partner’s satisfactions and dissatisfactions are increasingly identified with your own. Your goals have changed, too. The relationship is no longer “an exchange market where two individuals were competitors,” he writes, but “a non-competitive relationship that could maximize joint outcomes.” The point of life is no longer just to fulfill yourself — you’re seeking something for the team.

My husband learned early how to nurture a sense of individuality, but also a sense of joint identity and of a shared future. (We joke that when David imagines his dotage, he pictures himself sitting on a porch somewhere next to me — and his twin. It’s not really a joke.) He understands in a deep way something I still sometimes struggle to grok: that to love someone for better and worse, for all of your days, involves a certain kind of surrendering of the “I” for the sake of the “we.” It involves allowing another person to play a role in defining who we are and what we value.

Yes, this identification can go too far, creeping into enmeshment or codependence. There’s a risk of overidentification, of finding one’s singular identity obliterated by the couple’s identity, of one’s individual goals washed away in the couple’s new future. But fear of this extreme, I think, often pushes people toward an overcorrection in the other direction, toward solitude, complete independence, contingency.

I don’t know when David and I became a “we.” There was no moment of enlightenment, no ego death, no once-and-for-all realization that the boundaries between I and him are gone. In truth, “we-ness” is for us a sporadic state, something that lives in constant tension with our individual ‘I’s — perhaps especially mine — sometimes subordinated to them, sometimes elevated above. David thinks something changed at the point of marriage, that the legal creation of “us” also affected a deeper kind of psychological buy-in.

I think our “we” is more an accumulation of small moments. The table tilts, you slip into another frame, and the world looks the same but different. The language of sacrifice, for instance, doesn’t make sense. You can’t sacrifice for that which is you. His joy is not simply important to you because he’s important to you. It is your joy. The boundaries don’t dissolve, but they’re porous.

Michal Leibowitz is an editorial assistant in Opinion.

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