by Beth O’Brien, PhD: Being “you” and being “us” at the same time (“mwe”) and embracing interdependence is the key to a long-lasting, loving relationship…
Damon and Tiana have been dating a little over a year and have recently made plans to move in together.
Damon is confident that Tiana is “the one,” so he frequently demonstrates how much he loves her by doing exactly what he would like her to do for him: making her barbecue chicken for dinner, enveloping her in long teddy-bear hugs, and buying her extravagant gifts like lingerie.
Tiana appreciates his efforts—but these gestures aren’t what make her feel loved. She prefers vegetables over meat, finds long hugs claustrophobic, and her favorite loungewear is boy shorts with a tank top.
Me-ism: Commitment Barriers
While trying to be an outstanding boyfriend, Damon is operating from a one-person psychological system, investing in demonstrations of love which meet his needs, instead of investing time getting to know his partner’s love language.
Committing to someone requires placing trust and faith in the relationship. Dr. Stan Tatkin, psychologist and author of We Do, states that the most important reason humans bond in pairs is to become a thriving survival unit—to feel safe and secure in the world. When singles choose a partner, it’s important for them to focus on the relationship, not just on individual needs.
Learning about and meeting your own needs is a crucial part of developing an identity, and it’s natural to want something and to pursue it. However, a relationship based exclusively on your interests, without much consideration of your partner, is doomed to fail.
We-ism: Focusing on Your Partner’s Needs
Instead, Tatkin recommends that couples create and operate from a two-person psychological system based on the needs of both parties. In fact, couples would do well to consider that there are three entities that coexist in their relationship: the needs of each partner, plus the needs of the relationship.
In a two-person system, each person is tethered to the other. For example, if you suggest attending a concert for date night and your partner isn’t excited about the band, you would not push ahead with the plan, but, instead, may note your partner’s lack of enthusiasm and ask their preference.
This approach validates the person you chose to be with as a unique human being with needs of their own. It also underscores the importance of mutual influence and the desire to honor the relationship by making a decision that is good for each of you and good for the relationship.
In the field of psychology, there has been a movement away from advocating total independence in couple relationships, where, for example, if one partner is struggling, they are on their own to fix it. Likewise, being co-dependent with one’s significant other—in which one person relies on the other for their source of identity—is also problematic.
Instead, healthy relationships possess the quality of interdependence, where both partners can confide in one another and lean on each other while also maintaining their individuality. Dr. Daniel Siegal, psychiatrist and director of the Mindsight Institute, refers to this combination of “me” plus “we” as “mwe.”
Three Ways Partners Can Emphasize the “Mwe”
1. Learn how to collaborate. Partners who take too much of a stand for their own interests are often not collaborative. According to Tatkin, noncollaborative individuals will interrupt each other more, disagree on what’s being said, and roll their eyes when the other speaks, whereas partners who are collaborative work on their relationship and corresponding issues together.
Try it: To get a good feel for what it means to be collaborative, a fun exercise is to grab a paddleboard and learn to stand up on one board together. The ensuing giggles and excruciating attempts to balance will require you and your partner to work together to achieve your goal.
2. Put your partner on your radar. A common example of tuning out is the partner who pretends to be listening but multitasks and replies “uh huh” as the other speaks. When you put the relationship first, you tune into daily conversations and put down your phones. You become curious and take an interest in what matters to your significant other.
Try it: An experiment to try before committing to someone is to keep a log of how often you think about yourself and how often you think about your partner during the day. If there is a huge discrepancy in favor of the self, you are probably not ready to move forward into truly loving someone else, as the relationship would likely be all about you.
3. Honor differences. Yes, it can feel complementary when you and your partner enjoy the same food, music, and sports. But a lifetime of only tasting vanilla ice cream can become boring. People in secure relationships pay attention to and make room for all the ways in which their partner is distinct from them. Differences between individuals offer checks and balances so that the relationship the couple creates can be a powerful entity in itself.
Collaborating, ensuring you attend to your partner, and honoring each other‘s differences all increase couple solidarity, resulting in a mutually satisfying connection that is worth committing to.