The Taconic Counseling Group

Elisha S. Fisch, Ph.D.

Should Your Marriage Be a Shared Life, or Do The "I"s Have It?

In the last 30 years, we Americans have been barraged with well meaning advice urging us to develop our individuality and our inner selves, and we have tried to do so.   As with all movements for change and self improvement, there has been much that has been good and helpful in this development of self.  And, yet, it seems to have led to its own set of difficulties.  For many people, the modern American focus on following our own feelings, needs, and wishes, has contributed to an uncertainty about how to build strong marriages. "If I give in to my spouse's need or wish, am I betraying myself?"  "If I stick to my own need or wish, am I being selfish?"  We seem to have a hard time figuring out how to balance a fair commitment to being true to ourselves, with a meaningful dedication to establishing a true mutuality, or "WE-ness," in our marriage.

It is worth looking at this move toward individuality in its historical perspective.  The struggle to define oneself in the context of social relations or the group, has been the dilemma of human beings at least since the beginning of recorded history.  The resolutions to this dilemma have varied widely across time, and varied according to the level of a group's cultural development.  Ancient societies and tribal societies tended to subordinate the individual's selfhood to the group's identity.  In the modern era, with our emphasis on freedom, we have witnessed a pendulum swing toward an unprecedented legitimization of the individual's right to define him or her self  individually and not as part of the group.

As a result of the intensification of this swing toward individuality in the last third of this century, we find marriages working overtime to define new roles and boundaries.  We find individuals struggling with a sense of inadequacy because they fear they have not successfully attained a sufficient level of self-actualization or of love.  And we find spouses not sure they can be individuals and members of an interdependent couple at the same time.

Spouses used to be clearer about the general principles to be followed in deciding what is mine and what is ours, what is the "I" and what is the "WE", and were spared the need to discover and negotiate at every turn. Furthermore, in the traditional marriage, the wife was often the guardian of the "WE", making personal sacrifices for the "WE", and making demands on behalf of the "WE".  The dramatic increase of  'two-career' marriages has further accentuated the pull in the "I" direction, as both spouses get immersed in separate worlds of their own, and there is no longer a designated guardian of the "WE".  These changing social forces and the norms they create shape a couple's picture of  what marriages ought to look like. 

On the personal level, our belief in our capacity to exist as separate individuals (that is, in a state of psychological and material self reliance), and our concept of the nature of marital relationships (that is, our internal picture of the manner in which individuals connect to each other) have been formed by our own experience growing up as a member of our family.  We bring these "I-WE" concepts with us when we marry.

When we enter marriage, we have many unspoken, and often unconscious, questions about how to be in a marriage, and many marital problems and complaints develop from those unresolved questions.   There are, therefore, a variety of problems that bring couples to counseling.  On closer inspection, many of these complaints seem traceable to marital struggles over "I-WE" boundaries.   I have noticed two principal types of marital problems having to do with the "I-WE" issue.  The first is the failure of one spouse to hold on to a satisfying individual identity, -the "I"-, as distinct from the identity of the marriage.  The second is the failure of the marriage to establish a "WE" identity that defines the shared relationship. 

In this article I will be focusing on the difficulties marriages have establishing a "WE" identity.  In many marriages both spouses function primarily as individuals.  They may have joint or separate activities.  They may enjoy each other or fight with each other.  But in these cases they are engaging each other as individuals who are interacting with no identifiable allegiance to the coupleness, to the "WE".  What distinguishes these marriages is the basic assumption that if the "I" wants it,  the "I" ought to have it.  The members of these marriages have not understood or accepted marital interdependence, the implication of which is that there is now some restraint on unilateral action, that decisions need to be reached collaboratively, and there are areas in which a "WE" need may prevail over an "I" need.  In these marriages, neither spouse feels the leverage to ask  themselves or the other to make the sacrifices sometimes necessary for the survival of the unit, the "WE".   In these marriages, deception and omission may become habitual as spouses attempt to hide the unilateral nature of their actions.  These marriage may eventually lose their vitality and deaden, even when the spouses stay together.

But why should a couple seek to establish a sense of unit, of "WE-ness"?  Isn't it essential that individuals have a distinctly separate self in order to lead healthy, independent lives?  Yes, it is true that we all need a solid foundation of selfness from which we can relate to the world around us.  Yet, it is also true that we are intrinsically social beings, that we are born into tight relationship units called families, and that from our first breath we are both "ourselves", our "I" - note the baby's first cry announcing "I am here"-, as well as in a dependent relation to those who would love us and care for us.  Infants who are not touched and loved, generally fail to thrive.  It is even likely that we are evolutionarily programmed to need the love of others, and to need to love others.

This condition of loving and being loved, of caring and being cared for, is only stably achieved in a relationship of mutuality.  In this kind of relationship both people feel "my spouse has feelings for me beyond his/her self interest; I am more than just an extension of his/her ego or need".   When we feel loved like this,  it engenders feelings of generosity and selflessness in us, and when we feel these feelings we are in the process of creating that special space of "WE-ness", where the whole, the couple, is greater than the sum of its parts, the individual spouses.  It is at these times, when we inhabit this space of "WE-ness", that we feel most full, whole, harmonious, and strong.

Empathy, the ability to put ourselves in the shoes of the other, and to compassionately feel what the other is feeling, is the essential ingredient of a relationship of mutuality, that is, a relationship with an abundance of "WE" space.

Relationships without mutuality, without empathy, however wonderfully they may start, tend to break down.  This is because when the flush of romantic infatuation fades, an over emphasis on the individual's needs and aspirations, and an absence of sufficient empathic concern for the other, tends to make the other feel unloved and unimportant.  When couple members begin to feel unloved, it doesn't take very long before each starts accumulating slights and wounds, and moves toward building a case against their spouse that usually focuses on all the failings the spouse may, in fact, have.  Because all of us are imperfect beings, it isn't hard to build a case against any one of us.  We don't usually want to do this when we are feeling loved and whole.  We almost always want to do this when we feel unloved.  We enter, at this point, a negative spiral.  None of us responds well to having a critical case made against us.  We respond by feeling alienated and alone, angry and wary.  We pull back into ourselves as the relationship no longer feels warm and safe, and we start building our case against our spouse.  Marriages that enter this spiral are headed for a crash.

All is not as hopeless as this may sound.  Often couples have not had a model of what "WE-ness" looks like.  Or, they may have gotten so absorbed in the natural task of developing their own selves and lives that they have lost sight of a meaningful balance in their marriage.  When spouses decide they are open to remedying this, the "WE" problems of these marriages can be addressed, and "WE" structures can be created, by therapeutic approaches that rely heavily on mutual understanding and empathy, and "WE" oriented marital problem solving and negotiation.

As is apparent from the discussion above, couples frequently come into counseling blaming each other for 'the problems', intent on presenting their list of wounds at the hands of their spouse, making their case about the way their spouse is inadequate in the relationship.  What is often relieving about the "I-WE" approach is that a focus on "WE" problems can frequently change a couple's understanding of  the trouble and their feelings about who is to blame.  As a result, the anger spouses have toward each other can melt, as both realize the problem lies primarily in how they have unconsciously structured their marriage to foster separateness, not "WE-ness"; that this structure of separateness is unintentionally depriving and wounding; and that this structure is changeable, if they wish.

The accompanying questionnaire, How Much Is Your Marriage A Shared Life, seeks, by asking  9 short questions, to give you an opportunity to stimulate your thinking about the "WE-ness" in your marriage, and to identify areas where you might want to increase the "WE-ness."