Home Archive Prev Next

How Individuality and a Sense of "We" Can Coexist in a Relationship

Wooden sculpture of couplePHIL: When I grasp an idea, it can be like an epiphany. Several of my psychological understandings were like that. The first was reading “I’m OK, You’re OK” as a teenager. It was the first time I learned that we had unconscious motivations; that was not the kind of subject that was taught either at school or at home.

Another revelation was reading Maggie Scarf in The Atlantic where she wrote that we have hidden parts of ourselves that we cannot acknowledge, so we choose a partner who has them. The spendthrift marries the financial planner; the introvert marries the party animal. The properties that initially attracted us become annoyances. The spendthrift and the planner clash over credit card bills; the introvert hates their spouse taking over the backyard barbecuing with their friends.

I describe this because of the contrast with how Maude and I handle differences – we honor them as being markers of each other’s individuality, and celebrate them as bringing diversity into our lives.

So how are we different from Maggie Scarf’s clients? Maybe we’re well-matched, but that doesn’t explain how thoroughly different we are from them. If something like this arises, we look inside for the reason instead of projecting it outward to the other person. We’re motivated to do that in part because we don’t like arguing; that’s not because we aren’t both completely capable of doing so, but we know, through intuition and experience, that there are other ways to resolve differences. That also sits on top of the knowledge that we share core values. Then there is that recognition that we are each separate individuals – how can the other person’s wants and needs be less valid than mine?

MAUDE: When you can really learn to feel and act from a deep respect and honoring of the unique personality of every individual, it provides an open space/place to hold the experience of the sacred “we” that also exists in every relationship. The more you are comfortable with your own individuality and the more that is fostered within a relationship, the easier it becomes to recognize and acknowledge that sense of the “we” as also being there. We teach a process for seeking and finding this mutuality, when making plans and finding solutions, that opens this up as a direct experience. The more you practice finding that mutuality the more this sacred “we” will also live within your relationship. I was discussing this with a dear friend who described it as an umbrella. She said “In the bright intensity of differences, to create the comfort of shade and to give coolness to the heat, we stand under one umbrella.”

PHIL: I want to emphasize that this “we” is not at the expense of my own sense of self. This stands in contrast to previous relationships of mine that had a sense of constraint, of expectations, of suffocation. It fits right in with (or is the same as) the feeling of being fully accepted.

There isn’t any sense of obligation or of needing to make an effort to maintain a balance. I might look at a sink full of dishes, think “I haven’t washed up recently,” and do the dishes, but there is no sense of keeping score at all. Instead, the sense is more like riding a bicycle. It happens so naturally that it becomes impossible to imagine it any other way, just as riding a bike becomes so second nature that losing balance just doesn’t happen.

My sense of self and the sense of the relationship, the “we”, are different experiences that exist at the same time, and this is very strange; it feels like a wonderful gift I have been given that adds to me, rather than something that I have acquired in exchange by trading part of me.

MAUDE: In moving toward more peaceful and harmonious ways of relating, you can apply all of these understandings and attitudes. Intention is one of the critical factors. Depending on each relationship and their patterns and peculiarities, you will move slower or faster toward your goals. Speaking your intentions out loud to one another can be very helpful. The more often you come from the “we” when making decisions and plans, the less you will be occupied with I, me, my. Having to be right fades in importance to finding areas of mutual joy and satisfaction. This will not only expand and grow your relationships, but will do the same for your relationship with yourself.

Once you embark on this path, your appetite for it will grow exponentially. Interacting with others from a realization of accepting differences and individuality can ignite an epiphany that will flood you with a sense of peace and inner calm.

Photo credit: Maude Mayes
Photo note: Wooden sculpture gifted by Sonia Nomada Hayward

Let us know any questions or comments you have by clicking here and leaving them directly on the blog.
Headphone iconClick here to listen to Phil reading this blog.

Successful Relationship Reading Corner

Books on shelfThis week, we wrote about how individuality and a sense of "we" can coexist in a relationship. Here are some interesting articles on different philosophies and therapy models on this topic. 

The Meaning of “We-ness” “This formula of “we-ness” represents “two people who are balanced and individually strong”…but have in the process have created something else- the two has become three. and this third reality is the relationship between the two of them that they now share and nurture.”

What Is We-Ness Versus Enmeshment? “I first heard the term “we-ness” in graduate school. That was a while ago but well after Aristotle wrote things down. In talking with other research psychologists about relationships, the term would come up from time to time, denoting a relationship where two people had formed a depth of connection that supported a sense of shared identity. When I turned my focus to the study of commitment in 1983, I found supporting ideas consistently arising in that literature. Harold Kelley and John Thibaut described how two partners who were growing in interdependence would move from having only individual goals to developing a view of the future based on joint outcomes. [i] They called this “transformation of motivation.” Although they almost never used the word “commitment,” what they were describing was the psychological formation of it. Similarly, George Levinger noted that ‘‘as interpersonal involvement deepens, one’s partner’s satisfactions and dissatisfactions become more and more identified with one’s own.”[ii] Social exchange theorists such as Cook and Emerson discussed how the “transformation” from me to we changed a relationship from an exchange market where two individuals were competitors to a non-competitive relationship that could maximize joint outcomes.[iii] One is no longer seeking (only) individual gains from the other, but something for us as a team.”

Creating We-ness “What does me-ness look like? What does we-ness look like? What are the tools with which to move from me-ness to we-ness? In me-ness there is a sharp line separating me and you. I might say in response to a situation “What’s in it for me?” I might also decide to cooperate or be helpful. In any event what’s good for me has no relationship to what’s good for you. We are living two parallel lives. In enmeshment on the other hand there are no boundaries. I have no sense of self. I might take care of others needs at the expense of my own or I might think that what they want and need must be the same as what I want and need. We-ness is different from both me-ness and enmeshment. In we-ness the people involved feel themselves to be individuals with boundaries and they act accordingly, with behaviors that promote things like privacy and uniqueness of taste and style. However, my assumption, if I have a we-ness mentality, is that what’s good or bad for me has an impact for good or for bad on what’s good or bad for the other and vice versa.”

Spreading peace one relationship at a time
Phil and Maude
Read our blogs at PhilAndMaude.
Like us on Facebook
Follow us on Twitter and Instagram
Email us at philandmaude@philandmaude.com
If you are interested in newsletters you've missed, see our archive.
Do you know anyone who would enjoy this newsletter? Tell them to sign up at https://philandmaude.com/signup/