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we-ness 246Is individualism creating difficulty for couple relationships?

From an article by the Institute of Family Studies

Scott Stanley is a research professor at the Center for Marital and Family Studies, University of Denver. In an article about the concepts of we-ness and couple identity, he argues that commitment between two partners is where a strong sense of “us with a future” has emerged. However, modernity has fostered ever greater levels of individualism. This complicates the development of relationships characterized by having a shared, couple identity. Here is an abridged version:

The concepts of we-ness and couple identity arise throughout philosophy, literature, poetry, and social science.

Genesis 2 describes how Adam and Eve will be “united and become one flesh.” Although that line is preeminently describing the physical union, the passage resonates deeply with so many because of the implication of a deeper bond. Two identities were intentionally created with the idea that they would seek to be one in core aspects of life.

As this and other philosophical themes suggest, there is a fundamental human drive to seek and be in a relationship that has this quality of “us.” To join with another. Beyond this central fact, there are healthier and less healthy views of what “becoming us” can be like. Here, I describe how this notion arises in my field of the study of commitment in intimate relationships.

I first heard the term “we-ness” in graduate school. 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. 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.”

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. One is no longer seeking (only) individual gains from the other, but something for us as a team. 

I came to view commitment between two partners as the condition where a strong sense of “us with a future” has emerged. I defined couple identity as “the degree to which an individual thinks of the relationship as a team, in contrast to viewing it as two separate individuals, each trying to maximize individual gains.” In trying to assess whether or not a person had a sense of a shared identity with their partner, some of the items go right to the concept of “me” vs “we.”

Discussions of we-ness raise concerns about psychological enmeshment. In discussions with others in psychology, the term “we-ness” always arose as a positive thing, and a characteristic of a thriving relationship. If a relationship was otherwise safe and healthy, we-ness was good, but the dark side of the coin is enmeshment, which implies the obliteration of one or both identities in some manner. There should be three identities: You, me, us - individual identities that are largely included in the “us” but with parts unshared or less shared, such as about work or deep interests of the individual identities. The key point is that, in a strongly committed relationship, there will be some identity of us, and it will have a boundary. 

Although there is no data that I know of that could directly test this, it seems evident that modernity has fostered ever greater levels of individualism. It is not hard to posit that this complicates the development of relationships characterized by having a shared, couple identity. We also see an emergence (or re-emergence?) of a desire for a relationship of a sort described in a famous line from the movie Jerry Maguire: “You complete me.” That’s not just you and me developing a sense of us, that third identity, it’s “I am not whole without you.” 

All these ideas touch on the concept of soulmates. There are versions of this idea that are appealing, but I believe it has two problems. First, it implies that there is one perfect match out there for each person. Second, it supports the illusion that finding that person would make love and marriage blissful. But that search becomes formidable, and there are negative effects of holding expectations that your soulmate will complete you in only the most wonderful way. That might be the resolution of the paradox of a growing individualism overlapping with a growing desire to find one’s soulmate. It would take a relationship with astounding gravity to overcome the escape velocity fueled by individualism. 

There is a healthy idea of we-ness that does not imply either enmeshment or finding perfection in a partner. For those who want the “us” in their life, they will have to look for a relationship with the right balance of me and we, and then invest in protecting it. Two perfect partners are rarely joining as one, but two imperfect partners can get pretty far in life if they nurture the sense of “us with a future.”

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From an article by the Institute of Family Studies, 31/08/2021

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