Me-You and Us

Posted on February 7, 2013


Marriage and family therapy is a relatively new discipline in the field of mental health.  It has only been around for about 50 years.  Most of the early pioneers were psychoanalysts who came to recognize the importance of context and relationships in helping clients cope with life stressors and distress.  Among those early theorists was Murray Bowen, the theorist behind Family Systems Theory.  Among Bowen’s formulations was the idea that healthy family systems involved a balance between togetherness and separateness.  Bowen asserted that health involved having a healthy level of differentiation.

In my post on the Self-Other Continuum, I asserted that in relationship one is always somewhere on a continuum between being completely focused on self and completely focused on one’s partner.  Similarly, I would suggest that in a relationship we are all on a continuum somewhere between focusing on ourselves and our partners as individuals with separate interests and looking at the dyad as a unit.  In other words, at one end of the continuum is “me and you” as individuals and at the other end is “us.”  As with so many things in life, each of us is rarely at one extreme.  Human beings do not tend to operate on binary code.  With each facet of human personality, with each view of the world, with each relationship factor, we are not either a “0” or a “1.”  We are somewhere on a continuum between the extremes.  Additionally, our position on that continuum is not fixed.  We change over time, and we change with our circumstances.  This continuum of “me and you” vs. “us” is about the way we view ourselves and the relationship.  It can be very subtle and outside of our awareness.  Things in life and in the relationship can happen that cause us to be more focused on our individual needs and less on the needs of the relationship.  Sometimes these are big events which cause profound shifts.  More often, it is day by day, month by month, year by year, that we either increasingly look at ourselves as part of a couple or look at ourselves as individuals.

Here is an example.  A couple is coping with the financial pressures of one partner being unemployed.  The husband who is employed wants to take on an additional expense that will be pleasing and comforting to himself and help him cope with his own stress (let’s say he want to get a pet).  The unemployed wife says, “We can’t afford it.”  The husband says, “I am the one who is paying for everything, and this is what I want.”  So who’s right?  I would suggest that the issue isn’t about right and wrong here, but about an unconscious shift that has happened in one partner’s view of the relationship.  The employed partner in this scenario has shifted toward thinking about individual needs and wants rather than thinking about the couple as a unit.  It makes sense how this happens for each partner.  The employed partner feels like he has been shouldering the financial pressures alone.  After a while the unemployed partner starts to seem like another burden.  The feeling is, “I am in this alone.  You are not helping.  I am under tremendous pressure to keep us afloat.  I need this for my own emotional relief.  Don’t tell me I can’t spend the money I earned.”  Meanwhile the unemployed partner feels, “I already feel deflated from not being able to find work.  I too feel the financial strain and also am coping with the shame of feeling like the cause.  I thought we were a team.  When you want to spend money we can’t afford, I feel this is not prudent.  When you tell me I have no say in the matter, I feel like you no longer value me as a partner because I am not generating income now.”

So here would be my point.  I am not advocating a complete abandoning of one’s own interests in favor of a sole focus on the relationship.  That too can have some unhealthy side effects.  You want to be able to communicate your needs for comfort and support in the relationship.  You want to know your emotional needs will be met.  These things are crucial to each partner’s emotional well-being and should not be abandoned.  However, couples rarely experience marital distress over too much focus on the “us.”  More often when couples are distressed, one or both partners have shifted to more of a “me” and “you” focus.  Further, that shift to focusing on me is generally accompanied by an emotional disconnection from the relationship.  That emotional disconnection is hazardous to the long term survival of the marriage.

The first hurdle in overcoming too much focus on individual needs to the detriment of the relationship is awareness.  As you have been reading this, perhaps you have recognized a shift in your own thinking.  This may be a time to once again see your partner as a “partner,” someone who is your teammate in negotiating the stresses of life.  If there has been an accumulation of emotional wounds in the relationship, there may be some healing needed to be able to restore a focus on “us.”  Couples therapy can be helpful with this.  When a couple comes to me for marriage counseling, my view is that my client is their relationship.  For the relationship to be healthy, they each need to have their needs met.  At the same time, it helps to be focused on what’s good for us and not just on what is good for me.