We’ve noticed a trend and it isn’t a good one. Multiple clients, both individual and couples therapy clients, have brought up an annoying communication pattern. In fact, we have found ourselves guilty of this pattern in our own relationships. Let’s start with an example: One partner comes into the house at the end of the day. She kisses her partner and gently says, “We need to clean the garage”. It sure sounds innocent, but here’s the rub. She has absolutely no intention of helping clean the garage. Cleaning the garage has always been one of her partner’s chores. They both understand that. Then why is she saying “we“? It would be the same scenario if her partner told her, “We need to make sure we get tax information to the accountant early this year” when that’s historically been her chore. It’s not a helpful comment about a shared responsibility, it’s nagging. Worse than nagging, it’s nagging disguised as an insincere offer of help.
People typically don’t notice that pattern for months or even years. It often dawns on them in a moment of frustration. Perhaps a partner comes in hot and sweaty from mowing the yard and their partner says, “We should clean out that flower bed next to the driveway and plant a vegetable garden.” That’s when the lawn mowing partner says, “Maybe YOU should plant a new garden”. Once that communication pattern has been revealed, it can’t be ignored. It’s a glaring slap in the face every time it’s used in the relationship.
So, what is the solution? You need metacommunication. That’s communicating about how you communicate. You tell your partner that you don’t want to hear them say “we“ unless they truly mean “we”. When you first bring it up, talk about the pattern itself and not the vegetable garden or messy garage. Your partner will slip up occasionally, and when they do, clarify if they mean “you” or “we”. Getting angry isn’t necessary and can backfire into a fight. Your goal is improving communication. You might be thinking about some other metacommunication patterns you would like to address with your partner. That’s great, but one at a time.
Once you are familiar with the pattern, you’ll notice it in other relationships too. You might have a coworker or boss who “we’s” you. You might have a child or neighbor who does it. There’s nothing wrong with clarification. Don’t hesitate to ask, “Do you mean we are going to do it together?” It’s a bad communication habit worth pointing out.
To take this idea a step further, we encourage couples to examine how and when they use the word “we”. In early relationships, it’s a sign you view yourself as part of a couple. Ideally, that word is used to describe positive experiences and plans more than chores and responsibilities. Today, we’re simply encouraging couples not to say “we” when suggesting chores they have no intention of completing or aiding.