Can couple members be so close to one another that their individual identities merge into one? We might think of couples, like “TomKat” (Tom Cruise + Katie Holmes) and “Beyon-Z” (Beyonce + Jay-Z…yep, you heard that one here first), as a single unit, but do they think about themselves that way?
They do if they’re committed to their relationships. More committed people think of themselves as being a part of a single unit that includes their partners. How do we know this? They use more plural pronouns like “us” and “we” when talking about their relationships with others, thus signaling their interdependence (“We like spending time together”). Less committed people use more singular pronouns like “me” and “him/her” (“I really like spending time with her”), reflecting a more independent mindset. This finding is similar to research on how people identify with winning sports teams. When their team wins, they include themselves in that success (“we won!”); but if a team loses (hey Philadelphia Phillies, I’m looking at you), people distance themselves (“they lost”).1,2
So listen closely to how your partner is talking about your relationship. Maybe no one has dropped the “L” word yet, but if you overhear your partner using lots of inclusive plural pronouns when you're eavesdropping on her conversation with her mom, it might indicate the direction the relationship is going!
While language use might reflect how people think about their relationships, there are other ways of assessing the degree to which couples members’ self-identities are merged. Research by Debra Mashek and colleagues3 demonstrates that close couples actually become cognitively intertwined with their partners. In a clever series of studies, they find that close partners confuse their traits and characteristics with their romantic partners in ways that they don’t with non-close others. When reporting on a particular trait or characteristic, close partners show “self-other confusion” in that they have difficulty (i.e., slow reaction times) distinguishing between their own traits and their partner’s attributes (e.g., “was I the star of Top Gun, or was that Katie? I just don’t know!”). Essentially, partners become enmeshed and the distinction between self and other blurs away into a big pool of “us.”
1Cialdini, R. B., Borden, R. J., Thorne, A., Walker, M. R., Freeman, S., & Sloan, L. R. (1976). Basking in reflected glory: Three (football) field studies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 34, 366-375.
2Agnew, C. R., Van Lange, P. A. M., Rusbult, C. E., & Langston, C. A. (1998). Cognitive interdependence: Commitment and the mental representation of close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 939-954.
3Mashek, D., Aron, A., & Boncimino, M. (2003). Confusions of self with close others. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29, 382-392.
Dr. Benjamin Le - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Le's research focuses on commitment, including the factors associated with commitment and its role in promoting maintenance. He has published on the topics of breakup, geographic separation, infidelity, social networks, cognition, and need fulfillment and emotions in relationships.