The One Little Word That Can Help You Build a Strong Marriage, Starting Today

Because true love is all about selflessness.
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Because true love is all about selflessness.

A note from the author: This is part of my column for Verily called Tools for an Intentional Marriage. It’s a collection of best practices for moving through your marriage on purpose. I’ll share the best tips, tricks, and ideas that I’ve discovered over my years as a marriage therapist and also as a husband. I hope you’ll collect, use, and even enjoy these tools as you seek to build your own Intentional Marriage.

When dealing with conflict in marriage, there’s a classic piece of relationship advice that suggests you use “I” statements rather than “you” statements. But as sound as this advice is, I don’t think it goes far enough in helping couples establish an intentional relationship.

The theory is that “I” statements, can take some of the edge of of what might otherwise seem like an attack or a judgement. “I” statements also allow you to express your feelings as facts rather than as accusations. (NOTE: When expressing feelings, stick with adjectives. (i.e. I feel sad. Angry. Frustrated. Lonely. Happy. Horny.) It’s out of bounds to say “I feel like…” and especially “I feel like you…” (that’s actually a “you statement”.) Yes, it’s absolutely a good strategy for conflict, but for the ongoing creativity and sustainability of a relationship, there’s another more important pronoun that you must consider: “We.”

There’s an inherent selfishness built into the “I” statement advice. Again, I think that it has a place in conflict, but a long-term satisfying relationship is inherently about selflessness. One of my friends says that relationships are about “self-surrendered love.” Can you imagine? Truly letting go of your self in order to benefit the relationship? Can you imagine your partner doing the same? That’s what “we” is.

Growing a relationship isn’t all that different than growing a small business. Each partner has to chip in, even in areas beyond their expertise. More often than not, folks are doing 2-3 jobs, even learning as they go. But they do it because they believe in the product or the goal or the mission. They have a vision for something bigger than themselves. Maybe it’s profit, or improving the environment, or changing the world. Whatever it is, it requires “we” more than “me”.

So what does a relationship based on “we” look like? Let’s look at the wisdom from the lyrics of three of my favorite songs to help demonstrate.

Rely on one another.

If you’ve never heard of David Wilcox, you’re missing out. He’s a singer-songwriter of the highest order. More than a few of his stories and songs narrate my early relationship with my wife. One in particular, “Farther to Fall” speaks to the power of “we.” Imagine a couple:

Walking on the railroad rails/ Leaning into one another/ Balancing so we won't fail/ Into timeless friends and lovers.

Wilcox creates this image of a couple achieving balance only by leaning into one another. You can see them providing stability and support by mutual give and take. If one of them leans too hard, or not hard enough, they’ll both fall. (I did a team building exercise like this once.)

The second verse speaks to another element of “we” that is easy to miss if you’re not paying attention.

We're still holding hands/ Past the place I quit before.

Wilcox is suggesting that it’s the leaning in that allows you to overcome past failures. All relationships face trials and troubles. Presumably you’ve been in more than one relationship and some have been more difficult than others. It’s tempting to reflect on past troubles and decide it’s not worth the risk in a new relationship. However, a long term, committed relationship requires you to push past that temptation, ideally in partnership with one another.

More than anything, “Farther to Fall” speaks to the power and challenge of commitment. The rest of the song weaves in and out of the ambivalence that surrounds love and relationship emphasizing that the journey is easier and more rewarding together than alone. 

So, what does “leaning in” look like in real life? It means recognizing the need to rely on one another and to stay together. I’ve seen too many couples moving at different speeds. You simply cannot make this journey where one partner is constantly leading and the other following. Leaning in and finding balance is about understanding one another’s strengths and needs and compensating accordingly. Start by asking: How can I support you today? What would make you feel more connected? How can I show you that I’m totally committed to this relationship?

Be for one another.

“We” is a commitment to placing respect and regard at the center of the relationship, and to being for one another and for the greater good of the relationship even through hard times. This requires an intentional shift in perspective and an investment in hope.

The musical sensation Wicked features some of the most anthemic music on Broadway. It’s the story of two witches from Oz—Elphaba and Glinda—who could not be more different. They’re not married or even romantically linked, but their relationship is an important story of “we” and the need to influence one another for the good. One song in particular, “For Good,” speaks to the power of that story. Glinda sings:

I've heard it said/ That people come into our lives for a reason/ Bringing something we must learn/ And we are led/ To those who help us most to grow/ If we let them/ And we help them in return.

Each of these women acknowledge that they’re limited and that neither can achieve their goals without the other. Each has had to set aside their own prejudice and fear in order to believe in a better good for the relationship. Do you believe that your partner has been brought into your life for a reason? That he has something to teach you? That he may be able to help you grow? What if you did? Could that perspective change the entire trajectory of a relationship? The song seems to suggest so. Later Elphaba sings:

It well may be/ That we will never meet again/ In this lifetime/ So let me say before we part/ So much of me/ Is made of what I learned from you/ You'll be with me/ Like a handprint on my heart/ And now whatever way our stories end/ I know you have rewritten mine/ By being my friend...

Both women realize that they have been changed “for good” (which is a great double entendre) and the relationship is better for it. Toward the end of the song, they each make a point to apologize and ask forgiveness for past hurts, effectively prioritizing their hope for a new relationship rather than lingering on past hurts.

What does it mean to be for one another? It means being willing to let the other person influence you. Accepting influence is a key skill among couples who are thriving. (And the failure to accept influence is a strong divorce predictor.) Start by asking: What can I learn from my partner today? How can they help me grow? Ask if there’s anything that you need to apologize for. If so, go ahead and ask. If you need to forgive, start there. Nothing draws people closer like the power of confession and forgiveness. 

Rise up together.

I kind of have a crush on Andra Day right now. Her voice is a beacon and her message is worthy of any relationship. In the intro to her video for "Rise Up," Day says the song is about when one person in the relationship says to another, “If you’re going through pain, I’ll go through the pain with you. If you’re celebrating, I’ll celebrate with you.” The song is a testimony to “we.” Day sings:

You're broken down and tired/ Of living life on a merry-go-round/ And you can't find the fighter/ But I see it in you so we gonna walk it out/ And move mountains/ We gonna walk it out/ And move mountains.

Day says “we” will walk it out. “We” will move mountains. I hear all the time from couples that they feel like they’re drifting apart, or they feel like ships in the night, or they feel like roommates or even strangers. This is a devastating dynamic, especially when it sneaks up on you. I can leave you feeling “broken down and tired” and alone. Day proposes a relatively simple solution:

All we need, all we need is hope/ And for that we have each other/ And for that we have each other/ We will rise/ We will rise.

These typed lyrics don't do justice to the beauty of that moment in the song. It’s a triumph over the pain and sorrow of a relationship gone awry. It’s a joining to a vision for something miraculous that happens when you leverage the power of “we” in a relationship.

Practically, what does it mean to “rise up” in a relationship? The first step is identifying your obstacles. Best if you recognize them as separate from the relationship. (It’s hard to cultivate “we” when you believe that your partner is your obstacle.) Then ask: How do we keep moving in the face of these obstacles?

None of these songs speak directly to exactly how you’re meant to become more we than me, but they’re pregnant with nuggets of wisdom. Listen to these songs a dozen times or so and tell me what you learn about “we.” And please share with me your favorite stories and songs about “we.” I’d love to add them to my library and/or playlist. Shoot me an email at zach@zachbrittle.com, or find me on Twitter (@kzbrittle) or Facebook.

Photo Credit: Taylor McCutchan