Monday, August 20, 2012

"We", or "I and thou"?

So I went to read a (very long) blogpost about relationships, and how being in a relationship makes people want to refer to themselves as "we".

OK, I confess that I haven't read the whole paper (it was more of an academic paper than a blogpost), but my first thought on reading the author's tweet about it was, "no, I want to be 'I and thou' / 'me and thee' with a partner, and I want that to be reciprocated. In other words, I want to be intimate, but I want my autonomy respected. (I'm thinking of Martin Buber's ideas about "I/Thou" here, too, where the other, the Thou, is sacred and beloved and respected.)

So I tweeted in reply: "hmm, not sure about that, I'd rather be a me and a thee." (I then went off to read the article and posted the comment on which this blogpost is based.)

The author of the article tweeted back "I guess u dont think not wanting to be a 'we' makes u incapable of forming an ongoing romantic relationship? "

To which I replied: "No, I bloody well don't, and I find that insinuation offensive."

And he replied: "not meant as insinuation just clarification that you take the thesis to be wrong."

He then tweeted: "Is your objection to idea of forming a 'we' that you think such a notion undermines autonomy?"

To which I replied: Yes.

Harry Hay came up with the idea of Subject-Subject Consciousness to describe relationships where both partners are equal. He criticised most heterosexual relationships as being Subject-Object relationships, where the man gets to be the subject and the woman is the object.

Luce Irigaray came up with a similar concept, intersubjectivity. Pemberton (2004:252) writes:

Of course the subject is always subject in her own eyes when not objectified and displaced by the gaze and the analytical grid of the other. Subjects speak, think, act, love, cry, scream, ululate, make love, feel fear, carry history, dream dreams. They do this best in a radical intersubjectivity[.]
  (from a chapter in Juschka, D.M., ed. (2001) Feminism in the Study of Religion: a Reader. London and New York: Continuum.

The trouble with a heterosexual "we" is that it is all too likely that the woman's subjectivity and autonomy is subsumed in that of the man.  Even if the man is trying to be feminist, trying to regard the woman as a subject in her own right. (Maybe this kind of subsumption can occur in same-sex relationships as well, but I do not have enough experience of them to be able to say.)

I am reminded of that advert from the mid-nineties where a couple is speaking to camera. She says "we want to be out painting the town red". He says "we want to be settling down and having a baby". Clearly there is a huge disconnect in their ideas, so that their use of "we" is completely meaningless - and you are left wondering whose agenda will win out. Will they settle down and have a baby, or will they be out partying all night?

Kahlil Gibran wrote a beautiful thing about marriage (I have boldened the bits that I think are particularly relevant to this discussion):
 You were born together, and together you shall be forevermore.
You shall be together when the white wings of death scatter your days.
Ay, you shall be together even in the silent memory of God.
But let there be spaces in your togetherness,
And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.

Love one another, but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other's cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf

Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.

Give your hearts, but not into each other's keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other's shadow.
 Now that seems to me to be a recipe for happiness.

There is also a Celtic wedding vow:
You cannot possess me for I belong to myself. But while we both wish it, I give you that which is mine to give. You cannot command me for I am a free person.
Another recipe for happiness.

I am not saying that being in a relationship that involves being "we" rather than I is necessarily a recipe for loss of autonomy and a subsumption of one person into the other, but there is a considerable risk of that happening.

Someone suggested to me a 40:40:20 rule for successful marriages. That is, you spend 40% of your leisure time doing stuff on your own, 40% with your partner, and the other 20% is variable depending on circumstances. I think that is an excellent idea.

I think that, all too often, what is described as "fear of commitment" is actually a fear of loss of autonomy. A guy once said to me, in all seriousness, that he didn't want a girlfriend because if he had one she would tell him that he couldn't have a hi-fi system. Presumably there are actually people out there who tell their partners that they can't have things, but it's not something I would ever do. I mean, I would expect to negotiate large purchases if they would impinge on necessary expenditure like rent and food, but otherwise I would not want to tell my partner how to spend his/her money (and certainly would not tell them what to do with their existing possessions), and I would not expect him/her to have jurisdiction over my expenditure or possessions, either.

The other problem is, if I am in a relationship with another person, and I say "We think x, y, and z" then I presume to speak for my partner. Unless I have consulted him or her about his/her opinions, and established that s/he really does think x, y, and z, then I have no right to include him/her in my expression of my opinion. Similarly, if someone invites us to dinner, or away for a weekend, I think that I can accept on my own behalf, but not necessarily on behalf of my partner (they might not want to attend for a variety of reasons).  Despite best intentions at the outset of a relationship, it can become all too easy to assume that you know what your partner wants, accept things on their behalf, express opinions on their behalf, and so on.

It used to annoy me intensely when an ex of mine, who could not drive, referred to my car (which I always drove, had bought, paid for, insured, paid for the repairs and road-tax on, and so on), as "our car". In what sense was it "ours"? If he had contributed to its purchase, maintenance, tax, insurance, and been able to drive it, then it would have been "ours". But it was, in every sense, mine.

So no, my relationships will remain "I and thou", subject and subject, intersubjectival. I will respect my partner's autonomy, and will expect him or her to respect my autonomy. We will not grow in each other's shadow. And I expect that our relationship will be all the happier and healthier for it.


Joseph Kisolo-Ssonko said...

I think you raise interesting points re-domination - I reply @

Yewtree said...

Thanks Joseph. Sorry that I didn't actually read your original post - I did start it but it was really a bit too technical for my non-philosophical brain!

Yewtree said...

Interesting. I am not saying that the "we" is always a result of the view of one partner dominating that of the other. I just think it sometimes happens that way, and it is something that ought to be guarded against.

I have frequently experienced moments of the "entangling of wills" that you describe - nice phrase. Because one spends time discussing things with one's partner, one is bound to reach some sort of consensus, or a view in which each has adopted ideas from the other. After all, one was probably attracted the other in the first place because of a similarity of outlooks on life (unless one enjoys being constantly challenged by a contrary view).

So the entangling of wills is not at all a bad thing provided it is done in the context of intersubjectivity (both parties being seen as subjects by each other). My problem is when the we is assumed without thinking, instead of negotiated.

Yewtree said...

I have actually read the whole paper now. I agree that Westlund's view is an idealised view, and Gilbert's view is more of an account of what actually happens in CRRs. And I like your modifications, but on the whole I lean more towards Westlund's view - and I think that her reciprocity is similar to Irigaray's intersubjectivity and Hay's Subject-Subject Consciousness.

However, my motivations in the airport example would be this. When I go on holiday with a partner, my feelings are full of a hope that the holiday will be romantic, and we will spend time together, and share lovely experiences. If I was the one who still wanted to go to Majorca, I would feel rejected romantically if the other person suddenly changed their mind, because of the emotional investment in going on holiday with that person. If I was the one who didn't want to go to Majorca, it might be because I would feel stifled in the other person's company, but I would feel afraid of hurting their feelings, assuming that they might have a similar emotional investment in going on holiday together. Also, if I have said I will do something, then I feel constrained by my word - my individual where-I-stand. I am not sure that I would feel constrained by the collective will - more by the fear of hurting the other's feelings.

If I am in relationship with another person, then I have become responsible for their feelings to a certain extent (e.g. if I have said I love them, then that sets up certain expectations for them). So that sets up the possibility of our wills becoming entangled, even before we get to the living-together stage. So for example, if a partner says s/he is coming over for the weekend, it's hurtful and inconsiderate if they then change their mind at the last minute. This is because then the other person is then left with nothing to do at the weekend, and because they had hopes of seeing the other person. On the other hand, it is not acceptable if someone you don't live with asks you to let them know that you have got back from a night out (even if the reason is concern for your safety).

But I think a too-casual assumption of "we" assumes that you know what the other person wants. In the example of the couple picking a holiday destination, they have presumably spent a long time poring over travel websites or brochures to decide where they want to go. So the destination is negotiated - partly because a lot of time and money is being committed to the shared project.

But let's say a couple is deciding what film they want to watch one evening. Mary wants to watch a chick-flick and Peter wants to watch an action movie. There is less time and money at stake, so there is less to lose if one partner acquiesces to the other. There are three possible outcomes here: Mary gets her chick-flick; Peter gets his action movie; or they compromise on a film that contains elements of both. However, each will want at some point to watch a pure unadulterated chick-flick or action movie, so they can either go and do that on their own or with friends who like the same movies as them, or if they want to watch the film together, they can take it in turns and watch Mary's choice one night, and Peter's choice on another night. And that is part of the compromise and negotiation that happens in CRRs, and that's fine. But an unhealthy CRR would be where one of them never gets to watch their choice of film, because one always acquiesces to the will of the other. And possibly that would include always going for the compromise option.

Yewtree said...

So what I was saying about the use of the pronoun "we" is that it risks assuming that no more negotiation is necessary - that (as in Gilbert's model) the "we" has become a permanent pooling of identities. You may be right that Westlund's model is too fluid, too constantly renegotiated, but I think if more people did bear in mind the well-being of the other, rather than using the "we" to constrain the other to certain courses of action, then relationships in general would be healthier.

This is where my suggestion of I and thou comes in. The "thou" is not merely a quaint usage, but an attempt to describe the feelings of love and respect for the beloved other (borrowed from Martin Buber's I/Thou, where instead of seeing the world as full of objects, the beholder sees it as full of subjects). Hence also why I think Irigaray's intersubjectivity and Hay's subject-subject consciousness are important.

Anonymous said...

I agree that in our culture, women are much more likely to bow to the pressure to subsume themselves in a relationship. Often, a relationship turns into a personality merger in progress, with one persons' hobbies, interests and friendships as colateral damage.

I don't think that this has to come from a subject-object relationship; which implies that there is pressure from within the relationship to lose autonomy. I would argue that this is inherently abusive. I think that the 'personality merger' scenario tends to come from external pressures of cultural expectations.

And I think ultimately, everyone has different boundaries in relationships. For me, I can feel like a distinct person from my partner while he pledges my attendance at a dinner party next week and refers to my flat as 'home'. Other people might feel differently, and I suppose I only really have a problem with the 'communal we' when it is used to pressure a person into opinions, activities or commitments that they would not choose.

Yewtree said...

Hi Rachel, yes I agree that different people have different boundaries. Hence my point that they need to be negotiated rather than assumed (much like consent). They will also be different in different situations. I'd be OK with my partner referring to my flat as home, but I was not OK with "our car" because I was fed up with being the sole driver. The dinner party situation would depend on whether I liked the hosts, but I would still rather be consulted.