Couples’ therapists have the unenviable task of listening to troubled partners air their dirty laundry. A skilled counselor will listen carefully to each word uttered, knowing that words reveal what clients are truly thinking and feeling. A case in point is one partner referring to the other with a personal pronoun rather than that person’s name.
Personal pronouns denote a level of detachment. By the same token, using the other person’s name changes things. Couples that make a point of using one another’s first names tend to have stronger relationships, not because of the names themselves, but because of the mindset behind using them. Indeed, there is power in using names instead of personal pronouns.
1.He Said, She Said
Relationships & More offers relationship therapy in Rye, New York. It is not uncommon for couples to come in for counseling already in trouble. Relationships & More counselors say that waiting too long to seek counseling can mean couples are already detached from one another before their first session.
A reliable warning sign of such detachment is the use of personal pronouns. The husband will refer to his wife as a ‘she’; the wife will refer to her husband as ‘he’. Under normal circumstances, this might not seem like a big deal to most people. But in a counseling session, you end up with a ‘he said, she said’ scenario.
Couples who should be talking to one another end up talking to the therapist instead. They end up relating to the therapist all the complaints they have about the other person. “She does that” and “he won’t stop doing this” are commonly heard phrases. Unfortunately, approaching couples’ therapy with such a mindset doesn’t tend to yield optimal results.
2. Names Make a Difference
Personal pronouns allow people to detach from others. Why? Because a personal pronoun can refer to anyone. ‘He’ is generic enough that it can literally refer to any man. Couples referring to one another using personal pronouns have already begun the process of marginalizing each other in their minds.
Using first names makes a difference. It changes things. When John makes a concerted effort to use his wife’s first name rather than ‘she’, he is also acknowledging that Mary is a real person that he knows. The same is true in the opposite direction. Using first names forces couples to acknowledge one another as people.
Doing so will not fix a relationship all by itself. Using first names is one piece in a more complex puzzle. But it is a game-changing piece. Using first names requires effort. It requires thought. Both are necessary to turn a sour relationship into a healthy one.
3. First Names in Healthy Relationships
Let us take the concept of using first names to its logical conclusion. If replacing personal pronouns with first names can make relationship therapy more productive, is it possible that doing so can benefit even healthy relationships? Absolutely.
Even couples who are happily married can benefit from the practice. For example, imagine a group of guys hanging out and watching a football game in the basement. At halftime, their conversation eventually turns to talking about their wives. While all the other guys are using personal pronouns, John refers to his wife by her first name. In so doing, he is acknowledging her as a person rather than an object to be talked about with the guys.
Personal pronouns serve a valuable purpose in general conversation. But when it comes to couples, they are bad news. By contrast, never underestimate the power of names in building strong relationships.