The Surprising Power of Word Choice in Couples Dealing with Chronic Illness

Chronic illness is one of the most daunting obstacles a married couple can face.

Even strong connections can be shaken by a scary diagnosis. In resisting their newfound instability, partners often turn to self-help programs, support groups, and individual or couples counseling. Any tool – no matter how large or small it may seem – is not to be ignored in the face of this kind of crisis.

New research suggests a surprising strategy to use in addition to these – grammar and word choice.

When we speak with a beloved partner, we often become less guarded, and therefore more revealing of our true selves. A University of California – Riverside study found that analyzing our language during these moments can provide insight as to the well-being of the relationship on a deeper level. The study examined couples who were coping with breast cancer – a common and terrifying diagnosis. They found significance not only in what each partner said to the other, but in how they chose to say it.

Each couple in the study submitted to monitored conversations that were not about medical issues. Through their non-cancer-oriented talk, the researchers were able to gain insight into the relationship dynamics that were at play. Researchers analyzed their word choice, including emotional words, caring words, angry words, sadness words, anxiety words, and even simple pronouns.

Unsurprisingly, positive words – such as care and love – were associated with positive marital quality, while negative ones – such as stress and resent – were associated with negative marital quality. However, this study determined that the impact of our words can actually be significant at a much less obvious level.

According to this research, our pronoun choice can hold a surprising amount of power.  The couples whose relationships remained strong throughout this ordeal tended to use pronouns in similar ways. In these relationships, the patient often chose to use second person pronouns such as “you” and “your”, while their spouse gravitated toward first person pronouns such as “I”, “me”, and “my”.

This may seem counterintuitive. After all, shouldn’t the patient be the focus of the relationship? Don’t they need the most support, attention, and care? According to lead researcher Megan Robbins, this kind of thinking is exactly what leads to the imbalance that destabilizes many marriages.

“Spouses’ use of first-person singular pronouns, and patients’ use of second-person pronouns, was positively related to better marital quality for both partners as the focus wasn’t always on the patient. So, it reflects balance and interdependency between partners,” she explained. “Personal pronoun use can tell us who the individual is focusing on, and how he or she construes themselves within the relationship. It seems like a small word, but it says a lot about the relationship during a trying time. We found that focus on the spouse, rather than on the patient, lent to better marital quality for both partners. It was an indicator for us that the couple thought of themselves as a team, or a unit—not exclusively focusing on the patient.”

It would seem that balance and teamwork are always important in a relationship – even if one partner may appear to need more on the surface.

Both spouses need love, support, and a sense of personal identity. Don’t discount a healthy partner in favor of focusing exclusively on a sick one. A balance of attention will truly benefit both in the end.

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