What is the “I” to “We” Identity Shift in Dating?
Ever known one of those couples that seems to be surgically attached at the hips? They go everywhere together, do everything together. She doesn't make plans without checking with him first. He always seems to have a hand on her somewhere.
Do you know the sort of couple I'm talking about? You look at them and wonder, “What happened? How did they get like this?”
Well, I can tell you what happened: their identity shifted. They went from thinking of themselves as an "I" to thinking of themselves as a "we". In their dating relationship, their identity shifted from an "I" to a "we."
Let me take a step back and explain what I mean by the term identity shift. An identity shift is kinda like changing glasses, which changes how you see the world. Imagine watching the latest 3D movie with a pair of regular eyeglasses. It probably wouldn't be very enjoyable and you'd end up with a serious headache. Now imagine switching to the 3D glasses. It would be instantly awesome!
When you change glasses, you see things differently, you make different decisions, and you even see yourself differently. That's called an identity shift.
Here's another example: Imagine if your parents sat you down one day and told you that you were adopted…and that you were actually Korean. Now, I know that some of you would be thrilled, but that news would still rock your world. It would fundamentally change who you see yourself to be.
In relationships, a similar thing can happen, but it's much more subtle and often goes unnoticed. It's when you think of yourself, at a pretty deep level, more as a couple than an individual. Since this is usually a gradual process, most people aren't even aware when it happens to them. (But everyone else around them usually notices.)
The "I" to "We" Dating Identity Quiz
If you're in a dating relationship right now, how do you know if you've shifted your identity from an "I" to a "We"? These three questions will help you tell. (If you're not in a relationship, go ahead and answer the questions for what you would want to do if you were in a dating relationship.)
1. How much of your social time do you spend with your boyfriend or girlfriend compared to other friends? 10% 20% 30% 40% 50% 60% 70% 80% 90% 100%
2. When you’re out with other friends, how often do you get asked “Where’s __________ (insert boyfriend/girlfriend's name)?” All the time Pretty Often Sometimes Rarely Never
3. Right now, does your Facebook profile pic contain both of you? Yes No
Now, for this quiz there isn't a simple scoring system like in school or some issue of Cosmo. Every person is different and every couple is different. The better way to use this little quiz is to sit down with your significant other and just talk about your answers. Why did you pick those answers? How do you feel about them? Did any of them concern you? If you're single, ask yourself the same questions.
10 "We" Dating Activities to Avoid
Here are 10 real-life examples that I've seen or heard from actual dating couples. These are all signs, some big some small, of shifting your identity from "I” to “we”.
- Checking in with the other person before you make plans
- Always holding hands, touching each other
- Going on family vacations or attending events with the other person’s family
- Getting a cell phone plan together
- Choosing education options (where to go, whether to go) based on the other person
- Logging into each other’s Facebook accounts or creating a Facebook account together
- Taking naps together or sleeping over, even non-sexually
- Opening a bank account together or sharing finances
- Giving gifts “from us”
- Openly sharing possessions (your stuff is my stuff)
If you're in a relationship, how does it stack up to this list? How do you feel about the number of activities you checked off? Are there any of them that you’re concerned about? Why?
If you're not dating right now, which of these do you think would be okay for a dating couple to do and which wouldn't be okay?
Your True & False Dating Identities
In order to understand the "I" to "We" identity shift, you first have to understand your true identity and your false identity when it comes to dating relationships.
Your True Identity
If you are single, dating, or even engaged, there is a very important reality that you need to understand.
YOU’RE NOT MARRIED. YOU ARE A SINGLE PERSON.
In God’s eyes, there is married and there is single; there’s nothing in between. Genesis 2:24 says that when two people get married, something fundamentally changes.
That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh. (Genesis 2:24)
If you've ever been to a wedding (and I'm guessing you have), you witnessed something mystical happening between the bride and groom. Their very nature changes. At their deepest level, two people are united into one. This is a true, God-ordained identity shift. That’s how God created marriage – to be marked by “oneness”. They are still individuals, but they are also this new entity called a married couple.
But dating is not oneness. It’s still...well...twoness. A dating couple is not one united entity, they're two separate individuals. Right now, unless you're married, you are still a single individual – in God’s eyes and in your very nature and identity. If you’re in a dating relationship, you don’t have oneness, in the Biblical sense. You actually have twoness. Dating relationships are made up of two individuals, nothing more. That is your true identity.
Your False Identity
But a lot of dating couples seem to be living a false identity, like they’re already united into a couple. They think of themselves as a couple, so they start making decisions that a married couple would make rather than decisions an individual would make.
They want the intimacy of oneness, so they do things to strive for that oneness. They over-share, they build their social life around each other, they have sex – all striving for the intimacy that comes with oneness.
But there’s a problem. It’s all fake oneness. And that leads to a relationship that’s kinda like a fake marriage. We trade a real dating relationship for a fake married relationship. But I don’t think that’s anything new. The people living in Rome during Paul’s time were doing the same thing. In fact, the first chapter of Romans, Paul addresses the issue:
For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. (Romans 1:21-25)
Did you catch that? They exchanged truth for a lie.
What do you think Paul would say if he came around today and looked at the dating relationships these days? I think he would say that they’ve exchanged the truth for a lie. They walk around thinking and acting like they’re married when they’re really single. They think of themselves as a “we” when they’re really an “I”. The truth is twoness. The lie is oneness.
Consequences of an “I” to “We” Dating Identity Shift
If you've been reading through this series of articles, you might be thinking that the "I" to "We" identity shift isn't such a big deal. But others of you know how dangerous it is because you've seen the damage it can cause in your friends. Maybe you've even experienced it yourself.
This identity shift is dangerous because our identity drives our behavior. Who we see ourselves to be (our identity) affects what we see ourselves doing (our behavior).
So, what kind of behaviors come out of this identity shift from “I” to “we”. Here are 4 real consequences I've seen in dating couples:
1. SEXUAL ACTIVITY Is Inevitable
If you've shifted your core identity to a “we”, then I can almost guarantee that you and your boyfriend or girlfriend are sexually involved now or will be as your relationship becomes more and more of a "we". If you're thinking like a "we", that usually means that you're deeply emotionally involved in the relationship. And it’s almost impossible to feel that much emotional intimacy and not want (or even expect) the same level in your physical relationship. If you’re already experiencing emotional oneness, you’re gonna want physical oneness also.
2. GETTING OUT Feels Impossible
When you’re casually dating someone, it’s easy to break up and walk away. It still hurts, but it’s relatively easy. You don’t have a whole lot invested in the relationship. But when you’re already a "we" that's "gonna get married one day", then you probably feel like you can’t get out – even when you see very negative things in the other person or know your relationship is unhealthy. You feel like there’s no way out because you're in too deep. You might feel “I can’t imagine life without them" or think “We've had sex so we have to get married.” When you invest your whole heart, soul, and body into a relationship, it’s easy to feel trapped, like you have to stay in the relationship for good.
3. FUTURE BREAK UPS Are Devastating
When you've shifted your identity from “I” to “we”, break-ups aren't just painful, they’re devastating. Don’t get me wrong, break-ups should hurt. But they shouldn't cause your world to come crumbling down. Yet that’s what we see happen. You've seen it and I've seen it. Why are these breakups so devastating? It’s because when you’re living as a “we” and acting married, ending the relationship isn't just breaking up, it’s divorce. Fake marriage also means fake divorce. And divorce, even fake divorce, is always devastating.
4. FUTURE MARRIAGE Can Be Unsatisfying
So, let’s say you don’t break up and you do actually get married. You still have to deal with the consequences of your dating relationship. I’ll explain this with a quote from an excellent dating book called Cupidity: 50 Stupid Things We Do for Love by Haley and Michael DiMarco:
The more physically comfortable you become with someone you are dating, the more you devalue marriage. There was a day when everything was saved for marriage—when people didn't take naps with each other or stay the night or even go on family vacations together before they were married. They looked forward to a time when they would do all those things as a couple, and it held some kind of mystique. But now couples are playing house and mixing up the order of things before they walk down the aisle.
Here’s a shorter version of the same idea from Joshua Harris out of his book Boy Meets Girl: Say Hello to Courtship:
The longer your "no big deal" list is before marriage, the shorter your "very special list" will be after marriage.
If you've done a bunch of the stuff married people do, marriage loses its specialness. Most of us tend to have really high expectations for marriage, but you can end up disappointed because you find out there's not much difference between what you did before and what you're doing now in marriage. You can then feel really dissatisfied with your marriage.
How to Prevent an "I" to "We" Dating Identity Shift?
The "I" to "we" identity shift is very real and very dangerous. But, the good news is that there are some concrete things you can do to prevent it. Here are six ideas for you to follow in order to have healthier dating relationships.
1. Understand WHO YOU ARE in Christ
Wanna know the best way to prevent losing your identity to somebody else? Understand who you are in Christ. A lot of us find our value, worth, significance, beauty, or masculinity in another person. I believe that’s why so many couples get so close so quickly. They are desperate to fill that void where Christ should be. If you want to begin to understand who you are in Christ, I highly recommend a book by Neil T. Anderson called Victory Over the Darkness: Realizing the Power of Your Identity in Christ. Until you fully wrap your head around who you are Christ – loved, forgiven, accepted, secure, significant – you will constantly be try to get these things from another person. And trust me, you’ll give away almost anything to get them.
2. Know WHY You’re Dating
If you’re in a relationship right now, do you know why you’re dating? Is it for marriage? Because you like them? Because everyone else is dating? I once knew a couple who were having a lot of problems and after talking with them, we discovered they had different reasons for dating. She was in it to get married and he was in it because he really liked her. Now, that’s a recipe for disaster.
I think there's a lot of different opinions out there with regard to dating. Here's just one example. I recently conducted an informal poll asking “What's the primary purpose or goal of talking?” Here are the results:
- To get to know them better – 50%
- To determine if they're someone you want to date – 25%
- To determine if they're someone you want to marry – 25%
That’s a lot of different opinions. And that’s just talking! Can you just image what it could be for dating? So, it's really important that we know why we're dating and that we talk about it, because your boyfriend or girlfriend could be in the relationship for a different reason.
3. Don’t RUSH the Relationship
If there’s one thing I want to tell every couple: SLOW DOWN. I’m amazed how quickly people go from just dating to serious dating. One day, it’s “Wanna go out?”, and the next day it’s “You are my everything; I couldn't imagine life without you.”
A college student once told me that its ok to start talking about marriage after about 3 months of dating. I didn't really believe them, but then later that day I was talking to another college student who was telling me how he and his girlfriend were talking about what their kids would look like. Guess how long they had been dating? 3 months.
We can understand what it looks like to rush a relationship by looking at a couple dating timelines that include the typical stages of dating: interest, dating, engagement, and then marriage. Here is an example of a pretty traditional dating timeline:
Traditional Dating Timeline
However, after talking with a lot of dating couples, I’ve noticed a different pattern. This is an example of the new timeline that seems all too common these days.
"New" Dating Timeline
Notice how the period of “just dating” has really shrunk, and now there’s this new phase that I call PRE-ENGAGED. It’s when a couple believes they’re going to get married but just not yet – after they turn 18, graduate, get financially stable, etc. Even saying stuff like “we’re going to be together forever” is a form of pre-engagement. The transition from dating to pre-engaged is the prime spot for an identity shift. This is usually the extreme “we” phase. This is the phase where the consequences of the identity shift become really evident.
4. Resist THE PRESSURE
I think there’s a lot of pressure around to have one of these “we” relationships, these fake marriage relationships we've been talking about. In fact, I've come to see it as “The New Normal.” Slow, patient, healthy relationships seem to be the exception these days.
Why does this matter? Because what you think is “normal” will influence your expectations. I once knew a high school girl whose boyfriend would come over to her house every day after school. Then, when one of her friends started dating, she got upset when her boyfriend only came over once or twice times a week. Why did she get upset? Because she had created a New Normal by watching her sister. She figured that’s what boyfriends were supposed to do.
So, where does this pressure come from?
First, your parents. How many of you older youth are getting pressure from your parents to get married? It’s just part of Hmong culture. Chances are that if you’re out of high school, you’re getting pressure to get married. You don't want to get married yet, so you settle for a marriage-like relationship.
The second place is your friends. Unfortunately, youth groups are one of the worst places for this pressure. If two people are just interested in each other, everyone’s asking “What’s going on with you two? Are you guys dating?” And then if you’re older and dating, your friends just assume you’re getting married. They even joke about it. Ladies, how many of you have jokingly being called Nam, i.e. N. Tou, N. Kong. I know it happens, because I hear it. And most of the time, the couple just laughs it off. I've never hear someone say “Please don’t call me that. We’re not married.” But I think people should starting saying stuff like that.
Don’t give into the pressure to think of yourself as a “we”. Don’t define your relationship by everyone around you. Resist the New Normal. Because the New Normal is pretty messed up.
5. Get More TWONESS in Your Relationship
Previously, I talked about how married couples experience biblical oneness the way God created it to be, and if you've shifted from an “I” to a “we”, then you’re living with fake oneness. The way to combat that is to get more twoness in your relationship. Here are just a few ways to do that:
- Develop some friendships apart from the other person
- Do things with other people
- Keep your stuff separate
- Make decisions on your own
- If you’re at a youth event, don’t feel you have to be together the whole time
I know this might sound very similar to “breaking up” or “needing space”, but it’s not. It’s developing a healthier balance between being a couple and being single. Most dating relationships are incredibly imbalanced.
A word of warning though: it’s gonna be tough. If you’re used to seeing your boyfriend/girlfriend every day and you cut back to every other day, it’s gonna hurt because you’ll miss them. But this is the hurt of healing, not the hurt of dying.
6. CONSIDER Marriage, Don’t ASSUME It
Now, this one’s especially for you older youth, who are in college or out of school…
I want to address one of the most popular views on the purpose of dating – you should only date to marry. I know a lot of people believe this because I hear it all the time.
This idea came out of an author named Joshua Harris who wrote two pretty influential books, I Kissed Dating Goodbye and Boy Meets Girl: Say Hello to Courtship. If he were writing this article, he would tell you that the idea that you should only date to marry is absolutely, completely, 100% wrong. Instead, he would say that the purpose of dating is to figure out if the two of you should marry. Here’s how he says it:
The purpose of this time [what he calls courtship] would be to deeper our relationship so that we could prayerfully and purposefully explore the possibility of marriage. -Joshua Harris, Boy Meets Girl
The goal of dating is not marriage, but a decision about marriage.
So, date-to-marry is not only a wrong view, but also really dangerous. Let me show you why with the help of a little logic puzzle. I’m going to start with the statement and the first half of a conditional (an if…then statement). Then you try to complete the puzzle.
STATEMENT: You should only date to marry
CONDITIONAL: If you are dating someone, then _____________________
If you said "You have to marry them", then you're correct. So, according to this logic, if you only date to marry and you’re dating someone, then you have to marry them. Notice how’s there’s no way out of this. Because of this, I think a lot of dating couples get trapped into marriage thinking. So, marriage no longer becomes a decision, it becomes an assumption.
One last word, if you’re not ready to get married, or at least engaged, stop talking about marriage. And definitely don’t assume that you’re going to get married simply because you’re dating. Unless you’re willing to follow Beyonce's advice and “put a ring on it”, don’t talk about getting married.
The Best (and Simplest) Way to Avoid an "I" to "We" Identity Shift
If you've made it this far in the series of articles, then you deserve a little reward. So, I’m going to give you the best (and simplest) way to avoid the “I” to “we” trap and all the mess that comes with it. It’s one little question, but it has the power to radically transform your dating relationships.
Before you do something in your relationship ask yourself “Is this something married people do?”
It’s that simple. If you evaluate your decisions based on that question and stop doing stuff the married people do, you will have a dramatically healthier relationship. Don’t believe me? Go back to that list of 10 “We” Dating Activities. They’re all stuff married people do.
So, ask this question often, answer it honestly, and save the "married" things for when you actually get married.
One Final Encouragement
God wants you to have a great marriage, whether it’s a year from now or 10 years from now. God wants you to have a great marriage, and what you do now in dating will plays huge part in how great that marriage is. So, don’t let your boyfriend or girlfriend steal your identity. Don’t make that identity shift from an “I” to a “we”. Because when God is ready to make that change in your on your wedding day, it will be immeasurably more than anything you can ask or imagine. Never forget that.