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This Simple Communication Rule Can Rescue Your Marriage

Learn the key to getting through and being heard.

The columnist Ellen Goodman once quoted a friend who gave her daughters terrific advice:

“Speak up, speak up, speak up! “ this mother said. “The only person you’ll scare off is your future ex-husband!” What an improvement over the pre-feminist advice I was raised on: “Listen wide-eyed to his ideas and gracefully add your footnotes from time to time.”

All ways of speaking up, however, are not equal. One of the challenges in marriage is to make authentic “I” statements that express our beliefs and feelings without judging or attacking your partner. This may be easy enough if your partner is nodding vigorously in agreement (“I thought you were brilliant tonight”) or if the subject matter is a neutral one (“I know you like vanilla but I prefer chocolate”). But when you’re dealing with a defensive partner or a high-twitch subject, nothing is simple or easy.

“I” statements, however, can keep a difficult conversation from exploding into an all-out fight. An “I” statement starts with “I think,” I feel,” “I fear,” “I want.”

Practice making these kinds of statements.

Most importantly, remember that a true “I” statement:

  • Has a light touch
  • Is nonjudgmental and non-blaming
  • Does not imply that the other person is responsible for your feelings or reactions
  • Is only about you—not about your partner.

Every “you” statement (“You’re being controlling!”) can be turned into an “ I” statement. (“I need to make my own decision here”). Keep in mind, however, that changing the grammatical structure of your sentences is only part of the challenge. You also need to get the edge out of your voice. An intense, reactive tone will “undo” even the most carefully constructed “I”-statement” and may come across as blaming. So hold off until you can state your “I” position without the edge.

A note of caution: Beware of Pseudo “I” Language!

We may think we’re talking in “I” language when we stick “I think” or “I feel” in front of a sentence, but that doesn't do the trick. Sometimes it’s easy to detect a pseudo “I” statement (“I think you have a narcissistic personality disorder”) that judges or diagnoses the other person.

In many cases, however, the difference between a true “I” statement and a pseudo “I” statement can be subtle. My friend tells this story about his wife Jill. It's a good example of his wife making an “I” statement that was really a “you” statement dressed up in “I” statement clothing.

My friend writes: My home office has been a mess lately and Jill, who shares the space, is a much more organized person than I am. After glancing at the stacks of papers everywhere on my desk and floor, she said to me:

"When I walk into this room, I feel like our household is totally falling apart.”

Totally falling apart! Our household? I’m her hardworking faithful partner of 14 years and because my half of the office is a mess she feels like everything is crumbling around her? And yet when I said, “That’s a pretty extreme statement, she simply responded, “Well, it’s how I feel.”

How can I possibly respond to that?

A partner is unlikely to have the space to consider his behavior, much less apologize for it, if he feels he’s putting his head on the chopping block and taking responsibility not only for his behavior but for your unhappiness, as well.

Remember this: An “I” statement should serve to clarify our position, not act as a Trojan horse for smuggling in judgments and accusations.