I Love My Spouse, but I Hate Parenting with Him: TIP #2 for Constructive Couples Communication: I-Statements
How has it been going with Tip # 1--active listening? Did you miss it? You can catch up HERE.
With Tip #2--I Statements--we create room for conversation, but instead of just listening, we learn to express our emotions so our partner knows what is going on inside our heads.
Have you ever sat in a busy place like an airport or a café and made guesses about people? I love doing that. People always fascinate me, and I like to tell stories in my head about the people around me. In the process I make a lot of assumptions about who they might be. I look at their clothes, how they are standing, their expressions, who they are with, what language they are speaking. I take it all in and I start making guesses. Well, I may make a game out of it, but we all make assumptions, all the time--with strangers and with the people we love. We tell ourselves stories about people's motivations, as if we could see inside their brains. And perhaps just as harmful, we assume that others can see in our heads, too!
Lots of times we make positive assumptions--like when my husband makes hot tea and brings it to me, I assume he loves me and is thinking about me--but often times we make negative assumptions about what our partner is thinking or feeling without doing a reality check. Here’s an example: Barbara is washing the dishes while Bob sits on the couch reading. As she furiously scrubs, she might be seething thinking, “It’s not fair that I’m working and he’s just sitting there relaxing.” She might go on to tell herself, “He’s okay letting me wash the dishes alone because I’m home all day and he thinks I don’t do anything all day.”
In reality, Bob might not be aware of her at all. He might just be enjoying his good book. Or he might have his own internal dialogue going. He might be thinking, “I am so stressed out from work. I just need 30 mins. to veg out. I wish she’d stop doing the dishes and relax for a bit!” Fear of an argument can make it hard to reasonably ask our partner’s motivations, but what are we supposed to do with all our hurt or hostile feelings?
The technique I want to tell you about today is called an I-Statement. It is used for introducing a difficult topic in a gentle way. Here is an I-Statement Barbara might have used to express her negative emotions about the dishes:
Addressing Bob, she would say, “When you sit on the couch reading while I am doing dishes, I feel resentful and put upon because I am working and you have leisure time.”
Let’s look at each part. The I-Statement starts by identifying one concrete situation. It goes on to express a feeling (in this case resentment) and the underlying cause of the emotion (Barbara would like to be resting, too, but feels she cannot until the dishes are done). Notice what the I-Statement does not say: It is not used for broad general character defamations (like “You’re so inconsiderate!") and it does not go over past history (as in “You always let me do the dishes and never help"). It does not go on and on with a lot of detail.
What are some other times you might feel upset with your spouse? Perhaps she comes home late without calling. Perhaps he leaves to do a Costco run without telling you, leaving all three children in your care. Perhaps she makes plans for the family without asking you first. The list could go on and on, right? In each of these cases, you could use an I-Statement to start the conversation that communicates your distress. Here are some sample statements you might calmly use with your partner.
•When you came home late without calling me, I felt worried because I imagined you had had an accident.
•When you left me with all three kids without telling me first, I felt furious because I've been point person on looking after the kids all day and I need a break.
•When you said yes to our going to dinner at friends without checking with me first, I felt ignored and insignificant because I didn't get a chance to weigh in with my desires or opinions.
Of course, the feelings and the reasons behind the feelings could be different than the ones I have suggested here. The important part is that you are expressing your emotions rather than expecting your partner to guess them. At the same time, you are delivering your message in a way that is not an attack. Tone is, of course, still important, but if you stick to the formula--because you are mentioning a specific event and sharing only your own feelings and not your partner's motivations--you greatly avoid the chances of anger, sarcasm, or bitterness taking over.
Got it? It can help to think through some possible I-Statements before you actually start using them. You might even want to write them down.
Once you have delivered your I-Statement, then what? At the very least, you will have expressed your emotions and that feels good. But let's suppose your partner gets hostile and tears into the one part of the statement she can defend. In response to your comment, "When you came home late without calling me, I felt worried because I imagined you had had an accident," for example, your partner may mitigate how late she was, arguing it was only 15 minutes. That's fine. If that is true, use it in your I-Statement response: "When you were 15 minutes late home without calling me, I felt worried because I imagined you had had an accident." Maybe now your partner will say you are being ridiculous! Use that, too: "Even if it was ridiculous, when you came home late last night, I felt worried." As long as you you keep sticking to the truth of your feelings, your partner will not be able to argue around them. It helps to picture your spouse and run through the conversation through your head as you imagine it will go, so you can think out your responses.
On the other hand, if you and your spouse can train each other, you can keep the conversation going in a peaceful vein. Let's go back to Barbara and Bob and the dishes. When Barbara uses her I-Statement to tell Bob how she is feeling, what should Bob’s response be? Well, this would be an excellent time for some Active Listening. He might say something like “You’re really frustrated that you are doing the dishes alone. It doesn’t feel fair to you.” By not defending himself, Bob gives Barbara a chance to off load her emotions and really tell her whole story. At the end of the active listening, he might ask Barbara, “What would you like me to do?” Now if Barbara says, “It would make a big difference to me if you would help me with the dishes,” Bob is likely jump up from the couch and grab a dish towel. Not having felt attacked, he will have listened with an open heart. Most spouses do want to support each other if they are asked in a way that assumes the best in them.
As with active listening, I-Statements are a skill you can use just from your side of the conversation and you will still have an effect on the health of relationship. Find a few places this week to give them a try.