Using “I feel” statements to make rather than break your relationship

Feelings are indicators about what interests and is important to us, and the expression of feelings is essential for establishing connection and creating intimacy in romantic partnerships. We have to be able to communicate clearly about how we feel in our relationship, such as expressing what we like or dislike about it. However, the clear expression of feelings is often practiced un-artfully. One of the most common errors I see when working with couples in couples counseling sessions is the use of the word “that” following the words, “I feel.” For instance, “I feel that you don’t…” In this instance—and in any other where the word “that” follows the words “I feel”—“I feel” is not an expression of feeling. Rather, it becomes a statement of belief or opinion.

Feelings are emotional states that are expressed in single word descriptions or labels, such as in, “I feel sad, angry, happy confused, etc.” However, rather than left as an expression of feeling, when you express a specific feeling and follow it with the word “that,” your feeling becomes subject to disagreement or argumentation. For instance, when saying, “I feel sad that you don’t care about me,” your seemingly legitimate feeling of sadness is coming from a position that you believe to be true—“you don’t care about me.” Your partner might protest and claim that he or she does, indeed, care and contest your “feelings.” A less problematic expression would be, “I feel sad because you don’t seem to care about me.” The word “seem” allows you to express your feeling without assuming that it is absolute truth, which then allows your partner to hear your feelings much more openly. An open conversation may then ensue as to your reasons for feeling the way you do and your partner’s explanations.

Another very common misuse of feeling language is the use of the term “you make me feel.” This expression is actually an accusation and puts the responsibility for what you feel on your partner. It’s important to recognize that no one can make another person feel anything. Even if someone is trying to hurt you and the intent is recognized, your response comes in part from the other’s negative comment and tone of voice, but also from your interpretation of the comment or tone. If you believe the hurtful comment is true, and you judge yourself negatively for it, you will react more intensely. However, if you except your limitations and don’t condemn yourself for them, you will not react so strongly or defensively even if the comment or criticism is true.

Using “feeling” language to effectively communicate with your partner

When using feeling language, rather than say “I feel that you…” or “You make me feel…” try saying, “When you did (insert), I felt (insert).” For example, “When you did not call, I felt very disconnected.” In this way, you can indicate to your partner that he or she has triggered a reaction in you without placing blame. This type of communication also clearly points out what was problematic for you, but with the responsibility and ownership of your feeling as your own. By not blaming your partner, he or she can respond more empathetically. It also creates a nonthreatening space for your partner to look at and possibly change what you’re pointing to that was objectionable.

Another effective rule for healthy communication is to avoid harsh or derogatory characterizations about your partner. If upset, focus on the behavior that you find displeasing, not the person. For instance, you might say, “I can’t believe you’re so inconsiderate. I feel horrible now. Why didn’t you call me when you said you would?” Your partner will likely respond defensively and consider your “feeling” a condemnation. You partner will also likely focus on his or her hurt or anger and not on the message you are trying to communicate. Rather, try saying, “When you say you’re going to call and you don’t, I feel taken for granted.” Once again, the use of the phrase “When you…” is much more effective in making your point. And, if you feel compelled to use negative, toxic language, it is important to look inside of yourself to see where the source of the resentment or hostility is coming from and neutralize it. Then you can utilize any of these communication techniques to achieve positive, productive interactions.

Communication issues are often at the crux of any relationship problem. While the above tips are useful, couples often need more tools and the guidance of an experienced couples therapist to help them resolve communication issues and work through ongoing issues. If you and your partner are struggling to connect and wondering how to improve communication improve communication in marriage, I can help. If you are in New York City or Weston, CT, I invite you to call my office. We can discuss your specific relationship problems and how couples counseling can help you and your partner resolve communication problems, strengthen your connection and increase harmony in your relationship.