“I feel …. you’re the problem”

I laugh sometimes when I hear clients try to use “I feel” statements. I’ve even heard someone say, “I feel that you’re an idiot.” This is obviously not the intended use of the phrase “I feel.” In fact, this is just another way of insulting or hurting someone.

In The Marriage Program we talk about the use of I feel statements as a way to productively start off a conversation. If a speaker can clearly explain to the listener that the subject of the conversation is how he or she feels, then there is at least a better chance the listener will remain focused throughout the conversation. The part where this gets difficult is when the speaker has to explain that their feelings are a result of something the listener has done. For example:

Wife: “[Husband] I feel sad and unimportant when you come home from work and are unable to really be present with me and the kids.”

What’s the subject? Is it the husband’s inability to be present at home? No!!! That is an issue, but the subject of this conversation is how the wife feels sad and unimportant. Most people in the husband’s shoes would probably defend themselves because they felt attacked. It makes sense why they would feel attacked, but the problem is they miss the point of the conversation. By defending themselves, they have hurt their spouse even more because they have made it about themselves instead of understanding their spouse.

For example:

Husband: “What are you talking about? I’m here aren’t I? I work all day and I come home for dinner … just because it takes me a while to shutdown work doesn’t mean I’m not here or uninterested in my family.”

Did the husband miss the point? Yes!!! Even though his argument may offer a valid explanation for the scenario, the subject of the conversation is based on “I feel sad and unimportant.” If the husband doesn’t start with his wife’s feeling of sadness then the conversation is flawed from the beginning. However, if the husband can hear his wife and identify the real subject then the conversation could eventually come around to him being able to explain his struggles, and best case scenario, the two of them brainstorm ways for the husband to have a better transition from work to home.

For example:

Husband: “I can understand why you would feel sad and unimportant when I am not engaged with the family.”

This statement by the husband might actually lead to some empathy – increasing his ability to understand how his behavior makes his wife feel. Now if the husband really wants to go the extra mile he could say, “It bothers me too that I struggle with being emotionally present after a long day of work. I would love to brainstorm some ways I could make the mental switch from work to home.” I know most people don’t talk like that, especially most men. No offense men. But if a husband did respond with something even close to this, he would make his wife feel understood and they would both, most likely, feel a stronger connection to another knowing they are both wanting the same thing.

So here are the takeaways:

1. Start your conversation with “I feel” with the hopes that the listener pays attention to how you feel. My wife even says, “I’m not saying this to attack you,” before she shares her feelings to better prepare me for the real subject.

2. As a listener, don’t always assume you are the problem. You might be some of the time, or even most of the time, but if you launch into a defense of yourself without hearing the real subject you are digging a deeper hole. Listen to how they feel instead of what you’ve done wrong.

Written By Joshua Emery

If you’re interested in learning more effective communication in your marriage, contact Gary Emery or Josh Emery, our founders who specializes in marriage revival.