"I Feel..."

01.04.19 09:37 PM By Charell McFarland

When "I Feel" goes south

Communication is the foundation of all of our relationships, and it is especially valuable in our intimate relationships—like that between couples. With this being such an integral part of relationships, it’s no wonder why it’s often the first to be neglected when a relationship is in trouble. In fact, for many, it’s often one of the first indicators that there is trouble.

By the time many couples seek out counseling, the communication pathway has been interrupted with broken speedbumps, falling over stop signs, continuously flashing yellow lights and everything else wrong with the road! Communication then becomes about ME! ME! ME! I have to be right, and I have to tell you exactly what I perceive you have done to me. It is no longer a back and forth open exchange of hearing, processing, and responding appropriately to each other’s perspectives and feelings.

Now let me caution you that if you first thought is, “OH MY! This sounds just like…” stop and re-evaluate. It is almost impossible to have communication issues unless both parties are dropping the ball in some way. Poor communication is not a one partner issue. It’s triumphs and short comings require the same amount of people it takes to make a baby---TWO! This is where therapy can be helpful. Not with the baby making, but with improving the communication pathways to an open and free flowing two-way intersection!

Many therapists will tell you to communicate with “I feel” statements. But does anyone actually know what that means and how it looks in real life situations?

I like to model this when I prescribe it, because “I feel” can take a quick wrong turn, and easily mimic the blame game.

Having said that, I feel statements are actually kind of difficult to do, because, when done correctly, it involves a certain amount of introspection as to the role and responsibility I played in addition to expressing how I felt by someone’s actions. It is then the listener’s role to respond to the feeling and how, potentially, they could have made someone feel, even if it was a misunderstanding on the part of the speaker. In this way, the goal of both the speaker and the listener is to avoid placing blame and to take responsibility to repair the breakdown.

“I feel” statements are most effective between people who feel empathy for one another. Simply put, when I hear that I have hurt someone the ideal response is for me to feel some level of remorse for hurting the person, even if he/she was hurt by perception or misunderstanding. Ideally, hearing how I have hurt someone should cause me to not want to hurt them in that way again to the fullest extent of my ability. This is especially true in a relationship where I have pledged a life commitment to someone. I am expected to feel something when my partner is hurt, whatever the cause. If this is not the cause, then I have some deeper work to do.

Likewise, if someone tells me I have hurt them, and I blame them for feeling hurt, the bigger challenge may lie within me. Let me add the caveat that I am speaking generally, and that there are some circumstances where this may not fully apply (e.g. with someone who is known to manipulate others in some way). So, all things being equal, I should have some type of response to someone I love telling me I have hurt them.

So here is the formula I have found helpful to have a smoother “I feel” conversation.

1. Acknowledge how you feel/felt by a certain action (Avoid placing blame when possible but speak your truth in love)

2. Admit if you played a role or instigated the situation, if appropriate

Here is a response formula:

1. Acknowledge the feeling(s) being told to you

2. Take Ownership, express empathy, and apologize that the person felt that way, and, if appropriate, for doing whatever caused the person to feel that way

3. Speak to your intentions without making excuses (e.g. clarify your actions or intentions but try to avoid statements that sounds like “I only did this because you did…”)

4. Determine the next steps (e.g. “next time I will be sure too…”)

In an example for both:

Partner A:

Now that we are alone, I wanted to talk with you about what happened earlier. I felt hurt when my parenting was criticized in front of the children earlier today. I felt as though my authority as a parent was being undermined. I realize that I could have responded differently in the moment, and I apologize if I hurt you when I snapped back at you. I shouldn’t have done that at all, but certainly not in front of the kids.

Partner B:

I’m sorry that I hurt you when I criticized your parenting in front of the children. I do not want to undermine your role as a parent to them. I should have pulled you aside to discuss my concern. I was caught up in the moment, and I did not consider how it would make you feel. I’m sorry if I hurt you. Next time, I will ask you to step aside or address it with you later if it can wait. Thank you for apologizing for snapping at me. I was hurt by that, but I appreciate you acknowledging how I felt before I did, and also for apologizing for it.

As you can see this is A LOT of work and gets easier, and possibly shorter with practice. This is clearly more ideal in response and your conversations may not look like this at all at first, but don’t give up. I’ve found that as communication improves, you may find a need to use this technique only for difficult conversations because of how open and understanding your everyday conversations become. Truth be told, it definitely is an ego check, but in a healthy marriage ego is left at the altar. The rest of the relationship is just two people focused on building a healthy and joyous life together for themselves, and to model to their families.

As always, thanks for taking the time to read this and comment with your ideas or experiences if you have any! 

Charell McFarland