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How To Communicate Effectively With Your Partner…Ditch the Blame Game!

When working with my couples therapy clients, I try to remind them to communicate what they feel and want, as opposed to hiding their feelings or blaming each other. Using “I feel/I want” statements is an effective method to remind individuals to communicate what they are feeling and wanting. When blame creeps into your communication, it can be hard for each partner to truly hear what the other needs. Once your partner’s alarm has been triggered, defensiveness usually takes over the conversation. Walls go up and effective communication essentially breaks down.

Review the “I feel/I want” framework below:

  • When you <briefly describe the situation at hand>, I feel <choose a feeling: sad/hurt/afraid/impatient> because I <briefly detail the psychological need you have that leads you to feel the way that you do>
  • What I want is <briefly describe the exact action that you would like your partner to do>.

Many of my clients immediately tell me that they feel limited by the four feeling choices listed above <sad/hurt/afraid/impatient>, explaining that often they feel angry, frustrated, enraged or aggravated. I tell my clients to step back and translate those feelings into one of the four suggested in the “I feel/I want” example. When your partner hears you using strong feelings like angry, frustrated, enraged or aggravated they will often feel blamed and get defensive. As mentioned earlier, this makes calm and effective communication very challenging. If you think about it, a word like “impatient” can also express feelings of frustration, and the feeling of “hurt” can work well for feelings of anger or fear.

After you manage to calmly express how you are feeling, try to avoid placing 100% of the blame for how you are feeling squarely on your partner. As an example, if you say “I feel hurt because you are an insensitive, callous jerk” will most likely make your partner feel defensive and blamed. Things will likely escalate in a negative direction! That’s why you should try to use the word “because” after you state how you are feeling. Then, explain which psychological need has not been met or causes you to feel bad in this given situation. An example would be as follows:

  • “When I perceive you looking at other women when we are out at a restaurant, I feel hurt because I have a need for you to pay attention to me and value me when we are spending quality time together.”

The key here is keeping the focus on yourself, rather than blaming your partner for his actions. This will help your partner to really hear your pain and your needs, as opposed to immediately getting defensive and stonewalling (blocking out what you are trying to say). Of course, sometimes (no matter how hard we try!) we can get defensive, or trigger our partners. This means that you need to calmly try to communicate again, using this “I feel/I want” framework. Don’t give up and resort to your old negative communication patterns!

Some of my clients I have told me that using this communication framework feels foreign and a bit strange. When discussed further, we discovered that communicating in this way can feel less satisfying right out of the gate, as it doesn’t give you that ability to throw blame at your partner for your hurt feelings. (i.e.) “I feel outraged that you could be such a jerk!” gives you a brief bump of satisfaction, because you have put some of your pain and blame onto your partner. Restructured using this framework, this statement would look like this: “I feel deeply hurt right now because I care for you and I’m afraid that I might lose you.” Down the road this form of communication is ultimately more effective, because blaming your partner rarely results in getting your needs met!

Below are some more examples to help you get more comfortable with the “I feel/I want” model of communication:

  • “I feel totally alone in this relationship.” —> “When you don’t speak to me all morning, I feel really hurt and sad because I need to know that you value and love me.”
  • “I have had it up to here with having to clean up your mess around the house.” —> “When you leave your dirty clothing on the floor, I feel hurt because I ¬†need to know that you respect me, and I interpret you leaving your dirty socks out as a sign that you don’t value or appreciate me.”
  • All you care about is your friends. You never even think about what I need.” —> “When you go out late with your friends, I feel hurt because I want to spend quality time with you and I haven’t had enough of that lately.”
  • “I’m sick and tired of you watching sports all weekend.” —> “When you watch a lot of sports on TV, I feel sad and afraid because I want to share more time with you, but I feel like I can’t compete with ESPN.”

Remember, once you clearly express how you are feeling, your next job is to express what you want from your partner, without making him/her feel defensive or angry. Try not to be too general with your “want” request…it’s important here to be precise, clear and actually doable! The more specific you can be in your communication, the greater the chance of your partner being able to honor your request and refrain from feeling defensive.

To help my clients get used to this type of communication, I often suggest that they translate things in their head into “I feel/I want” statements before blurting out what normally would come to mind. Stay specific and try to avoid blame. This does indeed take extra effort, but it will pay off down the road.

 

Please note, this post was informed by Jonathan Robinson’s work in “Communication Miracles For Couples” published by Conari Press, 2008.

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