When “I Feel…” Statements Don’t Work

I can’t begin to tell you the number of times I’ve heard the suggestion that instead of accusing your spouse of doing something you don’t like, you should re-frame your statement as: When ____ happens, I feel ______.

It’s a bedrock of communication advice, and it was overtly taught in my graduate counseling program. You’ll find this recommendation in marriage and relationship books galore and touted by therapists and psychologists. While I believe this can be great advice in some circumstances, I’ve come to believe it’s not the magic phrase that some seem to imply.

Title with couple on couching facing away from each other

Because I know what’s happening in some of your marriages: You’re frustrated with the sexual intimacy, and so you sit down with your spouse and heed this advice and explain your feelings about the situation. You’re calm, collected, and careful to use those words: When ____ happens, I feel ______. Like When we don’t have sex for two weeks, I feel personally rejected, or When you only touch me when you want sex, I feel used.

After all, if your spouse truly understood your deep feelings on the issue, you suspect they’d see things from a different perspective. After all, they love you, so surely they don’t want you to feel so bad all the time.

Yet it can backfire. And I want to be sensitive to that, and certainly not advise you to do something that could make the sexual intimacy situation in your marriage even more tense.

Here are times when those I feel statements won’t work, and what to try instead:

1. One-uppance. You’ve heard of comeuppance, but I’m calling this one-uppance because it’s the tendency of your spouse to want to one up you on whatever feeling you’re having. So you say: “When ____ happens, I feel ______.” And they answer, “Yeah, well, I feel _____.”

If you’re feeling rejected, they’re feeling exploited. If you’re feeling put upon, they’re feeling ignored. If you’re feeling mistreated, they’re feeling like divorce is imminent if things keep going the way they have. You can barely risk sharing a feeling, because you’ll immediately hear how their emotional pain tops yours.

What can you do? As hard as it is, maybe you can listen to and validate their concerns. Maybe you can say something like, “It sounds like we both have some issues here. I’d really like us to work them out.” Maybe once they feel heard, they can hear you better. Even if their issue is 10% of the problem, and yours is 90% of what’s really happening, remember the Golden Rule: Treat others the way you want to be treated. (See Matthew 7:12.) Take their concerns seriously, let them know you care, and then ask for them to listen to your issues as well.

2. Pooh-poohed. You share the trigger scenario and how it makes you feel, and your feeling gets pooh-poohed — belittled, discounted, brushed off. Your spouse argues that you shouldn’t feel that way. That your feeling is wrong or silly or a figment of your imagination.

Oftentimes it’s a lack of empathy, being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes — or body parts, as the case may be. Since they would not feel that way under similar circumstances, they flat-out don’t understand why you do. So the answer, in their mind, is for you to just stop feeling that way. For instance, if you feel unloved because you haven’t had sex in three weeks, you should just turn off that feeling because it doesn’t relate at all to what they understand.

What can you do? Explain how your feelings work. For instance, in a recent conversation with my hubby, he said (for the 10,725th time), “Stop worrying about that.” I finally looked at him and said, “I have no idea what that looks like.” Then I explained that, while that was an achievable goal for his male brain, I couldn’t just flip a switch like that. Once I let him know that his way was fine but it didn’t work for me and why, he was able to feel compassion and show patience with my situation. Just work toward building empathy by letting your hubby know how things work in your world, without dissing his world.

By the way, I believe some husbands pooh-pooh their wives’ feelings like this, not because they don’t care, but because it makes them supremely uncomfortable to see you hurting. In an effort to make the emotional pain end quickly, they suggest that you stop feeling that way. I just want you to understand that sometimes, it really does come from a place of love.

3. Seeing an Iceberg. Icebergs are peculiar things: 87% of their mass is underwater, so that you only see about one-eighth of what really exists. And that’s how some spouses treat let’s talk moments. You decide to share your “When ____ happens, I feel ______” statement, and what you get back is a reaction to the 87% of things you didn’t say. Whether or not they’re true.

Here’s an example: You say, “When you don’t make any effort for me to have an orgasm, I feel disappointed and like my sexual satisfaction doesn’t matter.” And he responds, “So sex is disappointing to you, and you’re not satisfied. Clearly, I’m not enough for you. You’d obviously rather be with someone else!” Say what?! Yet, some of you have experienced a similar conversation, and I say with true Southern honesty: Bless. Your. Heart.

What can you do? Stay calm, and let them know that those are not the issues at hand. You can also reassure them that their fears are unfounded (e.g., “You are the only one I want, but I want our sexual intimacy to thrive”). Then go back to the issue at hand. Too often we want to put our whole marriage on trial, when cases are one fact by fact, witness by witness. Let them know that you just want to deal with this one issue. If he wants to deal with other issues later, you’re open to discussing them at another time … and then follow-up.

4. DNA. You can’t argue with DNA, right? Which is why it’s such a handy argument to pull out when your spouse expresses a feeling that might require you to change. You begin with, “When ____ happens, I feel ______,” and your spouse responds that what you’re wanting isn’t the person they are. They were made differently, and you should just accept who they are.

If they have a nonexistent sex drive, that’s just the way God made them. If they have a ravenous need for sexual variety, it’s in their DNA. If they are uncomfortable with certain acts, that have no biblical commands or principles against them, it’s just who they are. Your feelings might not be good, but how is your spouse supposed to do something different to make you feel better when they’re dealing with hard-wired DNA.

What can you do? First, you can appeal to your own DNA, because why should only one of you get to claim that “that’s just how I am.” Although, frankly, that might end up in more argument. Perhaps you can get your spouse to recognize some other way in which they have changed for the better. Or even how you‘ve changed for the better? “Remember when I used to get angry about you leaving your coffee cups all over the house. But then I made a conscious effort to be patient and more loving. I’m still me, but a better me. What if sex is that way too? What if we could change a little bit toward each other and be more loving and connected?” If we can recognize the ways in which we have indeed changed in our lives, through decision and commitment, maybe we can take a baby step or two in the right direction.

Of course, my suggestions are also not guarantees. But I know that some of you have ended up in conversations like the ones I’ve described. And since I want to be as honest as possible about how to make headway in your marriage, I thought it would be useful to address this topic.

If you’re having conversations that end up like these, rethink your approach. Decide ahead of time how you’ll deal with your spouse’s protests, defensiveness, or frustration. And don’t give up! As inventor Thomas Edison famously said, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”aybe ol’ Thomas had read Galatians 6:9: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”

Source: United States Coast Guard – How Much of an Iceberg is Underwater

10 thoughts on “When “I Feel…” Statements Don’t Work

  1. e2

    As I see it, the reason “I feel” statements aren’t always well received is that they are self-focused. When I tell my wife how I feel, she knows I’m thinking more about me than about her, and that, in turn makes her feel unloved.

    Reply
    1. Anonymous

      I agree. “I feel” statements do not work in my marriage. My spouse would respond with statement like “you think it is all about you…what about my needs? or simply “you are being very selfish”. It is a stalemate in our marriage bed. 🙁

      Reply
      1. John

        That is exactly where we are in our marriage and counseling (we have a sexless marriage, 4-6 times a year, our counselors are trying to get her to see the wrongness of this, and that once a week should be acceptable).
        Me: When we don’t have sex frequently, I feel unloved, unwanted, undesireable, ugly, useless, and tempted.
        Her: Well, I only need it, at best, once a month, if that. So if you try and make me do more than that, you aren’t loving like Christ loves the church, and gave himself for her! Thats what you are supposed to do!

        thats almost verbatim.

        Reply
        1. J Post author

          This makes me sad. And that’s from Ephesians 5:21-33, which starts with “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Hmm… Does she think there are any lessons there?

          (By the way, Christ absolutely makes us to do stuff we’re reluctant to do. And then, we thank Him later. Just sayin’.)

          Reply
  2. Debbie

    Read this and agree with them all, can’t help but laugh though as our last intimate encounter was 9 months ago and he has recently announced “I am just not interested any more!!!!! Oh well

    Reply
    1. J Post author

      Your response: “Well, I’m interested! We’re married, and we need to figure this out.” Find out why he isn’t interested, because it’s just not okay for one spouse to check out of the sexual intimacy in a marriage (1 Corinthians 7:3-5).

      Reply
      1. Libl

        And if he says that you are just being selfish, tell him, “so are you, so we need to figure this out. If you are going to argue with me or stone wall me, I am calling in a 3rd party to mediate.”

        Reply
  3. Alicia

    Great article, J! I do tend to try to use “I statemetns” when possible, but you tackle a topic most don’t, because you’re right, they don’t always work. Love your practical examples and suggestions.

    Reply
  4. Louisa

    Love this. All of them apply to me. I have recently been praying to become the wife I need to be, not to focus on his flaws, but my own. I need to stop being a martyr, I am not perfect. Saying how I feel when…… just doesn’t work, for all the reasons you state.

    Reply

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