Tag Archives: marriage conflict

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

What Detractors Have Taught Me about Resolving Marriage Conflict

Today is supposed to be the day we hear from my hubby, whom I have affectionately called Spock. However, stomach virus hit our household last week, and there wasn’t a lot of sexiness going on in the Hot, Holy & Humorous household. I ask for a little grace in this regard and a week’s extension on that deadline. Spock will be here next Monday.

In the meantime, I’ve decided to run a different post on marriage I’ve been sitting on for a while.

From time to time, I get comments questioning or attacking me and my blog. The first time it happened, I was upset . . . for quite a while. I kept playing over and over in my head what the commenter said and letting it drag me down. I talked to my husband about it until my face turned blue. I worried and wondered if I was really doing my best with this ministry.

Yeah, I’ve gotten over that.

For every detractor, there are maybe ten or more readers who comment that this blog has been helpful and encouraging. Moreover, I am constant in prayer about what I am doing and have ongoing reinforcement and encouragement to continue in this ministry. As I have stated quite a few times, I believe in healthy, godly marriages, and I mostly address one piece of the pie that makes a quality marriage — sexuality. Others address issues such as finances, communication skills, parenting, and how to hang a picture in your house together without either of you losing your religion (link, anyone?).

Over the whole pie, we must place growing our own faith and living out Christianity as individuals before God.

Intro done. Now here’s today’s point: I have learned a lot about how to approach conflict with my spouse from how commenters approach concerns with me. While I welcome conversation and even debate, there is a beneficial way and a destructive way to communicate when you disagree with another person. I’ve learned that what makes good conflict resolution in blog comments makes good conflict resolution in marriage.

Illustrations of angry male and female

Resolving Marriage Conflict
Illustrations from Microsoft Word Clip Art

Here are my take-aways.

Show respect. John Gottman, well-known marriage researcher, talks about the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse in his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. These are ways you deal with your spouse that, if overused, signal the coming of the end. Two of them, criticism and contempt, are all too common in marital arguments. It’s easy to feel that you are criticizing your partner’s opinion and merely have contempt for his position, when in fact you are demonstrating a lack of respect for the person. God created your partner in His image as well, and we should treat others with respect. It is the command of the Bible that we treat each other this way as well.

“However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.” Ephesians 5:33

“Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king.” 1 Peter 2:17

“Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.” 1 Peter 3:7

Ask for clarification. A ridiculous number of our marital agreements have occurred because we thought we understood what the other spouse had said. Perhaps we took one phrase and gave it additional meaning, ignoring the rest of what our spouse said. Or maybe they didn’t word things well and it came out all wrong. In my calmer moments, I have been known to look askance at my husband after he says something hurtful and ask, “Do you want to let that stand? Or say something else?” That’s a signal that whatever comment he made did not come across in a positive way.

Spouses should also learn to use phrases like, “What did you mean by . . .?” “It sounds like you’re saying . . .” “How does that match what you said earlier about . . .?” If you think your spouse’s position is wrong or hurtful to you, ask questions. He may not even think what you think he thinks. Was that clear?

“A fool finds no pleasure in understanding but delights in airing his own opinions.” Proverbs 18:2

“To answer before listening — that is folly and shame.” Proverbs 18:13

Be specific. It does not help to make blanket accusations at your spouse for anything and everything he has ever done to upset you. Avoid statements that include words like “never,” “always,” “constantly,” and “all.” Deal with the specific instance at hand. Explain the facts as you see them, what is bothering you (preferably as an “I” statement, such as “I feel used when you immediately roll over and fall asleep after intercourse”), and how you want to approach a win-win solution. Don’t drag into this moment every other time you have been hurt.

In fact, want the secret to reducing overall conflict in your marriage? Successfully resolve your next argument. Then the next one, then the next one, until you have established a new pattern. I like to think of it like a batter’s turn at home plate. He shouldn’t worry about his entire baseball career while waiting for the pitch; he just tries to get this one right, and then the next one, and then the next, and on and on until he has a pennant and makes the Hall of Fame.

“Please, because you belong to the Lord, settle your disagreement.” Philippians 4:2b

Don’t namecall. Seriously, they teach kindergarten children this. It’s basic. Wanna ruin your marriage? Start calling your wife a “b” or your husband an “a.” It doesn’t nothing to resolve conflict, get your point across, or help your relationship. It merely makes you appear petty and immature.

“Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” Matthew 5:22

“Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” Proverbs 12:18

Don’t assume intent or “heart.” You can’t see into their heart anyway. God can. Deal with the statement or behavior itself without trying to read behind it. You may be right with an accusation about their motive, but you may just as well be way off base. At times, our spouse is trying to show us love, but it comes across all wrong. For instance, for years my husband would walk away from arguments, which left me crushed — certain that he didn’t care enough to resolve the issue. WRONG! He walked away because it pained him so much to be in conflict and he wanted to give us both time to cool off. We were eventually able to discuss that what we each needed was different, when we stopped trying to characterize the other as selfish or mean for what they were doing, when it fact it wasn’t.

1 Samuel 16:7 says, “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

Look for areas of agreement and build from there. There is an interpersonal feedback approach called the “Sandwich Technique.” Essentially, one sandwiches a disagreeing comment or constructive criticism between two comments of encouragement or positive feedback. Simple example: “I love your dress, but your necklace is the wrong color. This color is better because it brings out your beautiful eyes.” I’m not suggesting constant use of this technique because, honestly, it can be overused and becomes very easy to spot the spam in the midst of the bread slices after a while.

However, the principle behind it is wonderful: Look for and point out the positive. Oftentimes, the point of conflict with our spouse is what stands out, like a “which one of these does not belong?” exercise. Yet we may agree about quite a lot, and we need to start there and build agreement. It’s a small thing, but shopping for furniture is the example that comes to my mind in my marriage. Our most recent couch purchase was an exercise in find areas of agreement: There was no way on God’s green earth I was going to agree to that hideous leather monstrosity with its massive cup-and-everything-else holders for every single seat. And there was no way he was agreeing to the cozy chenille sofa that barely had enough room for him to stretch out. But we discovered that the overall goal we both had was comfort. Starting from there, we ended up with a fabric we could both live with, reclining seats, and plenty of room for the two of us to snuggle.

“Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind.” 1 Peter 3:8 (NRSV)

Remember that means don’t justify ends. Sometimes in getting the what correct, we forget to pay attention to the how. Yes, truth is important. We are not to be “tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming” (Ephesians 4:14). But we sometimes forget that the next verse says, “Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.”

Whether our disagreements with our spouse are big or small, we can become so focused on speaking truth that we forget the next words, “in love.” We are not told to ignore the Fruit of the Spirit or the many, many commands to “love one another” while making sure we get the content of any one issue correct. It matters to God how we treat each other. Just read the New Testament letters and see how much of them are about how we should treat one another.

“Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony. And let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts. For as members of one body you are called to live in peace. And always be thankful.” Colossians 3:13-15 (NLT)

Your spouse’s part. Yes, of course, your spouse has responsibility in all of this — just as this marriage blogger has responsibility to listen to those who disagree with me and test what they say against God’s Word. In the face of reasonable and respectful challenge, I have changed what or how I said something here.

Yet, I think you’ll find the process here and with your spouse more pleasant and effective by paying attention to how you go about providing constructive criticism.

“If you listen to constructive criticism, you will be at home among the wise. If you reject discipline, you only harm yourself; but if you listen to correction, you grow in understanding.” Proverbs 15:31-32 (NLT)

“An offended friend is harder to win back than a fortified city. Arguments separate friends like a gate locked with bars.” (Proverbs 18:19)