“You” versus “I”

You may have heard about making “I” statements rather than “You” statements. This is one example where word choice really matters.

“You just expect me to clean up after you. Why can't you at least pick up your own stuff?”

“You spend so much money. Don't you know how hard I work for that?”

“You are always working. Why don't we matter to you?”

Do these statements sound familiar?

Arguments about the responsibilities that come with a home and family are not new. These may even be daily arguments in your relationship. The repetitive nature of these arguments build conflict and contempt over time, it is best to address them in a constructive way.

The words you choose can either extinguish or inflame an argument.

“You” Language

One of the most common mistakes when dealing with conflict in a relationship is making accusatory “you” statements rather than “i” statements. You may have heard of “i” versus “you” language.

To summarize it, “you” language is usually full of blame or criticism. It finds fault with the other person, rather than the situation

This type of statement is more likely to put your partner on the defensive, or make them resentful. Often, a “you” statement will precede a quick exit into stonewalling.

“You” language is often used as an aggressive way to punish your spouse. It is a way to show what they have done wrong. Then it justifies your feelings of anger, sadness, or resentment. You're trying to show how bad they made you feel in hopes that they'll change. It's an approach that will only escalate the conflict.

“I” Language

Using “i” language changes the tone of the entire conversation. Instead of blaming or accusing, it creates an observational statement about the thoughts and feelings, and keeps us from blaming our partners. It shifts the blame to addressing the problem(s).

When using “i” language, we can still take on the problem but in a less hostile way. Shifting the conversation to discussing emotion allows a healthier, more compassionate beginning to a conversation.

  • “I” language examples:
  • “I felt lonely when you did not come home to have dinner with me all week.”
  • “I get anxious when you don't tell me you're running late.”
  • “I get confused and hurt when you leave your clothes on the floor because I thought I had communicated how important it was that you put them in the laundry basket.”
  • “I feel resentful when you take our dog to the dog park on the weekends without me when we have not had time together for weeks.”
  • “I felt embarrassed when you were talking to that man at the party.”

How to change “You” to “I”

“You just expect me to clean up after you. Why can't you at least pick up your own stuff?”

“I feel like my efforts don't matter when I find stuff scattered all over the house.”

“You spend so much money. Don't you know how hard I work for that?”

“I feel like I work really hard for our money and I worry it's getting spent too freely.”

“You are always working. Why don't we matter to you?”

“It feels lonely when you don't come home from work. The kids and I miss you.”

5-Step Formula

There is a 5-step formula for implementing “I” language by Better Relating that is worth summarizing here.

When you are making a statement, be concise and specific. Here are 5 beginnings to use when crafting a statement.

  1. When you…
  2. I feel…
  3. I imagine…
  4. I need/want…
  5. Would you…

Here's how to use those five steps.

  1. When you…state the specific action that upsets you.
  2. I feel…share how you feel when your partner does it.
  3. I imagine…try to imagine your partner's perspective. Imagine a good intention & give the benefit of the doubt.
  4. I need/want…share what the frustrated part of you needs in this situation. You want to identify what you need and want in this situation, not what you want your partner to do.
  5. Would you…make a specific request of your partner.

Here's how this works in practice:

When you forget my birthday, I feel unimportant. I imagine it's difficult to keep track of everything but I need you to pay attention to this one day that is special for me. Would you celebrate my birthday with me on Monday to make up for it?

Identify the problem, illustrate why it is a problem, and then offer a solution.

Try it Out

Using “I” language will be a transition – both for you and for your partner. Before you start using the tactic, it is best to explain to your partner what you intend on doing. Let them know it is new and you might be a little hesitant about it but in time you will figure it out together.

It is best used when emotions are overwhelming in place of the fight you might have had previously. Try to be aware of the tone of your voice, and your non-verbal communication as well. The things you don't say can make up to 90% of the message your partner hears.

Remember the 5 Step Formula listed above and try to identify what you are feeling first, and then where it comes from. Do not assign blame, just observe the feeling and state where it comes from and how to remedy it.

As always, remember it is the two of you versus the problem… not me vs. you. The words you choose matter.