If you are about to say “I do,” I hope you have your communication training skills out of the way! All experts on relationships seem to agree that without good communication your marriage is heading for trouble. You may be one of those precocious and cautious couples that seek such training from a therapist or from a workshop right before or soon after your marriage. Or you may be the starry -eyed, idealist, lazy, avoidant procrastinator who waits until the s–t hits the fan before rushing to seek help. In any case, your trainer-therapist will tell you about using ‘I-message’ as a must for good communication. They will tell you to take responsibility for your own feelings by using a general format, “I am feeling X, when you do Y, and I would really appreciate it if you did Z instead.” This is supposed to replace the accusatory ‘You-message’, “You are so inconsiderate! You think my time is not as valuable as yours, right?”
You may even get over the initial awkward phase of learning to use the correct I-message format and become very frustrated to find that your conflicts still get out of control. You may just dismiss the whole idea of using I-messages or you may label yourself as a couple not fit for good communication. This is because there are six facts about I-messages you need to know before getting disappointed with their ineffectiveness. Obviously, I am speaking from experience in my marriage and what I have observed with my clients in my psychotherapy office. Make sure to get your answers to the following six questions to be roughly YES and you are set to use the I-messages effectively.
Are you sufficiently non-attached?
Just because you express your wish for your partner’s changed behavior using the I-message, it doesn’t mean it will be granted right away. Are you able to practice non-attachment (a.k.a simply observe and be excruciatingly patient) and keep using the I-message again and again without expecting the desired result? Using the very correct I-message format, Cindy says to Dave, “I feel mad when you forget to take the trash out on Tuesdays. I would really appreciate you taking this seriously.” Dave does it on one Tuesday and then forgets the next time. If Cindy turns this into a test in her mind about Dave’s disrespect for her, this incident will turn into a war of words or a painful cold war. If you are too invested in receiving the fruits of your I-message instantaneously, you are fighting the basic human limitation: changing habits is a long process.
Do you trust your partner’s good intentions?
In order to practice non-attachment, it would be nice to trust that your partner is not simply manipulating your ability to stay non-attached. Cindy will not accuse Dave of disrespect, laziness, or passive-aggressiveness if she believes that Dave wants to take the trash out but he simply forgets and doesn’t mind constant reminders. On the other hand, Dave must not feel that Cindy is simply expressing her usual “controlling” impulse in the I-message format. The moment you suspect self-serving agendas covered up by a nice I-message format, you will get triggered as soon as you hear the I-message. It helps to have trust in your partner’s basic wish to please you.
Are you consistently able to put a lid on your over-vigilance?
When you see your partner doing something “wrong,” does this trigger your own habitual survival tactic in the form of a barrage of acerbic, sarcastic, self-righteous, power-searching, or angry statements? If vigilance for your survival is triggered, you will not care about using nice I-messages to replace the potentially damaging hurtful comments. For effective use of I-messages, see if you can get a mutually beneficial perspective. Remember that your over-vigilance could come from your past wounds. Understand the wounds. Check if you can treat a cigar as just a cigar. If not taking the trash out symbolizes Dave’s “obvious” disregard for Cindy’s discomfort when he flirts with her friend, Cindy’s I-message will not be plain and simple. Soon Cindy’s angry I-message will sound like, “I feel you are a disrespectful, inconsiderate jerk, when you routinely and purposefully forget to take the trash out. I would really appreciate it if you looked in the mirror and slapped the monster you saw. And don’t think you can fool me.” If Cindy learns to treat a cigar as a cigar and discuss the perceived snake as a separate matter, her trash is more likely to be taken out on all Tuesdays. As far as the snake is concerned, check the next point.
Are you giving up your pride enough to take in the I-message?
When you hear the I-message, even though it’s easier to take it in compared to an accusatory sentence, it still may generate a defensive reaction in you. You may still protest or defend yourself or retaliate back by saying your partner’s perspective is all wrong! Beyond all this, are you able to do some self-exploration to check if your partner’s claim makes sense? If it does, and if you are still sticking to your guns, your pride is getting in the way of your communication success. If Dave’s response to Cindy’s feeling that he flirts with her friend is dismissive (“you are just the jealous type”), defensive (“I was just being friendly”), or an angry outburst (“I can’t believe you are making such ridiculous claims”), it is not going to help the relationship. However, in spite of this initial reaction, is Dave able to look at himself and choose to change his behavior? Is he able to put the trash out regardless of how the I-message makes him feel? In other words, is Dave able to self-explore at least a little bit? Without some amount of self-exploration, even if it means giving up some pride, no message will be truly effective, I or You!
Are you validating “good behavior” much more than using I-messages for complaining?
There is enough evidence that happy couples seem to express the positive aspects of each other’s behavior much more than holding onto the negatives. Even when you are expressing your discontent through an I-message, you are expressing discontent and you are giving a negative message to your partner. Just like anger generates anger and blaming generates defensive resistance, an I-message will most likely generate some negative response in your partner’s mind, just a milder one. It kind of makes sense to keep validating your partner when you see them trying to do something right. Although forced positive comments may not guarantee a happy marriage, it would be worth having your radar up for things you like about your partner and making sure that they hear it directly or indirectly, even if it is by using a You-message, “You are so good with our daughter. She loves it when you two go to a movie together.”
Did you know this?
You should know that the concept of I-messages was crystalized as a tool for improving parent-child communication, and later for conflict-resolution in work relationships. As you can imagine, using this concept in a marital relationship can be trickier. For one, the power dynamics are so different in marital relationships and the boundaries for acceptable behaviors are much more negotiable. After reading the first five points, hopefully you can now see what needs to happen before you can use I-messages effectively. Just keep in mind that therapy that includes communication training (which typically includes I-messages) is considered an effective form of couples therapy by researchers. It definitely beats the blaming and accusations. It is worth training yourself to use I-messages, as long as you accompany them with the right understanding of you and your partner.