The Language of “You” vs. The Language of “I”

The Language of “You” vs. The Language of “I”

I would say that the most common problem prevents couples from improving their relationships is communication. Gottman Therapytherapy is one of the most well known styles of therapy for helping couples improve their relationships on many levels. In this style of therapy, couples learn about what are called the “4 Horseman of the Apocalypse.” These commonly used defenses prevent couples from reconnecting, while often keeping them in cycles of attack defend.

These are what the Gottman Institute identifies as the 4 Horseman.

  1. Criticism
  2. Contempt
  3. Defensiveness
  4. Stonewalling

One of the biggest lessons we teach couples in couples and relationship therapy is how to soften the startup of bridging up concerns. Most couples come to us with long histories of concerns, resentments and problems. There can be a lot of baggage on many of the things that people are wanting to talk about. Thus, it’s easy to blame and criticize without even noticing that this is what you’re doing.

There is an easy way to make sure that you communicate that you are not blaming or accusing, and that you are taking responsibility for yourself. This is by using “I” statements, and by avoiding “you” statements. The idea of using “I” language seems like an easy concept, but people often struggle with this. Many people have read about or been told to use “I” statements, rather than “you” statements. The concept itself is not difficult to understand, but more difficult to remember to use when our emotions are involved. This is where couples often fumble.

When confronting a situation, I remind people to approach the situation from an “I” perspective, and avoid using the word “you.” When the word “you” is used in a hot-topic discussion, it is bound to sound like blaming. As a result, the defensiveness of your partner is likely to increase, which promotes retaliation with the same type of language towards you. Then both parties are off and running with an argument. To create the basis of a more cordial, open discussion, it is better to begin by owning how you feel. The problem that people run into is that they forget to check their own emotions prior to entering these discussions, so that they can keep themselves calm enough to communicate more effectively.

In emotional situations, it is difficult to take responsibility for various circumstances, especially if you do not think that you are fully responsible. Somehow you have to recognize that emotional discussions transcend “right” and “wrong.” Remember that most relationship issues are multi-layered, which means that both parties play a role in them. There is no better time to remind yourself of this than when you are going to approach a problem yourself. In those situations that you plan to approach, you are able to best plan on how to approach it, what to say, and how to say it, because you are the one initiating the discussion. Before entering this conversation, look at your own pride, and set it aside so that you can approach the issue as planned. Think about how you can respond to “hot-topic” comments in a way that does not fuel the fire. Pay attention to yourself so that you can recognize when you are taking things personal, then take a deep breath, and continue on by using “I” statements to reflect on your partner’s comments. For example use statements such as “I am trying to understand,” or “What I heard is….” Catch yourself when you begin to take a statement personal. Taking a deep breath can help you slow yourself down. Then state that you are not blaming anyone, but just want to have an open discussion and want to understand. Again, this shows how you are taking responsibility for how you feel about the situation, without leaving the other person feeling defensive and as though you are discounting what they are saying.

It can be more difficult when you partner approaches you with a problem that he/she has, because you may not be expecting this discussion to take place. If you are approached with a problem, follow the same strategy as when you initiated the discussion. The only difference when you are approached is to be extremely cautious and conscientious of your own defensiveness. Because you have not had the opportunity to mentally prepare for this discussion, it is much easier to take things personally. If you find that you are taking things personally, ask for a few seconds to process the information. It is fine to say that you are struggling with feeling defensive and that you need some time. This will also likely help to deescalate an argument so that you can have a more open discussion.

When you have to confront a situation with your partner, or when you are confronted with a problem, show that you are taking responsibility by starting statements with “I”. This helps to show that you are not blaming or resenting the other person, but rather that you are owning what you think and how you feel about it all. This will help to open up a dialogue, rather than an argument. It depletes the need to defend, which promotes making changes and growing together. This is what being in a relationship is all about.


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