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Resolving Conflict: Say "I," Not "You"

Too many arguments break down into yelling, screaming accusation sessions:

  • “You did this.”
  • “You did that.”
  • “You made me feel awful.”

These are fighting words and are very likely to put your partner on the defensive. Sentences starting with “you” are by definition accusatory. They also don't inform your spouse how you are feeling. But sentences starting with the word “I” have the opposite effect:

  • “I feel this way …”
  • “I was hurt when …”
  • “I get frustrated by …”

These phrases help your partner sympathize with how you feel and are the first step to resolving conflicts. It's easy for your partner to be on your side when you say how you feel. It's much harder for your partner when he or she feels defensive. By following this simple rule, you can make your arguments productive by helping the other person understand how you are feeling.

After seeing us for several months about their difficulties handling conflicts, Harry and Sue, at our guidance, started having weekly discussion sessions. These would sometimes turn into fighting sessions. The most recent discussion involved Sue's habit of leaving the car's gas tank near empty. Even though it was a relatively small issue, they never seemed to be able to resolve it. Harry would say, “You drive me crazy when you let the gas run out in the car. You're so inconsiderate. You can't be thinking of anyone but yourself when you do that.” Sue really felt attacked. Harry's words did not make her feel like fixing the problem; they just made her mad. So, both of them were angry, and Sue continued to let the gas run too low in the car.

Think Twice

Don't accuse your spouse during an argument. If you're in the middle of a fight and find yourself saying, “You did this” or “You did that,” stop yourself. Take a deep breath and begin your next sentence “I feel ….”

But think how differently Sue would feel if Harry had brought up his complaint using the “I” rule. “I was frustrated yesterday because the gas was very low in the car. I was late to my meeting because I needed to fill up the car with gas. I would really appreciate it if you would put gas in the car when it gets down to a quarter tank. That would help me out a lot.” Sue probably wouldn't feel defensive. She would see his point of view and might feel motivated to keep a reasonable amount of gas in the car.

Reality Check

These questions will help you think about your conflicts with your spouse. You might find that conflicts would be more productive if you followed the “I,” not “you,” rule.

    Marriage Q & A's

    Q: Sometimes my spouse angers me so much, I just can't stop yelling. What can I do?

    A: Take a five-minute break to cool down. When you resume your discussion, start the next sentence with “I.” Be careful to avoid the accusatory word “you.”

  1. How often do you fight with your partner? Every day? Several times a week?
  2. Do you feel your fights are resolved fairly? Or are your arguments often unresolved?
  3. Do you tend to accuse your partner of something by starting sentences with “you”? Can you remember specific incidents in the last three weeks when you used the word “you” in a fight?
  4. How could you have rephrased your sentences to include the word “I”? Do you think the issue would have been resolved differently?

When you think about it, you probably realize that rephrasing discussions using the word “I” instead of “you” would help resolve conflict. During your next discussion, see how it changes the tone of the whole conversation for the better!


Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Perfect Marriage © 2001 by Hilary Rich and Helaina Laks Kravitz, M.D. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.

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