A common piece of advice that couples receive (from self-help books, the internet, and therapists) is to communicate using “I statements.” But this seemingly simple tip can actually lead some couples astray. In this post, I break down why “I statements” might not work for you and how to focus on what really matters instead.
What Is An “I statement?”
A classic “I statement” has a simple structure: “I feel X when you do Y in Z situation.” For example, if your partner left their dishes on the table after dinner, you might say “I feel disrespected when you leave your dishes on the table after dinner.” The benefit of this structure is that it keeps the statement short, simple, and specific. Rather than saying “You always leave the dishes on the table” or “You’re disrespecting me,” you speak for yourself and your experience of the behavior and situation.
How “I Statements” Backfire
There are two main problems with “I statements.” First, the structure of what you say to your partner is not actually important. You can use “I statements” while still speaking in a blaming and unhelpful manner. Saying “I feel disgusted by you when you drink with your friends” is honest and fits the formula, but probably does not help your partner better understand your emotional experience or feel more connected to you. Some partners even weaponize “I statements” and diligently follow the structure throughout entire heated escalated fights. Using the “I statement” format can still leave both people feeling unseen and unheard.
The second common problem with “I statements” is that for some people, they feel very unnatural and forced. Even if one partner feels comfortable with the style, the other may feel that it sounds inauthentic or phony. With practice, you may become more comfortable using this type of language. However, I want all my clients to know that there is no one “right” way to communicate. You do not need to sound like a therapist to communicate effectively with your partner.
Alternatives To “I Statements”
If you and your partner have a communication style that works for both of you, there is no need to try to speak any differently. Keep doing what you’re doing.
However, if you repeatedly end up stuck in cycles of blame or defensiveness, there are some ways to disrupt the pattern without using forced scripts.
1. Change your context
Here’s a secret. Your specific words don’t matter nearly as much as the context in which you say them. If you and your partner are in a heated fight, most comments, even carefully phrased “I statements,” will come across as attacks. Instead of focusing on how to say exactly the right thing, focus on how to shift the dynamic between you.
How do you change your context? Know your partner and your relationship. If asking for a hug relieves tension, try that. If sharing warm feelings in addition to painful ones works, great. For some partners, making a lighthearted comment or joke can shift the context just enough to open the dialogue. Taking a short break from the interaction can work as well. Again, there is no one right way to change the emotional environment, but what matters is that you create a space to talk where both partners can actually tune in rather than focusing on proving a point or fighting to be heard.
2. Focus on how you’re feeling, not what they did
When your partner hears you talking about things they said or did, they may start explaining or justifying their behavior. By highlighting your own internal experience, you move the conversation away from unhelpful debates about their intentions or the validity of their actions. Speak about yourself, not about them. This could sound like “I’m feeling really hurt right now” or “I’m struggling. I wish tonight had gone differently.” Focusing on what you felt leaves space for your partner to lean into your feelings rather than push back against your interpretation about them.
Remember, if “I statements” or other structured communication strategies are working for you, there’s no reason to stop using them. But if you or your partner struggle with intense conflict, this type of format may not work for you. Instead of trying to fit your communication style into a box that doesn’t match your relationship, focus on shifting the context of the conversation and sharing mostly about yourself rather than about your partner.
For couples who want to dig in deeper, marriage counseling can help you learn exactly what is working and not working in your communication patterns. I am here to help. Reach out today to schedule a free 20-minute consultation or make an appointment.