An I-statement is a way to express our feelings about a situation using the template
“I feel ______ (emotion) when _______ (situation).”
While I-statements sound like a simple exercise, putting them into practice can be difficult for many people.
Let’s look at an example: Connie and Jerry are a couple who have been married for 15 years. Many of their arguments revolve around the laundry; Connie prefers the dirty laundry to immediately go into the hamper, whereas Jerry typically leaves it on a pile on the floor by his side of the bed. Jerry, knowing he will probably wear the same pants for work tomorrow and that the laundry likely won’t be done until the weekend thinks, “Why bother putting it in the hamper right away? I know I will wear those pants tomorrow and as long as the dirty clothes end up in the hamper before laundry day, what does it matter?” Connie, on the other hand, notices the untidiness of their bedroom, becomes frustrated, and tells Jerry to put his clothes away daily; her dirty clothes can make it into the hamper immediately, why can’t his? Angry, Connie will come to Jerry and tell him, “You never put your clothes away in the hamper and it’s gross! It’s ridiculous that I have to ask you to do it every day. You are a lazy slob!” Jerry, becoming upset, responds, “You always nag me about my laundry! You are so annoying! Eventually my clothes end up in the hamper!” From there, their arguments usually escalate.
Thoughts and feelings play into how we shape our words, and instead of successfully telling our partners how we feel, we unintentionally end up blaming them. We, as humans, have trouble listening fully to what is being said when we feel as if we are being blamed or accused of something. Our ears turn off and we often begin to formulate a response or defense instead of listening to what is being said. Blame and accusation prevent effective communication from happening. Consider how you might be feeling if someone was upset and blaming you for something; would you want to continue listening to them? Probably not. Our partners feel the same way.
Think of Connie and Jerry: Connie’s frustration with the laundry became directed at her husband. She blames him for never putting his clothes in the hamper and then uses negative words to describe his character. However, Connie may not really be upset about the laundry – she could also be upset that she repeats herself every day about the same topic. Unfortunately, because Connie uses “you” statements and an upsetting description of him, Jerry can’t hear that; he’s hearing the blame in what she is saying. Instead of listening to Connie, he is formulating his defense and counterattack on her. Jerry also uses “you” statements by saying she always nags him, which will likely put Connie on the defense he retaliated by making a negative attack on her character in return. This pattern likely continues with each partner attacking each other.
Here’s a video from a therapist that we think is a nice explanation.