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When Your Mate Touches a Nerve…

How do you talk to your partner about a sensitive topic? If he or she says something that makes you uneasy, do you feel tightness in your throat, chest or elsewhere? Forget to breathe?

Maybe you change the subject? Call the person selfish, unreasonable, or inconsiderate? Or withdraw?

Reacting means doing or saying what first pops into your mind. If you routinely do whatever you’re asked to do when you’d rather not, you’re likely to build up resentment. If instead of yielding, you belittle or stonewall your partner, you can expect ill will and conflict to increase.

By responding thoughtfully instead of impulsively, you’re more likely to create a receptive, friendly climate in which good feelings flourish. This kind of caring response often is worded as an “I-statement.”

What’s an I-Statement?

I-statements usually begins with the word, “I.” They provide a simple, powerful way to state our thoughts, feelings, wishes, or needs. Examples: “I felt hurt when you forgot it was my birthday.” “I’d like you to phone me if you’re going to be late.”

I-statements tend to foster connection, cooperation, and respect.  

What’s a You-statement?

On the other hand, a “You-statement” tends to create distance. It often starts with the word, “you.” It implies that the other person addressed is bad or wrong. Examples: “You’re a slob. You always leave crumbs on the counter.”  Some people think they are making an I-statement that is actually a disguised You-statement. Example: “I feel that you are a slob when you leave crumbs on the kitchen counter.” The sentence starts with “I” but it’s really expressing a negative judgment. This could be changed into a true I-statement instead, by saying, “I feel annoyed when you leave crumbs on the counter. I’d appreciate it if you would wipe it after you make your sandwich.”

A “You-statement” typically creates distance in a relationship.

What an I-statement Communicates

An I statement is a clear message that can express:  

  • what you are thinking, e.g., “I think it’s important to keep agreements,”
  • how you are feeling, e.g., “I like it when you open the car door for me,”
  • why you feel the way you do, e.g., “because when you this, I feel like you appreciate me as a women,”
  • what you want or need, e.g., “I want to get to married,” or
  • what you are prepared to do if you don’t get what you want or need, e.g., “If you’re interested in keeping our relationship uncommitted, I’m going to stop seeing you.”

Benefits of I-Statements

I-statements are powerful in marriage and elsewhere because they are likely to:

  • let the other person know what you want,
  • avoid arguments and misunderstandings,
  • help you state your thoughts and feelings calmly, and
  • increase clarity, understanding, and cooperation (from a spouse, dating partner, children, and others).

How to Make an I-statement

By following the steps below for making an I-statement listed below, you’ll be more likely to gain your partner’s understanding and cooperation:

  1. Say how you feel about the behavior.
  2. Name the specific behavior.
  3. Say what you’d like or wouldn’t like to see happen next time.
  4. (Optional) Say what you are prepared to do if the behavior continues.


A woman might say to a man she’s been dating, “I felt uncomfortable when you flirted with the waitress last night. When you’re with me, I want to feel like I’m the only woman you’re interested in. She might add now, or in the future is the flirting happens again, “If this continues, I’m afraid it will make it hard for me to keep seeing you.”

If you decide to say what you will do if your partner’s behavior does not change, it’s best to mention the consequence in a way that can encourage cooperation. So be friendly, and avoid sounding like you’re making a threat.

Strive for Progress, Not Perfection

Assuming that you are a nice person but not a saint, you can expect to slip into a reactive mode at times and say something you regret. When this happens, recognize your mistake and do the repair work promptly. Be generous with your I-statements. Let your partner know that you regret what you said, in a way that fits for you, such as, “I’m sorry. I wish I could erase what I said. I want to do better next time.”

When I-Statements Backfire

Usually, using I-Statements will help you feel heard, valued for your true self, and understood.  Exceptions happen, however. One situation where using them can leave you disappointed is when the other person doesn’t care about you or your feelings. Another is that some people aren’t comfortable being on the receiving end of an I-statement. They may have been taught as children that it is selfish to ask directly for what you want. They might have been told that they were “wrong” to express angry, upset, hurt, or sad feelings.

This sort of person learned that it is not safe to be vulnerable, which is what happens when we open up by expressing our feelings. He or she can easily grow up an adult who lacks self-understanding, and therefore finds it difficult to empathize with another. He or she might feel backed into a corner upon hearing your I-statements, and therefore respond insensitively, e.g., “I’m sick of hearing about your feelings. Get over it.”

If serious challenges are holding you back from empathizing with yourself and your partner, be aware that it’s very difficult to change an entrenched pattern on your own. If you want to create a healthier relationship, individual or couple therapy can help.

Most of us can learn to communicate positively, even when our buttons get pushed. If making I-statements feels challenging, make them anyway. Practice makes perfect. By using I-statements more often, we’re likely to relate more empathically to ourselves, our partner, and others.

Note: Step-by-step instructions for using I-statements and six other positive communication skills are given in in Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love: 30 Minutes a Week to the Relationship You’ve Always Wanted, by Marcia Naomi Berger (New World Library).


When Your Mate Touches a Nerve…

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Marcia Naomi Berger, MSW, LCSW

Marcia Naomi Berger, MSW, LCSW, author of Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love: 30 Minutes a Week to the Relationship You’ve Always Wanted (New World Library, 2014, audiobook, 2020), has a private psychotherapy practice in San Rafael, California. She offers and workshops for couples and singles, and continuing education classes for therapists at NASW conferences and online. She has taught also at the UCSF School of Medicine, UC Berkeley Extension, and Alliant International University. A former executive director of a family service agency, she earlier held senior level positions in child welfare, alcoholism treatment, and psychiatry.

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APA Reference
Berger, M. (2018). When Your Mate Touches a Nerve…. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 1, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 28 May 2017)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.