Focus on what you want, not on what you don’t want. Saying what you don’t want may seem more polite — after all, it doesn’t put your partner on the spot the way asking for exactly what you want does. But it leaves him or her guessing about what would make you happy. Example: Say “I’m in the mood for scrambled eggs and toast” instead of “I really don’t want cereal today.”
Use more “I” statements and fewer “you” statements. Reveal your own feelings instead of criticizing, blaming, mind-reading, or pretending you know what your partner’s feeling, says marriage expert Susan Heitler, Ph.D., author of The Power of Two. Don’t fall into the trap of saying, “I feel that you … ” It’s not expressing your own feeling, Dr. Heitler says. “It’s really a statement about the other person and usually sounds as though the speaker is about to deliver a criticism.” Instead, say how you really feel when your partner takes a particular action. Example: Instead of “You’re careless when I loan you my car,” try “I feel angry. You borrowed my car and didn’t refill the gas tank.”
Also sidestep “You make me feel …” Instead, stick with “I feel …”
This keeps the focus on your feelings and doesn’t make the other person feel responsible for them.
Example: Instead of “You make me feel sad when you don’t call me,” try “I feel sad when I don’t hear from you during the day.”
Be direct. When making an “I” statement to express a feeling, be succinct. Stick with a one-word description of your emotion, not a two-paragraph, nuanced report with bells, whistles, adjectives, and historical asides. Example: Instead of “I feel soooo happy and terribly excited and just wonderfully exhilarated and really very, very relieved about our plans to finally go camping this weekend!” try “I’m excited that we’re going camping on Friday.”
Name that emotion. Can’t describe your feeling? Spend a few moments simply exploring how it feels inside and try out the names of various feelings that might come close. If you’re absolutely stuck, describe it as best you can.
Connect the dots without blame. If you want to describe your reaction to something your spouse has said or done (or neglected to say or do), sidestep criticism and blame. Instead, employ a time-honored, matter-of-fact formula: “When you _____, I feel _____.” You can also say “I feel _______ when you _______.” Dr. Heitler notes, “A ‘when you’ phrase focuses mainly on the speaker — it doesn’t intrude on the partner’s turf.” It shares vulnerable feelings and invites your partner to help you.
Don’t presume to know your spouse’s feelings. Telling your partner that you already know how he or she feels about something feels like an invasion. It also cuts off meaningful conversation, especially if the two of you speak for each other instead of for yourselves. Instead of mind-reading, ask your spouse to tell you what he or she is thinking or feeling. Then share how you feel. This invites an open discussion. Example: Instead of “I know you hate visiting my family for the holidays and that makes me feel really resentful!” Try “How do you feel about visiting my parents for Christmas?”
Angry? Cancel the floor show and use calm words instead. Resist, resist, resist (did we say resist?) the temptation to stomp, shout, slam doors, and throw plates when you see red. Same with verbal pyrotechnics. State that you’re feeling angry or upset, then say you’d like to stop the conversation for now and set a time to resume later on. Use anger as a stop sign, Dr. Heitler suggests.
Avoid saying “You always …” and “You never …” at all costs. For example, “You always leave the doors unlocked at night” or “You never call me when you’ll be late from work.” Such definitive, categorical statements are rarely true. Even more, they breed hostility, since sweeping statements like these imply that the times when your spouse did do things properly didn’t get noticed or acknowledged.