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Nix this word to boost marriage communication

At a recent relationship class, Erin Stewart was surprised to learn that eliminating one word from conversations with her husband could help their communication.
At a recent relationship class, Erin Stewart was surprised to learn that eliminating one word from conversations with her husband could help their communication.
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Do you ever have one of those conversations with your spouse where no matter what either of you say, the other person is going to take it the wrong way? You know the ones I’m talking about, right? The exchange starts off a little rocky and quickly devolves into a full-on hostile situation. One person gets offended. The other feels judged. Nobody feels heard. And both of you finally just stop talking because there is clearly no way the other person could ever, ever, EVER see your point of view because clearly, they hate your guts and wish they had never married you.

Tell me I’m not alone here.

After 15 years of marriage and plenty of both great talks and hostile encounters, my husband and I are taking a relationship class because, one, who doesn’t need a tune-up? And two, I’m tired of these types of conversations.

And of course, one of the very first things we talked about was healthy communication. I expected to hear all the usual stuff about how to be an active listener but instead, we started by talking about how to be a good speaker. We have to first learn how to express our needs in a way that doesn’t spiral into a hostile situation.

And the key? Taking out one little word: You.

I know. I was skeptical, too. But hear me out.

Often, when I want to tell my husband that something he is doing or not doing is driving me absolutely up-the-wall bonkers, I begin with “you.” Let’s look at some examples which may or may not actually be from my marriage.

You don’t pay attention to me.

You need to get your to-do list done.

You are disgusting when you cut your toenails in bed.

You. You. You.

And so, of course, my hubby immediately gets defensive. And who can blame him, really? I’ve just given him the green light to make the conversation all about him. So, he responds:

Don’t pay attention?! What do you call that date I planned last week?

I can’t stand your nagging!

It’s my bed. I can cut my toenails where I want.

But what if we take out the you? What if instead of pointing a finger at our spouse, we turn that finger around at point it at ourselves. What if we make it about how I am feeling instead of what my spouse is doing?

I feel neglected and alone.

I am overwhelmed.

I felt grossed out when a rogue toenail clipping stabbed me in my sleep.

When you turn the spotlight on yourself, your partner doesn’t feel the need to prove you wrong or lash out. Instead of being defensive, your spouse has the chance to listen, support and help you.

What makes you feel alone? What would make you feel more loved?

You do so much around here. What would help take some of the pressure off?

Oh, well, I can do this in the bathroom then.

Sounds easy, right? It’s not. The first time my husband I tried to express our feelings without the word “you,” it was nearly impossible. The more I tried to turn the spotlight on what I was feeling rather than what he was doing, the more I had to really look at myself and what I wanted. I had to actually pinpoint why his behavior was bothering rather than just blindly pointing out his flaws.

By doing so, I was able to get to the root of my actual issues, and my husband was able to offer me meaningful support and love while I figured it out.

It was mind-blowing!

Don’t believe in the power of omitting the word “you"? Try it this week with your spouse. I will even give you a handy-dandy formula to follow:

Spouse No. 1: I feel (insert emotion) because (identify why).

Do not use the word “you” anywhere in this sentence. If you can’t complete this sentence without “you,” take some more time to reflect before having this conversation. Or, ask your partner for help processing your emotions to determine why something is bothering you, but again, don’t use the word “you.”

Spouse No. 2: Identify and restate the feeling of the speaker. You felt mad because there are an insane number of dishes in the sink every day.

At this point, Spouse No. 1 may feel prompted to share more, or Spouse No. 2 may need to ask follow-up questions or just offer support if it’s not a resolvable problem. Tell me more. How long have you felt this way? What could make it better? I can’t imagine how hard that’s been for you.

Give it a whirl and let me know how it goes, and then come back next week for more relationship tune-up advice.