How to Save your Relationship

Three Step Communication

We all get upset with our partners at one time or another. Sometimes a big issue arises that needs discussion and decisions to be made. Anger is a powerful emotion for everyone. Some people are better at managing it than others. This is usually because those skills were modeled for them in childhood or they learned through necessity later on. The trap many people fall into is the blame game where one person is on the “attack” and the other, then, is on the defensive. This never leads to resolution and often will lead to an escalation beyond the immediate issue. Secondary to managing anger by taking a walk, breathing exercises or talking with a friend or therapist, is communication. When approaching your partner when you are angry about something they did or did not do, the first rule of thumb is to always use “I” statements.

“I am upset because you left a mess in the kitchen again.”

Avoid using inflammatory statements or name-calling, of course:

“You are such a slob! You NEVER clean up your mess!”

Words like Never or Always are good indicators that what you are saying is going to cause an argument and not lead to a resolution. Chances are now your partner feels the need to defend himself about being a “slob” or “never” cleaning up.

The second step is to take responsibility for what you are feeling and be specific. This has the double effect of bringing your own awareness as well as your partner’s to what feeling is being created.

The best approach is to use an “I feel … when you…” (or in reverse: “When you… I feel …”) approach.

“When you leave crumbs on the counter and bread and dishes out I feel disregarded.” be specific about how YOU feel. Spend some time finding the actual feeling rather than saying, “I feel that YOU don’t care”. Leave your partner out of the feeling part of your approaching statement. This is where you get to name your part of the problem, which is how you are feeling. Be specific about what the behavior was (or wasn’t) that has caused you concern.

“You make a mess all over this house and never clean up!” is vague, blaming and not likely to lead to a helpful discussion.

“When you leave your dishes in the bedroom and the living room I think that I am expected to clean up and that feels disrespectful,” is more specific and clear. Now your partner knows that you are feeling disrespected. She also knows what she did that has you feeling that way.

The conversation might continue like this, “I don’t expect you to clean up my dishes. I’m not trying to be disrespectful.”

“I know you are not trying to be disrespectful, but I don’t like seeing dishes laying around and the house being messy.”

Now one or both of you can offer a solution. This is Step three. Perhaps one doesn’t mind being reminded by the other to pick up. Perhaps cleaning up daily on a regular schedule feels better.

Again, this should be specific and reasonable. “Would you please take your dishes to the kitchen before you go to bed at night?”

“I’ll try but I might forget when I’m tired.”

“How about if I remind you until it becomes a habit?”

“How about if I do it every morning before I leave for work?”

Speak about yourself and your feelings, take responsibility for what you are feeling, and offer a solution.

It can be challenging to pause and remember to use this communication, especially when you feel heated. This is why calming yourself when angry before communicating is important. It’s time to get clear about what is bothering you and put it into perspective. And practice creates a habit. You can even use little index cards as reminders at first. Just write on two cards, “I feel _______ when you _______.”

Give it a try!

Former addictions counselor, empty-nester, activist, animal lover, writer and lover of what it means to be human.

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