The following sentence stem is an excellent tool for couples to help deal with conflict. “When you (blank) I feel (blank), in the future will you (blank).” It appears simple but can yield powerful results.
Some couples complain this sentence stem appears artificial. I will point out that it is designed to be formulaic to help provide structure when discussing difficult subjects. I also encourage couples to embrace the formulaic nature of the sentence stem to help them get better at resolving their conflicts in an efficient manner.
Print out the sentence stem and post it on the fridge. Then it can serve as a daily reminder of how to effectively engage in conflicts. Once you have practiced the sentence stem and mastered it, you will probably no longer need the written reminder.
Here is how the sentence stem works
For example, let us use a grievance regarding someone not taking out the trash. “When you don’t take out the trash, I feel angry and sad, in the future will you please take out the trash on Tuesday?” Seems simple but it is a little more difficult than it appears at first glance.
This is because there is a tendency to not focus on the feeling. For example, the trend is to do something like this: “When you don’t take out the trash, I feel you are an idiot.” Now, obviously, “idiot” is not a feeling. So, there is a tendency to want to use that section of the sentence stem to punish your spouse, as opposed to name an emotion.
When I see this happen I often ask couples, do you want your partner to change or do you want to punish them? If we are, to be honest with ourselves, the answer is often both! We would like to punish a little and have them change. However, we can’t have our cake and eat it too in this regard.
What purpose does expressing what you feel serve?
Naming how your spouse’s behavior makes you feel is helpful for a couple of reasons. One is that it makes your spouse less defensive because you are focusing on how the behavior made you feel. It is hard to argue with someone when they say your behavior makes them feel a certain way. This is because the feeling is entirely the province of the other person and the argument of “you don’t really feel that way” is harder to pull off.
The most significant reason why expressing your feelings is so useful in resolving conflicts is because most people don’t want to make their partners feel bad. When our partner discloses to us that our forgetting to take out the trash makes them feel sad, for example, this is not our intention. More often than not, a spouse will change their behavior because they genuinely don’t want to make their spouse have a negative feeling. Naming the feeling also puts the ball back into your spouse’s court. Meaning, it is now up to them if they want to continue engaging in behavior that evokes a painful feeling in you.
Also watch: What Is a Relationship Conflict?
This approach is contrasted with the effectiveness of telling your spouse what to do directly. What is a typical reaction when someone tells us to do something? If we are honest with ourselves, we can admit that the usual response is to do the direct opposite because nobody likes to be told what to do.
I encourage couples to practice and play around with this sentence stem. Use it first for small or fun things to master the technique under less stressful situations. If couples do put some effort into efficiently using this small sentence stem, they will no doubt see significant results in the long run.
If you feel disconnected or frustrated about the state of your marriage but want to avoid separation and/or divorce, the marriage.com course meant for married couples is an excellent resource to help you overcome the most challenging aspects of being married.
Matt has been working in the mental health field since 2001. He has extensive experience working with adolescents, young adults, & adults in individual, group, couples, & family therapy. His style is grounded in person-centered therapy but is also informed by CBT, psychodynamic, & transpersonal approaches. He has a deep theoretical understanding but approaches psychotherapy in very down to earth manner.