Valentine’s Day is around the corner, so what better time to think about improving your relationships. As a psychotherapist with more than twenty years experience, I’m privileged to work closely with individuals and couples through the process of strengthening their relationship skills and improving their intimate lives. Not surprisingly, people often seek therapy wanting advice. Questions like those listed below are frequently spoken in my therapy office. They also surface when I’m chatting with someone outside, of the office and they discover my line of work:
“My marriage is in trouble – what should I do?”
“My relationships don’t last – how do I break this pattern?”
“What’s the key to making love last?”
“My wife is constantly on my case, how do I get her to back off?”
I could go on but you get the picture. I enjoy the challenges these questions present and similarly enjoy when journalists reach out with thematic questions about relationships, communication and love:
“What are the signs that a relationship has what it takes to go the distance?”
“What do married men complain about most in therapy?”
“What are the biggest mistakes that married people make?”
Questions like these force me to think thematically about my work and challenge me to crystalize the theories that frame my approach to therapy. What, then, is the single best piece of relationship advice a therapist can give? The answer depends on the theoretical school in which the therapist is trained. Since I am trained in systems therapy, I’m convinced that the single most important advice I can give is to use “I” statements!
Don’t say to your husband: “YOU are so cold and YOU never ever hug me!” Instead, say: “I could really use a hug.” If you want to further and genuinely work through marital tension related to the level of physical affections, dig a bit deeper into the underlying causes of your dissatisfaction. If you master this advice, you might find yourself saying something like this:
“If I’m totally honest, I have to admit that I am someone who craves a lot of physically affections. And I also have to admit that even back when we were dating, I noticed that I crave it at a level that goes beyond your natural comfort zone. I was naïve to imagine that this tension would disappear through marriage and the passage of time, and I’m struggling with it now more than ever. I want to figure out how to meet my needs but also respect your sense of personal space.”
An “I” statement can communicate anything that a “you” statement can communicate, but in a nicer way that is less likely to raise defensiveness and is more likely to be heard. One of my psychotherapy clients explained the powerful results of this advice:
“’I’ statements are my new magic superpower. I told my daughter I couldn’t afford the phone she wanted rather than lecturing her on financial responsibility. She totally respected this answer. Then, I was out to dinner with a girlfriend and two men asked to join us. Instead of telling them to take a hike, I said ‘thanks for your offer, my friend and I have not seen each other in a while and we really want time to catch up.’ Worked like a charm.”
Why are “I” statements so effective?
From a psychological perspective, the willingness to talk about one’s self demonstrates a willingness to own your part of the relationship equation. In other words, even if you happen to be correct that your spouse is not as physically affectionate as you might like, it is optimal to own and express your craving for affection rather than micro-analyze your husband’s perceived shortcomings.
Systems theory emphasizes the emotional development and maturity of the individual. The ability to balance separateness and togetherness is a core and essential component of emotional maturity. According to systems theory, the primary psychological goal with respect to intimacy is to develop the ability to be intimate with others while simultaneously experiencing yourself as a separate self. So a willingness to turn “you” statements into “I” statements is the communications centerpiece of systems theory. I promise you that any sentence in your vocabulary can be restructured in this manner and will enhance your relationships – romantic and otherwise. Forcing yourself to flip every emotionally complex communication containing the word “you” into a communication based in the word “I” is the best Valentine’s present you can give!!!