Three simple sentences can change the way we discuss our upsets and pain points. They can become a profound exercise if taken seriously and done with care and sincerity. The point is to speak openly and honestly and to be willing to discover something new, both in our partners and in ourselves.
This practice will require a little practice. It is good for clarifying what is happening for us and how we feel (which usually has the advantage of bridging a gap in a disagreement).
The three sentences are:
- 1. When I notice…
- 2. I make up…
- 3. And I feel…
They look almost too simple, don’t they?
A Closer Look
Let’s take a closer look at what each sentence does:
- The first helps create the context and clarify what the trigger was for the speaker
- The second gives an insight into our meaning-making and where we go in our minds when we are hurt or upset
- The third serves to bring us into ourselves, to discover what we are feeling and how we are impacted by the situation
There are a few things to remember. This is a practice in taking responsibility, so the statements are all ‘I’ statements. They are about us, not our partner. This is not an exercise in blame. It can reveal a lot about us and our vulnerabilities. It needs to be agreed upon that both people will support each other in this process.
And finally, a feeling is exactly that, how you feel. Usually, one word, like ‘sad’ or ‘glad’. A feeling is not “I feel that you are doing this”, or “I feel that you are being that”.
How We Argue
We rarely argue about what we think we are arguing about. Whether the issue is a small thing like not stacking the dishwasher ‘properly’ or a bigger thing like having an affair, the way we argue is often ineffective in making a change, unless we can get to what we are fighting about. It’s usually not the events, but instead something deeper. We only really argue about core values, but the events are pointers to these core values.
Let’s go through an example to demonstrate.
Example – At a Party
You and your partner are at a party. There are a lot of people and one person in particular you know and can see your partner talking with. This person is very attractive and you know they are in a relationship, but you have heard rumours that they have had affairs. You feel something and later you and your partner argue about it. It goes something like this…
Why would you be talking with that person at the party? You know they have no respect for their partner, and why would you put our relationship in jeopardy? What if they tried to kiss you or made a pass at you?
Your partner says you are being irrational, nothing would happen, that person is not attracted to them, and even if they were there would be nothing to worry about.
I don’t want you talking with them again at least not alone you say. Your partner gets more upset and a bit defensive. From here it declines into an argument.
You may need to take some time to cool off and then you can try to figure out what is going on using the three sentences.
What You Might Say
You might reflect on this and think to yourself:
- 1. When I notice you with that attractive person…
- 2. I make up that you did not care about our relationship as much as I do. That you do not respect me. That you are willing to let something come between us. That you do not love me as much as I love you.
- 3. And I feel afraid, I feel mild panic or fear.
It may seem counter-intuitive to share these feelings with our partner. But if they are willing to listen and if they are willing to try the three sentences then things have a chance of being seen from a new angle, and possibly resolved.
What Your Partner Might Say
- 1. When I notice that you are watching my every move when I am with others, especially people of the opposite sex…
- 2. I make up that you do not trust me.
- 3. And I feel hurt and sad and distant from you.
Stopping the Argument
This is not always the easiest thing to do but it does tend to stop the argument and bring us back to what we are feeling. What we are feeling can be seen and held in the relationship in a different way from blame and anger.
Trying the Three Sentences
We suggest you try out the three sentences – even just thinking them through sometimes can help us get back into rational thinking. If you use them as a way of broaching difficult topics it can defuse disagreements before they become full-scale arguments. They can also help foster intimacy.
The three sentences take practice and initially need safety and an agreement to be gentle and try to understand each other. But when you know what you are really arguing about then things can be more easily resolved, and this reduces anxiety. It’s easier to talk about the fear of losing the relationship than being blamed for being jealous. In fact, if our partner understands how we really feel they are more likely to feel moved than wrong. It’s more productive to talk about the discomfort of feeling our partner does not trust us than trying to figure out how not to inflame them.
It can be powerful to let our partner know what we think and feel if it can be done without judgement. Then we have the opportunity to undo some of our negative beliefs and assumptions we’ve made up, that don’t serve the relationship.