How Do I Use I Statements to Tell My Wife She is Being Defensive

My wife (ADD) and I (non-ADD) had a really big fight this weekend, and I need some more advice.  In case you haven’t seen my past postings – my wife and I have both been working very hard to express love to the other – me by criticizing less and using words of affirmation and physical touch more, and my wife by giving me more attention without distraction.  And we had just had a pretty good week.  But then:

The fight started when, after telling my wife that the comment she just made after I told her something made me feel like she didn’t care about what I was saying, she got defensive.  Which resulted in my not feeling heard, which when I said something, resulted in her getting even more defensive, hostile, etc. which then escalated into a terrible fight where my wife went to bed yelling, cursing and slamming doors while I stayed down on the couch avoiding her wondering why I was still in this marriage and thinking that maybe it was time for us to split.  She came down at some point and said she wanted me to come up to bed, and I said I couldn’t.  That I couldn’t just forget what just happened and come to bed.  That, in fact, I was thinking maybe we need to split up, because these fights are too common and I just can’t take them any more.  (I had thought this before but had never actually SAID it.)  That put her into a “Please don’t leave me.  Please come to bed” mode, while I just lay there afraid to say a word.  It was terrible!

She went up to bed, but eventually came back down and calmly and nicely asked me to please come back to bed, which I did.  And the following morning we talked about what had happened.  And I was FINALLY able to get her to hear that the dynamic that seems to occur very frequently is this:

I attempt to tell her something she did that made me feel invisible, like I don’t matter to her.  She gives a defensive (or hostile, or belittling) response, which makes me feel like she hasn’t heard what I said, which makes me feel even more invisible.  Which causes me to say something like “I don’t think you HEARD me, what I am trying to say is . . . “  And I try to restate what I said in a way that she can hear it.  Sometimes she gets even more defensive, and starts saying things like “Well, YOU do such and such.”  Or maybe she’ll just say “That’s not what I did.”  Or maybe she’ll say something to indicate I shouldn’t be upset by what she did.  Sometimes when I say “I don’t think you heard me” she’ll say “Yes I did” in an almost hostile tone of voice.  And I’ll say “Can you tell me what you heard?  And she’ll repeat back the WORDS I said, in a way that makes me feel like she’s saying “See, I TOLD you I heard you.  So there!” Which make me think that while she heard my words, she didn’t really hear the MEANING of my words.  And the TONE she uses makes me feel even worse.  Or, sometimes she’ll just say “I HEARD you – stop talking about this!”  And that certainly doesn’t make me feel like she heard me either.  I’m sure there are other examples of responses she has, but I’m sure these suffice.

Anyway, the morning after the fight, I told her some of this.  And I also said – “what usually happens is either you don’t hear me, or if you DO hear me, you feel SO BAD about what you did, that you end up feeling like a terrible person, and then the exchange turns into your saying what a terrible person you think YOU are and how bad you feel about that.  And it’s not my intent to make you feel like a terrible person, so I might try to make you see that you are NOT a terrible person.  And so what happens is it becomes all about YOU, and whatever I was trying to say just gets lost as a result.  Then what happens is we “make up” and YOU end up feeling better and I end up without any resolution.”   Or else, I refuse to let it go because I haven’t gotten resolution and then I get very angry and start yelling at YOU.

She ended up really getting it, and said she didn’t realize she did that.  That it must feel terrible to have someone walk all over my feelings like that.  Etc.  I said – “Exactly!  Thank you!”  She then said, so when you say something to me instead of going right to MY feelings I need to ask myself what YOU are feeling and if I don’t know, I need to ASK you what you are feeling.  You might get tired of me asking you that.”   It feels like I have finally gotten through to her!

I know that some of the things Melissa said in her "Two Day Experiment" posting really apply to us, and I think that sometime soon I will recommend my wife read that post and that we do that experiment.  But where I need advice now is in how to express some things that I find myself commonly saying to her using "I statements" that would be less likely to put her on the defensive.   Things like:

“It sounds like you are getting defensive.”

“I don’t think you are hearing what I said.”

“I still feel like you haven’t heard what I said.”

“Your tone of voice sounds hostile.”

“Would you please use a softer (or kinder, or more loving, etc.) tone of voice?”

“You have an angry look on your face.”

“I’m looking for some empathy.”

And I’m sure there are others, but these are all I can think of right now.