Assertiveness in Relationships
Assertiveness is the ability to stand up for yourself and your rights, while also respecting the rights and opinions of others. It is therefore crucial within a romantic relationship, both to maintain your sense of your own identity, and also for the relationship to thrive and be healthy.
It can also be quite challenging to be assertive with a partner. Particularly when the relationship is new, you are quite likely to want to please the other person, so it can be hard to assert yourself, even if you feel it is necessary. Unfortunately, however, patterns learned in the early days of a relationship are likely to persist, so you do need to get into good habits straight away!
Do not despair, however, if you feel that you are struggling to be assertive enough. You can always learn new skills, and assertiveness is no exception. It is never too late to change, and this page explains more about how you can do so.
Assertiveness and Behaviour
Our page on Assertiveness sets out that assertiveness is standing up for yourself and your rights, and being able to express your thoughts, feelings and views in an appropriate way.
In practice, that means also respecting the views and rights of others: assertive people are able to express themselves without becoming upset or upsetting others.
In a relationship, therefore, assertiveness is likely to be shown by behaviours such as:
Talking openly and honestly about your feelings. Assertive people will not let problems fester, but will talk about them early on, and explain why there is a problem. Much of the time, they will also be able to recognise potential trouble areas in advance, and avoid them.
Listening to your partner, and making an effort to understand their point of view too. A key part of showing respect for someone is listening to them, and trying to understand their perspective. This is an important part of empathy, and therefore of emotional intelligence.
Being grateful when someone does something for you, however small. A relationship is about give and take: saying thank you for a cup of tea or coffee when one is made goes a long way to oiling its wheels and showing that you do not take your partner for granted. See our page on Gratitude: Being Grateful for more.
Admitting your mistakes and apologising for them. This will include any time when you have upset your partner, because doing so was clearly not deliberate.
Sharing responsibilities with your partner, and treating them as an equal. It follows that you also expect to be treated as an equal: that is, you neither expect to do everything nor to have everything done for you. This may take some negotiating to work out in full, and you may find our page on Negotiating and Persuading in Relationships helpful.
Be careful what you say… because it can affect your beliefs
Among groups of women in particular, it is often seen as amusing to make fun of men in general, and partners in particular, and complain about their inability to do the housework/remember the shopping/look after children/anything else that takes your fancy.
It is very easy to get involved in this kind of ‘doing down’ when you are with your friends, and it can feel like a bit of harmless fun.
Be aware, though, that when you keep repeating something like this, even as a joke, you can start to believe it (for more about this, read our page on Neuro-Linguistic Programming).
Once you start to believe that your partner is slightly inferior to you in some way, it can be very hard to see and treat them as an equal.
Be very careful about the language that you use to think and talk about your partner because it may shape your views, and this will prevent you from fully respecting them. In the longer term, this is likely to damage your relationship.
The ‘Flip Side’: Non-Assertive Behaviour
Non-assertive behaviour can take one of two forms: passive or aggressive behaviour.
Both are unlikely to be helpful in a relationship.
Being passive means not standing up for yourself.
It often results in being too compliant, and allowing your views to be overruled repeatedly in favour of your partner. People using passive responses may have problems with self-esteem or self-confidence. They may also simply be trying to ‘keep the peace’ and avoid confrontations in their relationship.
However, by using this kind of behaviour, passive people may effectively suggest to their partners that they do not consider themselves equal. This can cause major problems in the relationship, and incline the other partner towards less assertive behaviour too.
Aggressive behaviour does not consider the rights and feelings of others.
It often overrules without thought or discussion, and an aggressive response is usually designed to put someone down.
For more about how to deal with aggression, or to help yourself to avoid aggressive behaviour, see our pages on Dealing with Aggression, and Anger Management.
Improving Your Assertiveness
The main ways in which you can try to improve your assertiveness are to practise and model the behaviours described above, particularly listening, being open about your feelings, and actively treating your partner as an equal.
Our page on Assertiveness Tips and Techniques provides some other ways in which you can improve your assertiveness. They include use of two techniques for remaining assertive in the face of challenging behaviour:
- The ‘stuck record’ technique involves repeating your main message calmly and persistently until it is heard; and
- Fogging helps you to act like a ‘wall of fog’, absorbing but not reflecting aggressive behaviour.
It is particularly helpful to develop techniques like this if you tend to be easily side-tracked into passive and/or aggressive behaviour by other people.
The techniques will help you to remain calm and assertive—and therefore in control of the situation.
Our page on Dealing with Non-Assertiveness provides some general techniques for managing either passive or aggressive behaviour in others.
Relationships need a foundation of respect
Ultimately, assertiveness is built on respect—for yourself, and for your partner.
Assertive behaviours show that you have respect for you both, and you consider that you are partners—and therefore equal—in the relationship. If you can hold this belief in your respect and equality at the front of your mind, it becomes easier to act in more assertive ways.
Even giving in can be done assertively. For example, if your partner asks you for a favour like buying stamps or washing the car while they are out, you could reply:
“Well, I’m really busy today but, since it’s you, I’ll try to make some time for that.”
This demonstrates that you are aware of the consequences, but you are prepared to do it because you know that it is important to them. They, in turn, will respect you more, and be more grateful, because they know that you have had to make an effort to help them out.