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How To Communicate Assertively In Your Relationship

Couples when they get married usually believe that they are on an equal footing and that marriage or their decision to live together gives them the permission to express their feelings and wants with an expectation that they will be respected, to state their views and opinions with an understanding that they will be listened to, and to say “no” openly without feeling guilty.

This does happen in many partnerships but there is no guarantee that it will in all, for sooner or later many couples will feel the discomfort of an imbalance in their relationship. This disparity will become noticeable when for instance one partner asks their partner to do something that they don’t want to do. It may be something simple as to go out with people they dislike, or more complicated as packing their bags and moving away from family and friends. In either case due to one partner’s inability to say “no” they submit to the request thus magnifying the inequality in the relationship.

At other times the gap in the relationship is noticeable when one party dominates the other in discussion and conversation and does not allow their partner a voice, or if they do, they minimise anything they have to say. This behaviour is tolerated as the aggrieved party does not want to ‘rock the boat’ and has developed a submissive communication style.

In both these examples couples are not arguing with each other or accusing each other of inappropriate behaviour, one partner is just passively accepting behaviour that they do not like, while the other continues to behave in a manner that works for them.

What has emerged is a state of play in which one partner who is more assertive controls the behaviour of the other. This partner in turn responds with submissive behaviour which denies them an equal say in their relationship.

It must be pointed out at this time that we are not talking about an abusive relationship in which one partner is fearful of their partner at all times and has been emotionally, physically and/or sexually mistreated, but we are talking about a relationship that due to any number of reasons has fallen into a pattern of dysfunctional communication.

If there is any indication of violence and abuse in your relationship then specialised help is strongly recommended. If your situation is one of a failure to assert yourself then what follows may help you.

Assertion and Other Styles of Relating

It is really quite unrealistic to measure the equality in a relationship. You can get carried away attempting to insure that you and your partner are in an 100% relationship in which you are both in control 100% of the time, and in which you both get your way 100% of the time, and in which you both give of yourself 100% of the time. For this probably never happens.

What is realistic is to strive for a relationship in which you and your partner feel comfortable standing up for your rights and expressing your beliefs and feelings; a relationship in which you have confidence in making reasonable requests and in refusing unacceptable ones; and a partnership in which there is mutual respect as part of the package that goes with love. What we are talking about is a relationship in which both partners are free to assert themselves.

Assertive people communicate honestly and directly. They know what they want and respectfully ask for this while at all times making sure their needs do not interfere with the rights of others. If conflict does arise they work in collaboration with those involved to reach a satisfactory solution.

In many relationships this is not always the case as there is also evidence of non-assertive behaviour, aggressive behaviour and ego-centred behaviour.

People whose behaviour is non-assertive tend to be submissive, overly polite and agreeable, and often subordinate their needs to the needs of others. They tend to let others initiate conversations and generally just respond to what others say and do. Their mind set leads them to do anything to avoid conflict, and the thought of not being liked can create anxiety. As they avoid voicing their opinions and end up doing things they don’t like, they may experience controlled anger, frustration and resentment which leads them to regretting having said or done nothing.

People who display aggressive behaviour usually get their needs met and openly express their feelings and opinions- but they do so in ways that damage their relationship. They can be quite insensitive and antagonistic to the needs of others, frequently resulting in their feeling guilt and embarrassment.

Those adhering to the fourth relationship style sometimes can be slightly aggressive while at other times assertive and respectful of the rights of all parties, but most of the time they are simply ego- centred. People who are ego-centred in their behaviour have no intent on hurting or intimidating others, their sole desire is to be the centre of attention. They want to make sure that their needs are met and that their views are heard. If they can get what they want by being assertive they will, but if a little aggression is required they are okay with this. They are so engrossed in making sure that they get what they want that they become unaware of the needs of others.

After awhile in any relationship a pattern of communication that reflects these above styles emerges. Sometimes the style of communication can be mercurial with no partner favouring one style over the other but merely choosing what works for them at the time. In other situations partners will take on one of the styles as their own.

If both partners relate to each other respectfully and assertively you are off to a great start to achieving a harmonious balance in you relationship. If however one or both prefer another model of communication there may be some discomfort in the relationship. For example if both partners are aggressive then conflict may dominate their life together. If one partner is either aggressive or ego-centred and the other non-aggressive then there may also be an underlying tension as not all needs are being met. And if both partners are ego-centred then there may constantly be a competition for attention in their relationship.

What you are exploring today is the situation in which one partner is non-assertive and the other is either aggressive or ego-centred. In any relationship it may not be possible to always have harmony but it is certainly possible for partners to learn skills so as to change their behaviours and redress imbalances in their relationship.

How Did You Develop Your Relationship Style

Before bringing some practical changes to your relationship it may be helpful to determine how you and your partner developed your relationship style in the first place. Most of your behaviours are determined by your Modelling Influences, your Self Esteem and your Self Talk.

Modelling Influences

You are a product of your upbringing. As a child you observed your parents’ behaviours, how they communicated with each other, and how they shared their feelings, and then you stored these observations in your memory bank. Other influences also were impressed upon you as you grew up. As you have experienced life you have either automatically adapted the behaviours of your early years or you have deliberately rejected them. And so you find yourself relating to friends, colleagues and romantic liaisons in manners either similar or dissimilar to your modelling experiences. Whatever the case they have definitely influenced you.

It is these behaviours that you now bring to your marriage and your partnership. If you have observed and chosen to model a parent who was dominant and aggressive in their interactions with their partner – then you may look upon this as an acceptable norm and relate to your partner likewise. Similarly if you have noted your parent to be submissive and apologetic in their behaviours – you may feel that this is the way that you should respond to your partner.

Gender can influence behaviours and it is not uncommon to see aggression modelled by your father and passivity and non-assertiveness modelled by your mother. But this is not always the case and so a generalisation may best be avoided.

Self Esteem

How you view your self is central to how you relate to others, particularly those close to you. If you hold yourself in low regard you may come to believe that you have nothing of worth to offer and your behaviour manifests this in your passivity and non-assertiveness.

If you do not feel confident about yourself in your relationship then chances are you will do everything in your power to keep your partner happy. You may undermine yourself and never ask for anything and may say “yes” to all your partner’s requests, even if you really want to say “no”. Low self esteem may stop you from relating as an equal in your relationship.

It is also quite possible to have a too high regard for yourself resulting in an arrogant expectation of all that you want at the expense of the needs of others. With this overbearing confidence your behaviour to your partner comes across as aggressive and disrespectful.

Why some people have high self regard and others low can be attributed to: your nature, your nurture, your locus of evaluation and your self talk. These points are explored further at:

Influences that Determine Self Esteem

You can also read about some ways to improve your self esteem at:

Six Options For Building Healthy Self Esteem

When you and your partner have a healthy self esteem this will translate into assertive behaviours and respectful communication.

Self Talk

The modelling choices you have made and the regard you hold for yourself will be manifested in your self talk, which in turn influences your relationship style. If you have moulded your behaviour on submissive models and if you have a poor self image, then your self talk will reflect this. So when you are being manipulated to do things you don’t want to, your self talk will pipe up and say something like: “You better do what he/she says as if you don’t you will be ignored and perhaps he/she will leave you. My mother/father did what he/she was told and they had an okay relationship. Why should I expect anything different? This is what I deserve.”

The resultant behaviour is non-assertive and you end up doing what you do not want. There is no room for “no” in your relationship style and so you undermine yourself. Your self talk encourages your submissiveness and denies you the ability to express your wants.

If your partner in this relationship has as a result of their modelling influences and self esteem developed a more aggressive style of relating, you may be stuck in a pattern of ineffective communication in which anger and resentment slowly builds.

For a satisfactory relationship it is probably important for you and your partner to replace any non-assertive and aggressive behaviours with assertive ones. You both need to learn how to ask for what you want in a respectful manner, and how to say “no” to what you don’t want with a guilt free attitude.

Strategies For A More Assertive Relationship

Reflective Listening

When you are having a general conversation with your partner or you are sitting down to discuss something specific the emphasis of assertive behaviour is on good listening and responding skills. This means that both you and your partner listen attentively to each other, not only to the words spoken, but to the nonverbal cues such as facial expressions, tone of voice, body language and emotional undertones. At all times you both want to be authentic in conveying your message so that your body language and your spoken words are in harmony reflecting no ambiguity.

At regular intervals it is important for both partners to sum up what the other has said and check out that you have understood and interpreted each other’s message clearly.

In assertion the language is one of acceptance, respect and concern.

Think before you Speak

Before you speak think about the situation and verify if it requires assertion. If you are uncomfortable about what you have to say take some deep breaths. Some helpful self talk may be useful to fortify your resolve. Remember that what you and your partner are aiming for is a relationship in which assertion is the norm. If you get into the habit of quickly checking your thoughts before speaking and remember the language of assertion, you both should find yourself communicating respectfully.

Assertive I- Language

When using assertive I-Language you are telling others your thoughts and feelings, are taking action to meet your needs and are standing up for your rights without violating the rights of your partner. You are using clear and understandable language so as to not cloud your assertive message.

You hold back from using accusatory language and pointing the “you finger”. At all times you are responsible for what you say and with the word “I” you own your thoughts and feelings. Using I-Language can create a non threatening atmosphere in which the focus is on co operation not intimidation.

As you continue to assert your self with your implementation of “I” statements you are not only reinforcing what you want you are also standing firm on what you don’t want.

For example if your partner wants to take tennis lessons and you don’t the dialogue that ensues could be something like this:

Partner 1: “I am interested in learning how to play tennis and I would like you to take lessons with me. I think this would be something we could do together.”

Partner 2: “I think you have been quite considerate in wanting to include me in an interest of yours and I am appreciative of your desire to do something together, but I really do not like tennis. Maybe we can sit down together and brainstorm activities we would both like.”

In this example both partners used I-Language to express their needs. Partner 1 did not necessarily get the response they wanted from Partner 2, but their assertive behaviour may now allow for effective communication resulting in an agreement as to what they can do together.

On the other hand Partner 1 not happy with this result, may become more persistent with their I-Language. They may want their partner to accept their need and ignore their own wants. Such a conversation may still flow quite civilly as long as both partners continue to listen to each other and continue to use their I-Language.

The dialogue may continue as follows:

Partner 1: “I really want you to learn tennis with me. We don’t do much together and this is something I think you would like. I have always wanted to play tennis and I know you would be good at it.”

Partner 2: “I thank you for your positive thoughts about my ability but I really do not want to play. I hate running around on a hot court and I don’t really enjoy this sport. Please let’s think of something else.”

At this point in the conversation Partner 1 is not listening fully to the wants of Partner 2 and will probably soon become more persistent in their demands, and veer slightly away from assertive language towards aggressive language.

Sometimes you may find that your partner becomes quite adamant in expressing their needs, and while still trying to maintain a respectful front their tone of voice may become louder and their language more insistent. Slowly accusations may creep into their statements.

It is still possible at this time for you to continue using assertive I-Language and bring some equilibrium back to the conversation. While your partner continues to pressure you to change your way of thinking the repetition of “I” statements allows you to stay firm in your resolve while still being respectful.

Following from the dialogue above:

Partner 1: “You never want to do what I want to. You always have some excuses and you never consider my wants.”

Partner 2: “I am sorry you feel that way but I do not want to play tennis.”

Partner 1: “I don’t believe this! I want to do something with you and you don’t want to.”

Partner 2: “I am sorry you feel that way but I do not want to play tennis. But I would like to try something else.”

As Partner 1 is beginning to get frustrated and heading towards accusations Partner 2 is still maintaining an assertive stance. This conversation could go on for awhile and eventually could require other communication skills in addition to assertive I-Language if a satisfactory solution is to be found.

Assertive I-Language is certainly an effective communication skill but it can take quite awhile for couples to incorporate it into their behavioural practice if they have never used it before. It can be hard to shake the hold of aggression, manipulation, passivity and other relationship styles and this is why it is necessary to back up the strategies mentioned so far with one more: Collaborative Support.

Collaborative Support

Change for many is difficult, and relationships are not immune to the discomfort that change may bring. You usually know that change is necessary and beneficial to keep your relationship functioning at an optimum level, but at the same time you often resist it stubbornly supporting the existing status quo that is proving to be destructive to your relationship.

Collaborative support is one way that couples can help themselves move through change. So when you and your partner decide to modify your relationship style and introduce assertiveness, it is important that you both support and help each other through the transition.

If you note that your partner is having difficulty in asserting their wishes in the relationship, you can draw attention to their behaviour and help them learn the language of assertion. Likewise if one partner is being more dominant and aggressive they might need reminders as to when their language strays from assertion.

Being assertive may not be that easy at first. And realistically it may not be possible to be assertive 100% of the time. But if steps can be taken to bring assertive behaviour into your relationship you will be able to establish a foundation for your partnership based on mutual respect and concern.

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