Assertiveness, or what most people would call "standing up for themselves," isn't exactly an easy quality to foster. After all, it can be the path of least resistance to just let everybody else get what they want and go along with the result. But that position doesn't work in relationships, which are by definition meant to be the meeting of desires and requirements in two different people, not one person being run by another. It's necessary to note, here, that assertiveness is in psychology terms distinct from either aggression or passivity: it means, according to the University of Cambridge, "a type of communication that expresses needs, feelings and preferences in a way that respects both ourselves and the other person... stating clearly what you would like to happen, but not demanding that it does."
Being non-assertive is not necessarily a sign that you're being manipulated or abused; women, in particular, have been culturally trained not to be open about their needs, and when it happens, they're labelled as "aggressive" or "masculine," in the words of psychotherapist Judy Belmont. (Just look at the media treatment of Hillary Clinton as she proclaims she wants the presidency.) Cultural training can be hard to fight against, but it's important that you get what you want and need out of an intimate relationship, and recognize when that's not happening.
Here are seven signs that you may not be being assertive in a relationship; the relationship itself may not be at fault, but if you recognize these signs, it's definitely time to look into some assertiveness guides.
1. You Fear Conflict And Rejection — At Your Own Expense
If the idea of your partner leaving you is utterly terrifying (and, as a bonus, if you have a history of absolutely hating and avoiding rejection in any possible way), it may indicate that you're not standing up for yourself sufficiently because you fear what you may lose in response.
Forbes explains that, in both a business and a personal context, there are two drivers that hold us back from being disagreeable: "Our deep desire to belong coupled with our fear of rejection." If you've caught yourself holding your tongue because you fear the relationship will end as a consequence, even if that's an irrational view of the situation, you're at risk of keeping quiet about needs and boundaries that need to be addressed. Fear of conflict can be part of this as well: understandably, people who shy away from open disagreement aren't going to be exceptional negotiators for their own desires, even if they think they can get what they need by other means.
2. You Feel Comfort In Submission To The Point Of Self-Censorship
This is an interesting one. Dr. Nando Pelusi points out for Psychology Today that, while we might not know it, society often conditions us to be passive rather than assertive or aggressive in situations that challenge us. "Every social encounter," he says, "is a subtle dance of dominance and submission. Asking someone to clarify a remark, taking your time to answer a question, suggesting a date—or saying no to one — require an intuitive understanding of the dance steps... Chances are, even the most forward among us err on the side of submission. (After all, outlaws commit crimes in only a fraction of the instances where a crime is possible!) So unassertiveness becomes, for many of us, the default. Implicit self-instructions like, 'when in doubt, shut up and go along,' sometimes keep you, and kept your ancestors, out of trouble."
This is the key to understanding why you may not feel particularly submissive, but still end up giving a lot of ground in arguments or refusing to have them altogether. If not wanting to rock the boat is a strong impulse for you, you might not be rocking it enough.
3. You've Resorted To Passive Aggressiveness
Passive aggression is the tactic used by people who feel, for whatever reason, that they're not comfortable discussing their feelings openly, whether because they think the reaction would be bad, they want to appear "civilized," or they "don't want to make a fuss". It results in subtle, indirect communication of distress, anger, or dissent, rather than directly saying "Nope, that wasn't cool". If you've done that in the past, replacing assertive behavior with passive aggression in an attempt to express yourself without the risks or vulnerabilities of overt confrontation, you're not alone: Psychology Today calls that replacement exceptionally common. But it may indicate that you're not feeling capable of standing up directly for your rights and needs.
4. You're Almost Always The One To Compromise
Here's a good indication that you may not be standing up for yourself sufficiently: look back over the compromises you've made most recently with your partner, regardless of the issue. Which partner gave up more ground? And was that ground given as a result of good argument, or for other reasons, like wanting to avoid continuing to disagree, or fearing their disapproval? Excessive compromising doesn't always indicate a lack of assertiveness, but in a context of conflict avoidance or collapse, it might indicate that you could be more pushy.
"The long term goal" of any disagreement, Executive Pscyhology points out, "is a negotiated, workable compromise;" if you've left the negotiating table or can't come to it, you're not going to get what you want. Many unassertive people give ground unnecessarily; if your partner isn't intimidating or threatening you, and would be willing to compromise more of their own position if you stood and argued the point, then there's space for you to assert yourself safely and without fear.
5. Your Attempts At Assertiveness Collapse
Attempting to assert your boundaries, needs, and wants is not an all-or-nothing job. You may move to give yourself a voice on an issue that concerns you, complete with proper planned speech and game face, but find that you somehow end up collapsing without saying everything you want to say, getting what you need, or getting past the first signs of disapproval or disagreement. The American Psychological Association calls this the "wilt or anger" response: assertiveness may start well, but rapidly unravel in the face of opposition, into either rage or helpless silence. Their response is focussed on "self-talk," or how you discuss the situation with yourself.
6. You Feel Unfulfilled And Frustrated
Dr. Leon Seltzer for Psychology Today is clear about the emotional products of non-assertiveness in relationships. "People who are non-assertive — that is, passive, verbally withholding, or overly deferential — generally don’t (and can’t) get their basic relational needs met," he explains. "So they end up feeling frustrated, misunderstood, and unfulfilled." If you're not getting what you need, your boundaries aren't being respected, and you don't feel sufficiently "heard" or known by your partner, you're likely to inhabit a very annoyed emotional space: unable to fight for what you need, and upset that you're not getting it.
7. You Often Can't Tell What You're Really Upset About
Many people without good assertiveness skills in relationships find that, when they get frustrated, it's difficult for them to parse that a disagreement is really about. Problems are rarely just about what's on the surface; they often involve dynamics underneath, from worry to fear to conflicting core beliefs. Arguments without this insight often return to the same things, without actually resolving or tackling the issue at hand. Figuring this out, as the Examiner points out, may make standing up for yourself easier.
Standing up for yourself can be very difficult, particularly if you're deeply conflict-avoidant and hate disagreements of any kind. (It's not uncommon.) There are many small steps you can take to help yourself move towards more assertion, like using "I" statements, monitoring your own emotions, and planning conversational options beforehand. If any of your attempts to be assertive are met with derision, manipulation, abuse, sulking or terror tactics, it's a sign that the relationship itself is based on a power dynamic that involves your silence, and that's both deeply unhealthy and very dangerous. Suspect you're in an emotionally abusive situation? We've got good guides on how to recognize patterns and get help.
Images: Pixabay; Giphy