Being Assertive in Relationships

Synthia Stark

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Assertiveness embodies our ability to stand up for what is right. We are assertive because we need to protect ourselves and the lives of others, such as our children. We are assertive because we need to set boundaries, especially early on in our relationships.

Therefore, it is good to have a general idea of how to be assertive before entering any relationship. Otherwise, we set low expectations and others may take advantage of us.

Even so, it is quite challenging to maintain assertiveness with our partners. Sometimes we are worried about making them angry, especially if we don’t know our partners very well. However, a good partner is not going to get angry because you want the bare minimum.

You deserve happiness as much as the next person, and walking around on eggshells could be a potential red flag of how the relationship will turn out.

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You can aim to please yourself and your partner, but don’t overstep yourself to the point that you’re exhausted and have lost your voice. Instead, work collaboratively with your partner to compromise, and take turns as needed when making decisions.

It’s never easy being assertive. Sometimes there is such thing as too much assertiveness, which turns into aggression, or little, which becomes indecision. Yes, it’s a fine line when it comes to balancing assertiveness, but we can continue standing up for ourselves.

To be assertive, we must:

  • Talk clearly and openly when something is first bothering you
  • Not leave ambiguity or misinformation
  • Listen in when your partner needs to vent or soundboard
  • Put yourself in their shoes
  • Be empathetic — emotional intelligence is a real thing
  • Accept fault for our mistakes — we are not perfect
  • Make genuine apologies and share responsibility

While it’s good to have an idea of how to be assertive, let’s explore the flip side of the equation here. There’s non-assertive behaviour, such as aggression which is pretty bad, and passiveness, which is also equally bad.

Sometimes, we fall under the trap of entering one or the other. Both do not work in the long-term of a relationship, hence why assertiveness is the best way to tackle problems.

For example, if you are passive, you are a doormat. You are way too compliant for every little thing. If you are a doormat, it gives permission for others to treat you poorly, which isn’t right.

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After a while, you might even start to believe that you are not worthy of being treated with respect. It’s not an immediate thing, but it’s a gradual situation, where the partner slowly gaslights you.

No one wants to be gaslit, especially not you. By the time you realize that you are too compliant to every whim, you’re far too deep into the relationship, and you are sitting there in horror, unable to escape.

Instead of ending up in a situation like that, you need to work on your self-esteem. You need to make sure that you can love yourself well enough to be in love with someone else.

Otherwise, if we can’t love ourselves, then how are other people expected to do the same?

To avoid being passive, you need to practice:

  • Positive self-affirming statements, where you fake it until you make it
  • Mindfulness activities, including yoga and breathing exercises
  • Journal writing or even just writing on your notes app
  • Creating thought records where you analyze whether or not your emotions are factual or just simply, an opinion

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Yes, I know it’s hard to be assertive because we are worried about seeming confrontational. However, assertiveness is not aggression.

Assertiveness is classy and assertiveness teaches us to respect ourselves and others. If others cannot respect us, are they truly worthy of our love?

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Now, we’re onto the other end of the equation: aggression. Aggression is no good either and a lot of people struggle to be assertive. Sometimes, people overcalculate their assertiveness and they accidentally come across as aggressive.

Anger often overrules logicality, and it’s very hard to make decisions when you are angry. Instead, we have to find ways to prevent ourselves from getting angry in the first place.

Picture the anger as fire, and we have to proactively set up a safety alarm, instead of waiting helplessly for the fire to occur. Instead, what you’re going to do is this:

  • Practice self-control with breathing exercises, such as the 54321 breathing technique
  • Walk away from the fight
  • Take a long nap and stew in that anger
  • Write down how you feel / or record yourself rambling on your phone
  • Talk to that person at a later time

Trust me — you’re going to cringe when you read back or listen back on that journal entry, whether it is a book or an audio recording. Imagine saying all of that stuff to someone in the middle of a fight. Oh, the horror.

Also, that fire has been mostly been taken care of since you instead ejected it from your body onto your journal. Even if you still get angry, at least the fire that shows up (if it does at all) is smaller, more contained, and easier to control.

With the 54321 breathing technique, you might want to try it out before any potential fights. You need to do these exercises ahead of time to get into the practice of doing them, leading up to that terrible day. If you wait until you’re mad, they’re not going to work. Set up a reminder on your phone if you need to.

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Plus, if you walk away from a fight and the person is still following you, try to get away from them (drive away if you have to) and notify a trusted person, whether it is your friend, a crisis line, or even the authorities.

Yes, I know it sounds silly to call the authorities but if the partner is trying to instigate the theoretical fire, and your safety is being threatened, then you have to do what you need to. Don’t fall into the pit of fire with them. Be the bigger person.

Finally, take some time to cool off if you need to. To defuse aggression in others, you can:

  • Maintain easy-going eye contact
  • Be aware of your personal body language
  • Maintain some politeness
  • Actively listen, and don’t assume
  • Move only slowly and steadily
  • Don’t say “you”

Curiously, if you say “you did X” to someone, it comes across as accusatory. This means that you need to say something like, “I don’t like X”. This is the same sentence but worded differently. It may work wonders, depending on who you are talking to.

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Now, we’re aiming to improve our assertiveness. To be assertive, we have to model the things we just talked about earlier, including the listening part.

It’s not easy, especially if the partner says something that we don’t agree with. However, just keep your dark thoughts inside, and don’t cut them off. Reframe that area of anger with open-ended curiosity.

When they are done, you can let them know something along the lines of:

“I appreciate you telling me this. I’m curious, you said X and Y and Z. Can you tell me more about that?”

Instead of accusing them of being ill-informed on something, you can ask them to specify and elaborate. This gives them the space to be heard. When they are done, you can mention something like.

“I agree with this. However, I do feel uncomfortable about X and Y.”

Avoid using the “you” word. Remember, “you” is accusatory and we don’t want anyone flying off any handles.

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Now we just have to maintain that assertiveness. If someone is still bothering us, we can do these two things:

  • Repeat what you said, but in a calmer tone of voice
  • Absorb the bad comments, but don’t throw them back

Finally, just remember that you deserve respect in a relationship. Even if everyone says that you don’t, they’re not good people, because they don’t respect your worth.

You are as worthy as the next person and a good relationship requires respect to be a two-way situation. Relationships are equal partnerships. While assertiveness is great, consider if your partner is being respectful.

If they are always rude, even when confronted in an assertive and polite way, reconsider if this relationship is worth it. Go over the pros and cons if you need to. Maybe make an encrypted file and actually sit down and write it.

We make decisions all the time, whether it is for work or school, and we often wrote things out to make sense of the bigger picture. Maybe the same could be applied here.

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When you make a decision inside your head, it might sound one way. Then, you say it out loud, it sounds very different. Perhaps you need to do that, go over the pros and cons of staying with someone, especially if you’ve over-extended yourself and your partner is not respecting you.

For now, just keep it steady, take care of yourself, be kind to yourself, love yourself, and most importantly, walk away from fights if you can. It’s not easy, but I think you got this.

Just make sure that your partner respects you — you’re a lot stronger than you realize.

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Writer & Researcher | Therapist-in-Training | Crisis Responder | Writing wholesome stories for the masses.

New York City, NY
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