Relationships are hard enough when both of you are on equal footing. But when one of you is asking, “How can I be more assertive?” it appears equal footing has lost its foundation.
You've learned the hard way that passiveness in a relationship makes it easier for the other person to take advantage of you — whether consciously or unconsciously.
But too often, the world mistakes assertiveness (especially in women) for aggression or selfishness — when all you really want is to be valued and treated with equal respect.
It's time to learn how to be more assertive in your relationship. And it's time to get real about what's at stake.
What Is Assertiveness in Relationships?
Many people confuse assertiveness with being a bully, a shrew, or an aggressive ass.
But being assertive isn't a negative quality. In fact, in many ways, it's a healthy and necessary quality.
Being assertive means you're able to stand up for your rights (and those of others) in a calm, confident, and positive way. You don't need to be aggressive or passive, but instead, you can clearly communicate your needs and desires because you value yourself.
Your partner also will learn to respect you more. And that's good for your bond as a couple.
Why Do I Have Trouble Being Assertive?
People often avoid asserting themselves because they fear rejection, abandonment, and the discomfort of a potential confrontation with their partner.
Perhaps they view asking for what they want as selfish or demanding, or maybe they don't feel worthy of success or happiness.
Whatever the root cause, the inability to assert yourself in relationships damages you and undermines the relationship.
When you don't speak up for what you need or want, you feel increasingly diminished and powerless. Your spouse or partner sees this, and they may lose respect for you, take advantage of you, or simply ignore you.
For those who feel intimidated or wildly uncomfortable speaking up for themselves, being assertive feels like jumping out of an airplane with no parachute. But with practice in small and manageable situations, you can teach yourself to become more assertive and self-empowered.
We all need a little assertiveness training, and knowing how to become more assertive can be a huge benefit in your personal and professional lives.
Here are 16 ideas on how to be assertive in a relationship.
1. Examine the problem.
You might have difficulty asserting yourself in all relationships, or it might be with your partner in particular.
Maybe you can speak your mind with women, but you can't with men — or vice versa. Or it could be that specific topics or situations make you afraid to be assertive.
Define the situations in which you have the most difficulty speaking up for yourself or asking for what you want or need.
Think about specific situations where you've wanted to say something, ask for something, or disagree — but you kept your mouth shut. Write down these situations so you have a reference point.
2. Understand the meaning of assertiveness.
According to Merriam-Webster, assertive means “disposed to or characterized by bold or confident statements and behavior.” Compare that definition to the definition of aggression: “A forceful action or procedure (as an unprovoked attack) especially when intended to dominate or master.”
As you can see, being assertive is far different from being aggressive.
We like this definition of assertiveness from the UC San Diego website:
“Assertiveness is the ability to honestly express your opinions, feelings, attitudes, and rights, without undue anxiety, in a way that doesn't infringe on the rights of others.”
You have opinions, feelings, attitudes, and rights in your relationship, and it is perfectly normal and acceptable to express those — even if the other person reacts negatively.
Remind yourself that assertiveness is not only acceptable behavior, it's a desirable one.
3. Acknowledge your feelings.
Even when you understand that assertiveness in relationships is acceptable, it might not feel acceptable to you. What are the emotions you have around speaking up for yourself or asking for what you want?
- What do you fear?
- What do you doubt about yourself?
- What is the worst thing you think might happen if you speak up?
Dig deep and try to get to the root cause of your lack of confidence and fears.
Understanding and acknowledging these feelings help you see there's nothing wrong with you. You don't have a character defect or a weak personality. You are merely reacting to your history and your life experiences.
4. Examine the truth.
Most of the time, the powerful feelings we have around being assertive have little basis in reality.
When you shine the spotlight of truth on these feelings, you can diminish them and remove some of the mental roadblocks keeping you from speaking up.
For example, you might fear speaking up because you could get rejected. But is this 100% true? How likely is it that you'd be rejected? If you are rejected, could you survive it?
Maybe you don't speak up because you don't like the discomfort of confrontation.
- But can you tolerate this discomfort for a short time?
- Will the discomfort kill you?
- Is the short-term discomfort better or worse than the long-term pain of holding back?
5. Define what you want.
Determine a situation in which you'd like to speak up, set boundaries, or ask for what you want. Don't be ambiguous about it. Be able to state in one clear sentence what you want to communicate.
Here are some examples:
- I want you to stop looking at the computer when I'm talking to you.
- I want us to take turns deciding on the restaurant and movie.
- I want to apply for the position of creative director.
- I don't want you to speak to me in that tone of voice any longer.
- I disagree with your position on that. Here's what I think.
- Please don't interrupt me while I'm speaking.
- It is time to discuss the future of our relationship, and here's why.
When you create this statement, don't use weak or cryptic language like, “I'd really appreciate it if you'd think about a time to talk about our relationship if that's OK with you.”
Create a firm, strong, confident statement. Then practice making the statement in front of the mirror to make sure your expression and body language match the confidence of your statement.
6. Know what to expect.
But you've learned from past experience that it's not so easy. Your spouse or love partner can get mad, argue with you, put you down, or reject you. It can be distressing and painful to have these encounters.
As much as you dislike negative encounters and feelings, you must decide if it's worth giving up your self-respect to avoid them. And it's often not only your self-respect at stake.
It could be your mental health. It might be the intimacy and trust in your marriage. It could be any number of positive benefits in your life if you permit the temporary discomfort of speaking up for yourself.
The reactions you receive will depend significantly on the other person involved. You may need to manage the timing of your statement or request based on the temperament of your love partner.
Consider in advance how they might respond, and be prepared with a follow-up statement to support your reasoning. This step is especially necessary if the topic is touchy, as you need to back up your actions or statements with well-considered information.
If he or she reacts defensively or with anger, don't engage in a battle. Simply state, “I'm sorry you don't like my request, but this is the way it must be. Let's discuss it further when you are calm.” Then walk away.
If it's a situation that needs immediate action, like deciding on a restaurant or movie, stand your ground and let the other person determine if they will or won't respect your request.
7. Initiate more dialogue.
Your spouse or sweetie deserves to be informed about your new, more assertive frame of mind.
If you've spent years acquiescing or holding back on your ideas or opinions, then your sudden new behaviors or statements can be disconcerting.
Mention how assertive communication not only makes you a happier, more confident person but also how it will positively impact them.
You could say something like:
“I know in the past I’ve allowed you to make most of the decisions (or I haven’t been very proactive in expressing my needs, or I’ve kept my opinion to myself), but I’m learning a new way to be a better, more confident person. You’ll begin noticing more assertiveness from me, and I hope you’ll support and encourage my efforts to speak up for myself and share my opinions.”
You may be surprised to find how much support and respect this conversation fosters.
When you let your lover know how you want to be treated, they will generally rise to the occasion. Proactive communication and dialogue are essential in any relationship.
8. Pick your battles.
Even as you work toward becoming more assertive, use good judgment and discretion.
- If your beloved is feeling sad, don't demand to see the movie where the dog dies.
- If your spouse is in the midst of a big project, now is not the time to ask for an intimate conversation.
There may be times when you choose not to assert yourself because the situation isn't right, or maybe it simply isn't all that important to you this particular time.
All relationships involve a certain amount of give and take, as well as the ability to discern the best timing and setting.
9. Practice in manageable situations.
You can practice assertiveness in daily scenarios that aren't overly uncomfortable.
If your boyfriend or girlfriend makes a political statement you disagree with, rather than keeping quiet, say something like, “That's an interesting position, but here's why I disagree with it.”
When your spouse asks what restaurant you want to go to, rather than saying, “I don't care, you pick,” instead say, “Let's try that new sushi place.”
The more you practice assertiveness, the easier it will become. When the time comes to use it in more difficult or confrontational situations, you'll have some experience in speaking up.
10. Use an assertiveness journal.
It's hard to know whether or not you're progressing with a new behavior unless you measure and document your efforts.
Give yourself a score from one to ten after every assertiveness encounter, with ten being completely uncomfortable and one being totally confident. As time goes on, you'll notice your score getting lower and lower as you grow more confident in your abilities.
You don't have to be an extrovert to be assertive. You just need enough confidence in who you are and what you want to speak up despite fear or discomfort.
11. Build your self-confidence.
You're wondering, “””How can I be more assertive with my girlfriend?” who insists on having her way whenever you go out together. Or you're struggling with how to be assertive with your husband when he expects to have the final word on everything.
To build confidence, sometimes you have to fake it. Even if you're not feeling it, act as if you have all the confidence you need to say what needs to be said.
Practice speaking with calm confidence. I know it's awkward, but try practicing in front of a mirror or in front of a picture of your significant other. Say what you need to say without resorting to criticism or defensive postures.
Confidence is essential with your self-talk, too. Rewrite it to remind you of your gifts, accomplishments, and self-worth. Focus not on your mistakes but on what you've learned from them.
And don't forget to make time for things you enjoy, since these remind you how good it feels to live on your own terms.
12. Use your intuition.
Don't neglect your inner wisdom when it comes to practicing assertiveness. If nothing else, it can help you recognize the best times to assert yourself.
Good timing is important with assertiveness. If someone comes to you and expects you to drop whatever you're doing to address a concern of theirs, it's crucial to determine the nature of that concern before you remind them to be more respectful toward you.
One way to cultivate a better connection with your intuition is to practice daily meditation. Journaling (as mentioned earlier) is also a powerful way to benefit from your intuition and to learn to rely on it more in your relationship.
The role of the intuition is particularly vital with love relationships since the impact of that relationship goes deepest. Your intuition can help you recognize when you need to stand up and assert yourself and your rights in the relationship.
Your gut can also sound the alarm when something is wrong or when you need to confront your partner about their words or behavior toward you.
13. Be resolute and grow thicker skin.
Standing up and asserting yourself isn't a comfortable thing to do — especially if you're not used to it. When you're assertive, you risk a confrontation with those who see you as selfish, contrarian, or aggressive.
You risk anger and resentment even from those closest to you.
This is why it's crucial at the outset to understand the difference between assertiveness and aggressiveness.
You also need to accept, though, that if your significant other is used to getting their way, they'll keep trying to. And until assertiveness becomes a habit with you, they'll likely think they can wear you down.
Only when you consistently defend the boundaries you've set will they eventually learn their old methods of persuasion/bulldozing won't work on you anymore.
If they can't learn to treat you with equal respect and consideration, you'll need to be resolute in the belief that you deserve better.
14. Practice daily self-care.
Unless you're accustomed to honoring your own legitimate needs, you're not likely to expect others to, either. You'll keep sacrificing your needs and wants to please others — particularly the one whose love matters most to you.
Make time every day for reasonable self-care. You don't have to get regular massages or expensive facial treatments. But see to it that your hygienic needs are met.
Spend time each day attending to your well-being and your appearance, for your own sake — not just to look good for your significant other. Treat yourself with kindness and patience.
If you spoil yourself a little now and then, savor it. Don't let anyone make you feel guilty about doing something for yourself that isn't their idea. You have a right to self-care.
Unless you tend to your own needs, you will burn out. And the same people who expect you to exhaust yourself in their service will abandon you when you need their help.
15. Follow your heart.
You've thought about what you really want. But that doesn't stop the people closest to you from trying to steer you in a direction more to their liking.
They don't get to decide who or what you should be, though. They're not the ones who have to live with the choices you make. Or at least they don't have to go through life knowing they should have chosen differently.
Practice asserting your own will with clear, calm statements expressing what you want in your life and what you're going to do to go after it. Be prepared for opposition.
If you have to choose between a path that will make you happy and one that will please someone else (at least for the moment), imagine the outcome of each decision five or ten years down the road.
If that's not where you want to be, choose differently. And own your decision.
16. See others as your equals — and treat them as such
Assess each situation where someone's behavior strikes you as insensitive or disrespectful and choose your response based on context. Treat each person with the same respect you want for yourself — no more and no less.
Assertive communication in relationships doesn't require you to be rude or inconsiderate. Being assertive doesn't mean disregarding the best interests of others.
It just means you're willing to assert your rights and expect to be treated as an equal.
Anyone in your life who's been acting as if their needs and wants come before yours is going to notice. And how they react will give you clues on how to move forward.
Important as assertiveness is to your relationship, though, the stakes are higher than that.
Once you see yourself as someone with equal rights, you're more likely to notice when others are deprived of justice — and more likely to stand up and be counted in their defense.
Assertiveness is courage. In any functional relationship, it's essential to you both.
It's time to practice being more assertive in your relationship.
Now that you know the steps to become more assertive in relationships, which step or steps will you focus on today?
Once you begin asserting yourself, it's normal, especially in the beginning, to have crises of confidence.
Reflecting on assertiveness quotes can help. And don't underestimate the power of writing things down in a journal.
If you're still at an impasse, consider talking to someone — a friend, therapist, or mentor — who can help you see through the murk and know what to do next.
You're not alone. And you're worth the risks involved in being assertive. So are those who will learn from your example.