We all want a healthy relationship, but that's not always easy to achieve. One difficult yet paramount step in improving the well-being of your partnership is learning how to stand up for yourself and what you want. Whether you're only just dipping your toe into the first few weeks of attraction or you've had a serious partner for a number of years, being assertive (or not) can make or break your relationship.
"It's up to us to communicate our wants, wishes, and needs," says Fran Walfish, Psy.D., a Beverly Hills psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent. According to Walfish, being assertive starts with ongoing communication—and not just with your partner. In order to master communication, we should regularly check in with ourselves to see how we feel. Once we've figured that out, we can voice our feelings to our partner to determine if we're on the same page.
Meet the Expert
- Fran Walfish, Psy.D., is a leading Beverly Hills-based child, couple, and family psychotherapist. She is the author of the acclaimed book "The Self-Aware Parent."
- Jordan Gray is the author of six bestselling books on relationships, a public speaker, and a sex and relationship coach with more than 10 years of experience.
"Instead of leading with assertiveness, a large number of couples default to a passive or passive-aggressive style of communication, where each partner tries to influence the other to meet their needs without them having to explicitly name their needs," says relationship expert Jordan Gray. "But to be in a healthy, functional adult relationship, it's imperative that both people learn to assertively state their needs and desires clearly."
Ahead, read all you need to know about how to be more assertive in your relationship—and what assertiveness really means.
What Does It Mean to Be Assertive in a Relationship?
To be assertive in a relationship is to take responsibility for naming your needs, desires, and boundaries directly, says Gray. You recognize that both you and your partner are responsible for your own behavior.
"Oftentimes, people assume that others close to them know what they are thinking, feeling, needing, and wanting. And, in fact, it's a setup for disappointment, because people are not mind-readers," Walfish says. This behavior stems from childhood, notes Gray, when our wants and needs were met by our parents without us having to communicate them. To be assertive means to be open and honest about our wants and needs with our partners and not expect them to just know what we're feeling.
Similarly, if you're interested in someone, being assertive could simply translate to asking that person out. "Let's say there's a guy and a girl, and they're hanging out with a group of friends. The girl is attracted to the guy, and she can't tell if he's nice to her just to be polite or if he's interested and maybe shy. I don't think there's anything wrong with her saying something like, 'I got tickets to the Lakers game. Would you like to join me?' and seeing where it goes," says Walfish.
She recognizes that this type of communication is intimidating whether you're a millennial, a baby boomer, or a member of the silent generation. "The price we pay is the potential for hurt and rejection if those needs and wants and wishes are not mutual," she continues.
Assertive vs. Confident
"Assertiveness and confidence overlap, but they are not the same thing," says Gray. "It's safe to say that many confident people are assertive, but that does not mean that all assertive people are also confident," he continues. But stepping forward and claiming your desires can lend itself to greater self-assurance. Even if you're not feeling very confident, acting confident can go a long way.
Confidence doesn't necessarily mean being overly direct, though, says Walfish. There has to be an element of finesse to your approach. "It's very important to keep in mind that it would be a big turn-off if you come on too strong," she notes.
Similarly, Gray notes the difference between assertiveness and aggression. "An assertive person can state a desire, and then knows that the person hearing that desire is entirely responsible for their own behavior." Being aggressive, however, is about trying to control another person's behavior.
If you've been dating someone exclusively and you'd like to make the relationship more serious, Walfish recommends "modeling." "Maybe share a story about yourself when you were a child, something that brings the other person in," she says. "See if your partner reciprocates by telling you something personal, too. If he or she doesn't, see if they still smile and enjoy the story that you shared. These gentle, assertive steps can be incremental; they don't have to be huge leaps."
"When you're honest, the other person has the invitation to reciprocate that by being honest," Walfish notes. "You can set the tone by modeling. You don't have to come right out and say, 'You're not listening to me. I need this,' because the other person may feel criticized."
How to Be Assertive
First and foremost, scrap the idea that you or your partner can read each other's minds, says Gray. It will require hard work to be more direct about your needs, desires, and boundaries, especially if you're used to being passive, but it's necessary in a mature, adult relationship.
According to Walfish, individual insight is the secret to assertiveness and using it to build a strong partnership that's beneficial to both people. There are various ways to be assertive, she says, but honest communication has to be the goal. Again, Walfish recommends checking in with yourself first: What do you want? Once you know the answer, you can ask your partner if he or she agrees and why.
"The whole thing is about self-awareness, to have that open and honest look within. Sometimes it's painful, but you have to," she says. You owe it to not only your relationship but also to yourself.
A few ways you can put your introspection into action is by making requests more often, says Gray. Once you can clearly identify what it is you want, you can ask these things of your partner. Something as simple as, "I would love it if we could go out for a date this Friday night," is a great start. "You can also give your opinion more often, say no to someone's request of you, or invite a dialogue with your partner around something that has been weighing on you for some time," says Gray.
When to Be Assertive
"Well, if you're asking for commitment, I think the wrong time is too soon," she says. "But if you've been patient, and they are dragging their heels, I think there comes a certain time when it's okay to have a conversation around how you feel about each other and where this is going." You need to follow your gut and ask yourself: Am I really not getting what I want, and is that unfair? Or am I just being impatient and insensitive to my partner's feelings?
According to Gray, some signs you should be more assertive with your partner are that you're beginning to feel resentful, frustrated, or upset with them more often. "If these low-level anger themes start bubbling up, it's generally because there's some internal boundary that is being crossed, but you have yet to stand up for yourself," he says.
According to Walfish, every relationship is unique, and the right time and place for assertiveness will depend on the couple. "The lovely thing—and the challenging thing—about relationships is that they have to be co-created. It takes two willing partners to make a relationship work," says Walfish. "And what feels good to one may not feel good to the other. Those things have to be talked about, worked out, and mutually agreed upon, or adjusted to in compromise," she continues.
Like most things, being assertive comes with practice. If you had a passive, passive-aggressive, or aggressive caregiver growing up, it may be harder for you to be assertive, says Gray. He adds that some cultures encourage passive communication, while others promote a more aggressive communication style. These factors, however, are all the more reason to learn the valuable skill of being assertive. You will be met with increased self-esteem and a greater sense of inner peace, plus healthier relationships.