That’s how people sometimes feel about their partners. Relationships and partnerships can be wonderfully energizing and supportive, yet the truth is that they can also be stressful.
In my work with people, I find that relationships are particularly distressing when people don’t know how to ask for what they want in a caring and assertive way.
So they tend to do one of two things: 1) they don’t ask and ultimately end up feeling resentful and unfulfilled, or 2) they communicate in an aggressive way that leads to conflict.
Assertive vs. Aggressive
The word “assertive” has varied definitions. The definition I like means direct, confident, positive, and self-assured. This is very different than “aggressive” which tends to be more forceful, demanding, competitive or even pushy.
Asking for what you want (and setting boundaries around what you don’t want) in an assertive way is a key life skill, and a key to less stressful relationships.
Here are four tips for developing your assertiveness in a way that can actually strengthen, deepen and enrich your relationship:
- Get Clear
Being assertive starts with knowing what you are (and are not) willing to be, do, or have. For many of us, coming to this knowledge is a real task unto itself. Here, it may be useful to ask:
“In an ideal world, what would I like to happen?”
Focusing on an ideal outcome opens your mind, prevents you from falling into passivity or “victim-thinking.” It helps you get really clear on what you want and don’t want…NOT what you think others want of you, but what you really, really want.
- Set Boundaries
Once you know what outcome you need (or want), share it with your partner. Pay attention to the way stating your boundary feels in your body. With practice, it can feel really pleasurable, even exhilarating, to express your needs or desires out loud. Initially it may feel uncomfortable if you’re not used to doing it.
Be willing to state calmly and clearly what isn’t working for you, while maintaining a desire to stay connected with your partner while you jointly create a solution that will work for both of you. Be ready to clearly state what would work better you, and then be willing to discuss options and negotiate something that would work for each of you.
- Make a Regular Habit of Stating Your Needs and Desires
You can build your assertiveness the same way you build any muscle: exercise. Practice speaking up about your needs, big or small, on a daily basis.
When you speak up about things that are less controversial (such as where to go to dinner, requesting help unloading the dishwasher or what TV program to watch) both you and your partner get used to your assertiveness. It becomes easier for you to practice and for your partner to hear.
Also, when bigger issues come along, you and your partner will have a healthy process in place for dealing with differences in needs and wants. You’ll also have greater confidence in the resilience of your partnership.
- Give Respect
Assertiveness is a two-way street. If you want your boundaries to be respected, you must return the courtesy to your partner. If she doesn’t want you to use the bathroom when she’s in the shower, don’t. If he asks you to give him a half an hour after work before you talk and connect, respect that.
When it comes to following through on a partner’s reasonable request, actions really do speak louder than words. Be willing to lead by example.
Of course, there is no single (or simple!) answer to de-stressing relationships. Being clear on your own boundaries and communicating them in a caring and assertive way is a valuable way to start down that path.